Essay: Make Israel's side heard

Has our defeatism about world opinion turned into complacency about it?

lebanon IAF strike (photo credit: AP)
lebanon IAF strike
(photo credit: AP)
It has been roughly one week since I returned to America from Israel. One week of Israel on the ground, one week of looking at Israel from 8,800 kilometers away. The Israel of my morning paper today is not the same Israel whose sunlit streets I walked just a few days ago. In Israel, I saw celebrations everywhere; a wedding or bar mitzva nearly every day. I saw a Jerusalem brimming with people. I saw people in Haifa showing remarkable resilience. I witnessed Israelis visiting their countrymen in Rosh Hanikra, there to show solidarity by buying some local fruit and blowing a defiant shofar on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. I saw a damaged home in Nahariya, shrapnel holes and smoke stains covered with black tarpaulin and Israeli flags. The black coverings showed me mourning; the flags atop them, unending strength. Back in Jerusalem I stood on the Mount of Olives, awed and overcome once again by the majesty of the place. I also saw an angry Israel, but an anger of which I was perversely proud. In taxi cabs, on the streets and in op-ed pages, I saw a vibrant democracy not afraid to look at its own warts, even after being pounded by 4,000 rockets. It was like watching a family in crisis - fingers pointing, eyes crying, tempers rising - but always, always, the family comes first. The family will somehow work through it together. We Americans had that spirit briefly after 9/11, but it's gone now. NOW, BACK in the US, I see an Israel I do not recognize. Here is a selection of headlines from the Washington Post in the first 72 hours I was home. Front page, day one: "In Israel, A Divisive Struggle Over Targeted Killing." Inside the paper, day one: "Palestinian Teen Killed in West Bank Standoff." Day two, with all the challenges facing America deserving attention - Iraq, Iran, North Korea, gas prices, immigration - right there on the front page, the headline: "Israeli Siege Leaves Gaza Isolated and Desperate." Article two, inside the paper: "2 Abducted Journalists Are Freed in Gaza." Right next to it, the previous front-page article continued with this headline, in case we missed the point: "Gaza Lives in the Darkness Like Something in Ancient Times." Also on day two, deep inside the paper, there was an article - about 5 percent of the size of the others - entitled, "Hezbollah Chief Revisits Raid," in which Hassan Nasrallah expresses some regret for starting the whole matter. A tiny, tiny article. Day three, there were several articles, one about Olmert rejecting an independent probe, one about Annan being in the Middle East shoring up the cease-fire, and one about the most recent appearance of the newly famous professors Mearsheimer and Walt, who blame just about everything on the influence of American Jews. THE MESSAGES about Israel are clear; the reality from afar is unmistakable. From this distance, from these headlines, Israel is not a resilient, embattled little democracy mixing tears with the will to survive and working through its problems. No, no, no, this is a war zone, top to bottom; an oppressive, dangerous, murderous, reckless, imperial war zone. I know the arguments on why none of this coverage should worry Israel. AIPAC would say support by Congress and the administration has never been stronger, and that is true. Pollsters would say Americans supported Israel's actions in the conflict against Hizbullah, which is also true. And cynics all around would say, so what else is new? We should worry about the world not liking Israel? It has always been thus; the day we determine our actions based on what the press and the Europeans think is the day we perish. Also true. I concede it all. But has our defeatism about world opinion turned into complacency about it? Is it really possible that anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias accounts for all of it? Is Israel really doing the best it can on the world stage, notwithstanding enormous obstacles? The conventional wisdom in America is that US support for Israel is unwavering and the pro-Israel community does a great job keeping it that way. I do not disagree with that, but do believe resting on our laurels in terms of Israeli actions and public relations is a terrible mistake. The negative view of Israel and what to do about it needs revisiting for two reasons. First, America and its people, Israel's greatest ally, are daily growing wearier of the Middle East in general; the mess in Iraq has left Americans tired of the whole place. The argument has to be constantly renewed - to opinion leaders and the man on the street - as to why supporting Israel is worth the trouble. Second, demographic trends dictate that Europe will over time only become more anti-Israel. This will make the strategic alliance with the US all the more important, and Israel must do a better job of making it easier for the US to hold that spot on the world stage, in terms of Israeli words and deeds. I AM not obnoxiously coaching Israel to avoid civilian damage; war is ugly and the IDF must go where the enemy is. And I know the press and Europe will never be Israel's friend. I am simply saying Israel can do better than it did during this war in terms of world perception. Israel had the world's support after unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza. Israel had the world's sympathy after the Hizbullah cross-border raid in July. The world has no problem supporting the Jews when we are either retreating or suffering. But it had all evaporated by the time of the accidental bombing in Kana. Again, Israel need not fret about making the world love it; survival must be the first and the last. I am simply saying that being defeatist and fatalistic about the world stage is not the answer either, that it limits US and Israeli flexibility over time, and that any postwar investigation must include whether or not Israel bears any of the blame itself for going from hero to villain a mere three weeks after the kidnapping of Goldwasser and Regev. Is Israel doing all it can on American television? Was Condoleezza Rice handled properly when she was in Israel during the accident in Kana? Was maximum effort given to getting the job done during the time when world support was strongest? Even with tourism up, are we really satisfied with the number of American Jews who have visited Israel so they can understand? Maybe after asking all these questions we would find that it doesn't really matter; the world has it in for Israel and it must do what it must do. But if I still haven't convinced you Israel can do better on the world stage, just get a transcript of the interview of Ahmadinejad on American TV's vaunted 60 Minutes program that was aired during the war. The Iranian president said Israel should be moved to Europe, and Mike Wallace, the dean of American journalism and a Jew, had no earthly idea what to say. The writer is president of Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock, a governmental consulting firm in Washington, D.C.