Delegitimization: Image and reality

Over the last year, the term “delegitimization,” (of Israel, by the world, in the public perception) has become a household word.

Boycott Israel 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Boycott Israel 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Jerusalem Report has polled the Israeli public twice about Israel’s diplomatic and foreign relations. In February and March 2010, this column asked whether Israelis care about the country’s global image (they do) and whether they feel that global criticism of Israel’s politics is a reason to consider changing policy (they were divided).
Over the last year, the term “delegitimization,” (of Israel, by the world, in the public perception) has become a household word. But what is the actual level and nature of global discontent about Israel? Does it really justify Israeli fears, and the resulting resources being poured into image improvement? And does public opinion around the world matter?
In the international arena, public opinion about Israel does in fact matter. Following failed peace negotiations, and the possibility that a newly united Palestinian government will declare statehood unilaterally, combined with frightening regional instability, key UN member countries will have to decide what to do. And policymakers tend to be either affected by, or are a product of, their public environment and the attitudes toward Israel that their constituencies hold.
Israeli policymakers, too, are affected by global opinion toward Israel. Top leaders of both the government and the opposition regularly receive briefings on global attitudes towards Israel from The Israel Project (TIP), a privately funded Israel advocacy program based in the US. Writing in Haaretz on April 26, columnist Yitzhak Laor implied that Israel’s dependence on global approbation represents one of the weak spots for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. We therefore decided to examine where Israel actually stands in the eyes of various key countries from the perspective of their publics, drawing on published survey data. That is, we wished to investigate what people outside of Israel really think about Israel. And a number of related questions also seem important: Do people around the world react to specific developments in the Middle East or are attitudes largely fixed? Is anti-Israel sentiment inseparable from anti-Semitism? And if anti-Semitism is not at the heart of anti-Israel feelings, what is the nature of critical sentiment toward Israel?
And finally, is there any evidence that the massive public campaigns designed to improve Israel’s image – from the Ministry of Public Diplomacy, to non-governmental campaigns to media watchdogs – are, in fact, working? A few disclaimers: First, there are far more data publicly available about the US than about any other country, probably because of the tight relationship between the two countries and the centrality of Israel to American foreign policy. Second, in any survey, the attitudes that respondents express reflect the questions they are being asked; opinion articles, public campaigns, demonstrations, and so forth, may show a deeper or more nuanced picture than polls alone can reveal. To obtain a broad picture, rather than drilling down deep into each country, this column provides a sampling of data from a number of places. I won’t systematically answer each of the questions posed above, but it is possible to reach a loose assessment. Finally, in the interest of space, this column deals only with Western countries. Is Israel's public image really as negative as commonly perceived? The answer, it would appear, is yes. The 2011 Country Rating Poll, a large, annual, 28-country study for the BBC World Service, asked about a number of countries, and whether that country has a negative or a positive influence in the world. The results show that among more than 28,000 respondents, Israel’s influence is viewed favorably by only 21% and negatively by 49%. Although this is a meager two-point rise from the previous 2010 Country Rating Poll, overall the poll shows very little change from when the survey began asking about Israel in 2007. As we have often heard in ominous news reports over the last few years, only countries of great ignominy were rated lower than Israel: Pakistan, North Korea and Iran. By focusing on the country’s influence, respondents might have been able to distinguish between the role of Israel in the world and their personal feelings toward Israel. The heavily endowed Israel propaganda campaigns largely focus on Israel’s positive impact in a range of fields beyond the diplomatic sphere – science, technology, arts, emergency aid – and perhaps these have contributed to the two-point rise from 2010. But the overall picture is not encouraging. What are the attitudes among specific countries? To understand how different publics feel, the following is a sampling of surveys from countries that are both important in terms of international diplomacy and where research is regularly conducted about Israel. Europe: The French public seems to hold somewhat flexible opinions that have shifted in recent years. In 2004, a survey of the general public by Pew, a large global research foundation that conducts polls on a wide range of public issues, showed that 28% of respondents favored Palestinians while 20% favored Israel. Amajority, 52%, had no opinion. Two years later, far more people took a side, with only 25% who said they had no opinion; the favorability was equal for both Israelis and Palestinians at that time, with 38% for both. Pew analysts attribute the change to the victory of Hamas at the time, which pushed support toward Israel and drove people into the debate (and some of who entered the debate later supported the Palestinians). Another study of French “opinion elites” – where respondents are defined as those who have at least a college degree and are very or somewhat interested in foreign affairs – showed slightly different trends. Following the Hamas victory, support for Palestinians dropped by half: from 47% in 2002 to 21% in 2006, according to the survey, conducted for the Israel Project by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research (GQRR), an international polling company based in Washington. But those “elites” did not show more positive attitudes toward Israel, as the general population did – in 2006, just 4% favored Israel, compared to 12% in 2002. In other words, the “elites” of French society were still far more sympathetic to Palestinians after the Hamas victory than toward Israel, although they had a much more negative reaction to Hamas’s growing power. The most recent Israel Project survey by GQRR in April 2011 showed that the balance among the general French public has shifted – at present, 16% of French respondents say they favor Palestinians, while 21% favor Israel. While it’s hard to know exactly why French attitudes have gone back and forth over the years, it does appear that the French public is reactive, rethinking its attitudes based on some understanding of changes on the ground. In Germany, too, the public shows some variability. At the diplomatic level, Germany tends to side with Israel, and is cautious in its diplomatic critique. The public in Germany, as in France, seems to change its attitude in response to events: in the same 2004 Pew survey cited above, Israel and the Palestinians were tied, with 28% who favored both. In the 2006 survey (which was conducted in the year following Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza), Israel enjoyed a 20- point advantage in favorability among Germans. More recently, however, opinions in Germany have shifted again, reflecting an increasingly negative trend. AGQRR survey for The Israel Project in August 2010 showed steadily decreasing support for Israel among Germans since 2008. By 2010, just 19% of Germans held positive feelings about Israel, compared to 50% who felt negatively; in the same survey, more felt warmly toward Palestinians – one-quarter – and just under 40% felt negatively. The British public appears to hold more stable opinions: Britons tend to favor the Palestinians more than Israel. The same Pew study cited earlier showed that 29% favored Palestinians, versus 24% for Israel. The balance did not change in 2006 despite the Palestinian elections and Hamas’s surprise success: 29% continued to support the Palestinians, compared to 22% for Israel. This basic pattern held right up to the April GQRR survey for the Israel Project: 24% favor the Palestinians over 19% who favor Israel; 49% expressed “warm” feelings towards Palestinians and 45% toward Israelis. Britain therefore shows a slightly different pattern from France, with data indicating that the slight pro-Palestinian tilt holds up despite events. Is this the result of deep-rooted anti-Semitism in Britain? Astudy by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation from late 2008/early 2009 implies that this is probably not the case: In a lengthy report entitled “Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination: A European Report” (2011), the study finds that Great Britain shows one of the lowest levels of anti-Semitism out of all eight countries surveyed. Rather, British perceptions of Israel’s policies may be behind the consistently critical attitudes: 42% – nearly half – of the British respondents believe Israel is carrying out a war of extermination against the Palestinians. In other words, the British public indicates that perceived policy, not anti-Semitism, may be the more likely reason for critical views of Israel. But the opposite may be true in Spain. Research from the Pew Center in 2008 shows that 46% of Spaniards hold anti-Semitic views, higher than in Poland, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and the US. An analysis of the Pew survey from 2006 published on (a project of the University of Maryland) also noted that “Spaniards tend to be the most lopsided in their support for the Palestinians. About a third (32%) favor the Palestinians over the Israelis (9%).” (The rest, 59%, were neutral.) Across Europe, we see that the results are diverse; correlations between causal factors and critical attitudes of Israel would have to be tested more rigorously to be confirmed. But it does appear that things are indeed tough for Israel in Europe and that each country is critical of Israel in its own way. The United States: The perception that America is Israel’s best friend is fully confirmed by numerous public opinion surveys, with favorability ratings often two to three times higher than they are among Europeans. The general trend doesn’t appear to vary much based on events – it’s as if America offers Israel “unconditional love.” Throughout the tumultuous decade of the 2000s, when Europeans increasingly viewed Israel as an aggressor, occupier and peace rejectionist, Gallup, one of the world’s oldest and largest news polling firms, showed that Israel’s favorability in America has only risen, from 54% in 2000, to 67% in 2010. It is true that Gallup and GQRR’s Israel Project research consistently show higher support for Israel among Republicans than among Democrats and that the gap is growing. But overall support for Israel remains strong – accompanied by consistently low support for Palestinians. In Gallup polls, favorability toward Palestinians ranged from 11% to 27% over the last decade, ending at an even 20% in 2010. Palestinian ratings do not seem clearly connected to events – the peak level of favorability (27%) appeared in 2005 – as if the disengagement from Gaza somehow softened attitudes toward the Palestinians. The nadir of 11% was found in 2006, possibly reflecting the Palestinian elections. When Gallup asked in February 2010 “Are your sympathies more with the Israelis or with the Palestinians?” the percentage sympathizing with Israel was higher than at any time since 1991 – 63%, compared to 15% for Palestinians. What lies behind this sense of sympathy for Israel? An April 2011 poll by GQRR shows that a clear 61% majority view Israel as the party striving for peace, rather than the Palestinians. There are also strategic reasons: A Harris online poll of more than 3,000 Americans in November 2010 found that Israel is the only one of 13 countries in or near the Middle East that Americans consider a close ally – 43% see it as a close ally, and 69% consider it either an ally or a friend. What conclusions can be drawn? Perhaps Europeans lack America’s sense of Israel as an essential strategic ally; or perhaps their rational sides are clouded by residual anti-Semitism in the guise of critical attitudes about Israel, as some claim. In America, perhaps rational justifications for Israel support actually grow out of a traditional, emotional American position of support. There is always the possibility that public opinion about a political issue is rooted in emotional or non-rational factors. Hopefully, the leaders of key countries will offset the heated – and conflicting – emotions surrounding Israel with a large dose of pragmatism. But they probably aren’t immune to the voices of their citizens.