'Shouldn't Israel be ashamed of itself?'

Foreign Ministry officials say public opinion of Israel abroad "not good," worsening as war continues.

damascus girl anti-israel rally 248 88  (photo credit: AP)
damascus girl anti-israel rally 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Israel's position in the world right now is "not good" and getting worse with each passing day of Operation Cast Lead, a senior official in the Foreign Ministry said Tuesday. The official was referring primarily to Europe - not to the position of governments, but rather to overall public mood as reflected in the media and by numerous demonstrations. For instance, when an Irish radio station interviewed Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor on Saturday, the presenter asked the following question: "Shouldn't Israel be ashamed of itself?" Palmor's response, that a country does not have to be ashamed of itself for defending itself, is beside the point. What is significant is the tone and tenor of the question, and the mood it reflects. Ireland, according to foreign ministry officials, is currently one of the European countries most antagonistic to Israel, and a country where the hostility of the press is matched by the tone of the government. An example of the toxic environment in Ireland is a letter published in the Irish Times on Monday by Irish politician Chris Andrews calling Israel's action state terrorism and calling for the expulsion of Israel's ambassador to Ireland. According to Foreign Ministry assessments, the mood is similar in Spain, where a hostile press is also reflected in a government line that is extremely critical. The other European countries that fall into this category are Greece and Cyprus. The situation is somewhat better in England, where some of the media coverage has been blatantly anti-Israel - like the Guardian - while other media have taken a more balanced approach. Sources in the Foreign Ministry, who have never shied away from criticizing the BBC coverage in the past, have said that this time the BBC showed an effort at airing Israel's side of the story fairly. There are also no complaints that Israeli speakers are not getting on the air, or not getting equal air time. Britain has been the site of some high-profile demonstrations against the operation, including one on Saturday featuring singer Annie Lennox and Bianca Jagger. According to government officials, the vast majority of the protests abroad, some 80 percent of them, have been organized by Arab or Muslim organizations and are attended mostly by Arabs and Muslims. As such, their impact on government policy is not that great, although celebrity attendance at these events creates a "buzz" and does set a certain public tone. One Foreign Ministry official said that the focus of the media attention when covering the operation right now was primarily on the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the civilian casualties. And as much as Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni may say that there is no humanitarian crisis inside Gaza, when a spokesman of a UN agency gets on the air and says that this claim is absurd, this is given more credibility because the UN spokesman is perceived as an objective observer. Israel's situation is also becoming more difficult, officials said, because it is viewed as the party that is refusing to accept a cease-fire. Another problem facing Israel, according to Foreign Ministry sources, is that while the world is being fed dramatic pictures from Gaza, there are few dramatic pictures from Israel, and gaping holes in apartment buildings hit by Grad rockets can't compete with footage from Gaza of crying children splattered in blood. The assessment in the Foreign Ministry is that the situation facing Israel has become worse over the last week, and is bound to get even worse now that Europe is returning from its Christmas/New Year's break, as foreign journalists flood into Israel to cover the story, and as the news programs return to their regular schedule. The picture of Israel's situation abroad, however, is not completely bleak. Ministry officials say that the coverage in France, Germany and Italy is balanced, meaning that the media is allotting sufficient space for Israel to air its case. And the countries where the public mood is most understanding are in Eastern Europe: the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Baltic countries. In general, Foreign Ministry assessments show, there is a great deal of public appreciation in these countries for Israel's right to defend itself. But even in some of these countries, according to the assessments, the media is beginning to "fall into line" with the Western European media in emphasizing the number of civilian Palestinian casualties and focusing on Palestinian suffering.