Israel and Palestine: the new war for hearts and minds

The latest violence in Gaza seemed to suggest that criticism be damned: Israel would do whatever it felt necessary to defend itself. But world opinion could be having an effect on its policy toward Palestinians


On July 23rd, two weeks into Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip, Brazil condemned what it called a “disproportionate use of force” and withdrew its ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations. Israel’s general consul in São Paolo politely expressed his disappointment, adding that Israel had a right to defend itself against missiles being fired into its territory by Hamas.

Back in Tel Aviv, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor was a lot less sanguine. “This is an unfortunate demonstration of why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf,” he said. “The moral relativism behind this move makes Brazil an irrelevant diplomatic partner, one who creates problems rather than contributes to solutions.”

Israeli president Reuven Rivlin would later apologise to Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, for the “dwarf” slur. But Palmor wasn’t finished. Later that evening, in an interview on Brazilian TV, he dragged up Brazil’s humiliating defeat by Germany in the World Cup semi-final two weeks earlier.

“Israel’s response is perfectly proportioned in accordance with international law,” he said. “This is not football. In football, when a game ends in a draw, you think it is proportional, but when it finishes 7-1 it’s disproportionate. Sorry to say, but not so in real life and under international law.”

During the same week, Israel’s embassy in Dublin tweeted a picture of the Palestinian flag superimposed with a picture of Adolf Hitler and the words “Free Palestine now!”. A few days later the embassy took down four images from its Twitter feed, including one featuring the capital’s statue of Molly Malone covered in a traditional Muslim niqab with the caption “Israel now Dublin next”.

Other images in the sequence included the Mona Lisa wearing a hijab and carrying a large rocket and Michelangelo’s David wearing a suicide bomber’s explosive belt.

These were only the most striking in a stream of bizarre tweets from the embassy that continued long after the Gaza ceasefire in August. The Irish Times was a regular target, sometimes dubbed The Palestinian Times, The Hamas Times or Pravda. One of the newspaper’s columnists was compared to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, and a female journalist was dismissed as a “hackette”.

Much of the coarseness and low humour was unremarkable by the standards of social media generally. But the shrill tone was highly eccentric for a diplomatic mission, reminiscent of the public style of Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Venezuela in the days of Hugo Chavez.

Daniel Levy, a political analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations was a member of the Israeli negotiating team with the Palestinians under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. He believes the new Israeli tone is deeply counter-productive.

“I actually think that this is indicative of a deeper malaise, which is that the longer the occupation goes on and Israel has to justify the unjustifiable, the deeper the moral erosion that goes with that, the deeper you get into the territory of denialism and just being disconnected from reality,” he says.

“So I’m sure stuff like that gets lots of positive likes and reinforcement, but they lose contact with the fact that people – even your average punter who might, under circumstances where you’re not quite as mad, might be willing to take on board some of your arguments, you’ve totally lost them. “I think this is what’s going on. I think there’s a deepening of the detachment from reality, a deepening of the denialism and they’re just doubling down on a failed policy and just digging themselves deeper into a hole, which I find quite sad. They become their own worst enemies sometimes.”

Public opinion towards Israel has been remarkably stable in most western countries in recent years, with western Europeans broadly critical and Americans supportive.

For the past 10 years, the BBC World Service has conducted a global poll asking respondents if they think specific countries exercise a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world. The 2014 poll, which was conducted before the Gaza conflict, showed that views of Israel had become more positive in some countries, such as Russia and Turkey, but remained unchanged in western Europe and the US.

In the UK, 72 per cent had a negative view of Israel and in France 64 per cent were negative. In Germany, one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the EU, 67 per cent thought Israel had a mainly negative influence, compared with just 11 per cent who thought it was mainly positive. In the US, by contrast, more than half of respondents had a positive view of Israel.

Six years ago, the big pro-Israel lobby groups in the US, led by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), were joined by J Street, a mainly Jewish group that supports Israel but is often critical of its government’s policies.

“In terms of the Jewish community, what we’re trying to do is have a conversation about Israel,” says Alan Elsner, a London- born former White House correspondent for Reuters who is now J Street’s head of communications.

“Jews are famous for discussing and disagreeing about everything, but in the United States, until the advent of J Street, I think the subject of Israel had become almost taboo and the default position was that we just support Israel – end of discussion. So we are promoting a discussion and with some success.”

J Street backed Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, arguing that the threat from rocket fire and underground tunnels was real and that Israel had a right to defend itself. Elsner believes that many Israelis were soured by what happened in Gaza after Ariel Sharon withdrew troops and settlements in 2005 and Hamas subsequently became the dominant power. He says that experience, along with the trauma of the Second Intifada starting in 2000, during which more than 1,000 Israelis and almost 5,000 Palestinians died, had a dramatic impact on Israeli attitudes.

“ I grew up in London at a time when the IRA was bombing various targets in London but it was nothing like on the scale that Israel experienced in the second Intifada,” he says. “So I think that had a profound effect. 9/11 still has a profound effect on [the US]. It’s seared into the consciousness of this country but that was just one day, one attack. In Israel it was going on for six or seven years with attacks on a weekly, sometimes even more frequent basis. So you can appreciate that that would be seared into the consciousness of Israelis.”

Although support for Israel in the US remains very strong, a partisan gap has started to open up, with support for Israel lower among Democrats than Republicans. It’s stronger among men than women, older people than younger people, and among whites than among blacks and Hispanics.

A Pew Research Center poll in late July found that Americans blamed Hamas much more than Israel for the latest Gaza conflict, but that the gap was much wider among Republicans. Sixty per cent of Republicans said they blamed Hamas and 13 per cent said they blamed Israel, whereas among Democrats it was 29 per cent blamed Hamas and 26 per cent blamed Israel.

“I think what we’ve seen happen is, it’s not that support for the Palestinians is rising but that there is a sense amongst Democrats and liberals that the United States ought to be taking a kind of even-handed view of the conflict,” says Elsner.

Such a shift in public opinion would align the US more closely with Europe, though it wouldn’t necessarily translate into a change in government policy, at least if the European experience is anything to go by.

When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its bombardment of Gaza in 2008, all the big EU member-states except Germany condemned the action. During the next Gaza offensive, Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, France was the only big state to condemn Israel. This time, all the major European countries supported Israel’s right to bombard Gaza, even if they called for restraint.

“These repeated rounds of violence haven’t stimulated the EU countries to rethink their approach and, if anything, they have regressed. Maybe not massively but a little bit,” says Tsafrir Cohen, Middle East co-ordinator at medico international, a Frankfurt-based human rights group that focuses on access to healthcare.

“If there has been any progress in EU policy in recent years, it has been on the issue of settlements, not on Gaza. When it comes to public opinion, that can be different and there are countries such as the Netherlands where there is quite a big discrepancy between the public opinion, which is highly critical of the Israeli action, and the government policy, which has historically been one of the most supportive or accommodating.”

If public opinion has had little impact on EU policy towards Gaza, public pressure has encouraged the EU to take a tougher line on doing business with Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal under international law.

When the EU agreed this year to allow Israeli researchers to participate in Horizon 2020, a €77 billion research and innovation programme, it was on condition that no funding would go to Israeli institutions in the Occupied Territories.

During the summer, Israel stopped exporting poultry products from the settlements after EU said would no longer recognise the authority of Israeli veterinary services for livestock in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.

EU governments are currently working on guidelines for the labelling of all imports from Israeli settlements. Cohen believes that public opinion can help diplomats and politicians justify taking tougher action.

“I’ve heard diplomats and politicians using public opinion sort of as an excuse which they’ve been giving to their Israeli counterparts to explain that they are not able to continue their supportive policies anymore because they are under public pressure,” he says. “I’m not sure to what extent this is genuine or to what extent this is being used as a sort of tactic.

“This kind of excuse is given especially when it comes to issues like settlement products, labelling and boycotts. Ireland is a perfect case. When Israeli goods were being taken from some shops in Ireland, Irish diplomats could say, look there’s pressure for a boycott. To prevent it, we need you to get more reasonable or we need to at least get the labelling of settlement goods as a more moderate measure.

“In this kind of way, public opinion definitely does constrain politicians, but it’s only one of the factors which influences their decision-making and this is still not an issue that decides elections.”

Advocates of measures such as labelling settlement goods argue that they help to remind the Israeli authorities of the existence of the Green Line, the border between Israel and the Occupied Territories.

With little prospect of an agreement on a two-state solution, however, some of Israel’s international critics are calling for more radical steps, including a boycott and sanctions aimed at Israel itself.

Campaigners for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel believe that a strategy that helped topple apartheid in South Africa could be equally effective in persuading Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian Territories. BDS campaigns have included academic, consumer and cultural boycotts of Israel and pressure on investors to divest from all Israeli corporations and funds.

Some critics, including Noam Chomsky, have criticised elements of the BDS campaign – such as its description of Israel as an apartheid state – and J Street’s Elsner believe it damages those who seek a two-state solution.

“I think that the effect of it is perverse in the sense that it puts Israelis into a kind of fortress, bunker-like mentality that makes them more determined to stand firm and to resist compromise rather than the opposite,” he says.

“I also think that the Israeli economy is very strong and quite diversified. It’s export-driven, and Israelis have been quite good at developing export markets in places like India and China and Russia, where BDS is unlikely to be much of a factor. So I think that the effect is more psychological than economic and I think that politically, it’s not useful for those of us who want to see a negotiated, two-state solution.”

Levy agrees that boycotts and sanctions can drive some Israelis further into the bunker, but he hails the BDS campaign as the only pressure on Israel that is currently having any effect.

“Of course, Israelis don’t appreciate being boycotted and sanctioned, certainly not the vast majority of them, and it does get the visceral reaction of hunkering down,” he says. “But at the same time, it chips away at the impunity. And it chips away at what I think has been the most important factor sustaining the occupation and the status quo, which is that it has been cost-free for Israel.

“I think, on balance, this is one of the few things that causes Israelis to sit up and take notice, that actually maybe this isn’t so manageable and cost-free as Israelis have gotten used to by being so indulged.

“If one is saying one opposes Palestinian strategies that violate international law and that target Israeli civilians but one doesn’t like the occupation and think that is bad, then what is left for the Palestinians to do if they can’t pursue non-violent, perfectly legitimate strategies that have been pursued elsewhere in the world where an injustice has been occurring?”

The failure earlier this year of John Kerry’s efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has persuaded some on both sides of the conflict that a two-state solution is unattainable.

The alternative, espoused by many on the Left, is a single, bi-national state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians, while some on the Israeli far-right dream of a Greater Israel that would see the Palestinians driven from the Occupied Territories. Elsner believes that both are equally unrealistic and are recipes for years of further conflict.

“So the two-state solution remains the only game in town, but in order to play the game you need to have players who are willing to get on the field and play that game. Right now we don’t have it, but things change very fast sometimes,” he says.

“My observation of the way change happens is that pressures build up and then all of a sudden there’s maybe an event that precipitates it and things change all of a sudden. Israeli politics are unpredictable and volatile. I think we’re going to be looking at a new generation of Palestinian leaders within the next few years.

“So we remain hopeful, if not optimistic.”

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