For all its bravado, Israel is terrified of bad publicity. So it should be, for neither the legions of public relations companies nor well-paid lobbyists have been able to halt the tarnishing of its image in world public opinion. This is not because they lack the skills and resources to get their message across; far from it. There are two major issues at the heart of the Israeli dilemma; a discredited message and political conduct that is indefensible.
In a recent lecture delivered at the Institute of Jewish Policy Research, Britain’s Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould highlighted the latter. He dismissed the notion that better advocacy would improve Israel’s standing in the West. Having witnessed first-hand the consequences for the Palestinians of Israeli policies, Gould’s message was clear: “There is no amount of hasbara or public diplomacy that is going to convince the vast majority of the British public that settlement announcements are a good thing.”
Of course the British public is not unique in this respect. Right across Europe people are judging Israel not by what it claims to be, but by what it does. Its unjust efforts to prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state in the territories occupied in 1967 have fuelled the public impatience that is now being demonstrated in parliamentary votes on the continent in support of the State of Palestine.
The contrast between Israel’s pseudo-democracy and that of the West was highlighted by recent parliamentary activity. While elected members in the West were exercising their democratic right to criticise their own governments, members of the Israeli Knesset were attempting to pass a curious piece of legislation called the “Zoabi Law” intended to silence opposition voices.
“An MK who in a time of war or military action against an enemy state or terror organisation offers public support for military struggle against the State of Israel,” reads the text of the bill, “their term in the Knesset shall be terminated on the day the Knesset decides by a majority of its members and at the recommendation of the Knesset House Committee that the published comments constitute the aforementioned expressions of support.”
In her response, Haneen Zoabi MK lamented that no parliament that expels its members has a right to speak in the name of democracy. “This is a hostile act against my constituency and against every democrat in the country,” she insisted.
The second piece of legislation which shatters any notion of democratic credentials that Israel claims to have, is the “Jewish nation-state” bill, which has been approved by the cabinet and now awaits approval by the Knesset. It defines Israel as the “nation-state for the Jewish people”, despite the fact that 20 per cent of Israelis are not Jews.
With such patently racist and discriminatory laws supported by the majority of Jewish Israelis, it is very hard for them to be “sold” to an international audience. Realising the difficulty that his policies create, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced as early as August last year a scholarship scheme for students to propagate pro-Israel information on social media networks and “engage international audiences online” in order to combat perceived “anti-Semitism” and calls to boycott Israel. In its early stages, this programme was headed by someone called Danny Seaman. He was lambasted in the Israeli media for his anti-Muslim rants on Facebook. The Haaretz columnist Barak Ravid asked, “Is an abusive racist the best Israeli PR can produce?“
Under the present laws, the views of such an individual are deemed to be dangerously toxic in Britain. Seaman would, in theory, be classified as a purveyor of hate and hence disqualified from engaging with students in British schools, colleges and universities.
If nothing else, throughout his political career Netanyahu has been doggedly opposed to the internationalisation of the conflict with the Palestinians. He has, perhaps more than any other politician, sustained the myth that this conflict can only be resolved through bilateral negotiations, led by the US. It is now abundantly clear that their efforts to quarantine the Palestine issue from global public opinion and pressure have failed.
As European parliaments have belatedly offered parliamentary debates that resulted in every instance in a vote for recognition of the State of Palestine, it can only be regarded as a step in the right direction. However, only when parliamentary votes are translated into government policies will they be worth anything tangible with the potential to make real change.
Ordinary Europeans have grown increasingly impatient and disgusted by Israel’s ongoing denial of Palestinian rights; hence the attempts to take the flourishing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign beyond church and academic circles. In the same way that sporting and cultural boycotts played a crucial role in dismantling South Africa’s apartheid system, so too will they have a defining role in ending the Israeli version. The clock is ticking, as more and more entertainers are refusing to perform in Israel and there are calls for FIFA to kick Israeli racism out of football. This follows a call for Israel to be expelled from cultural extravaganzas such as the Eurovision Song Contest.
With every outrageous piece of legislation and policy enacted by Israel, the day that it is recognised as an international pariah comes ever closer. No amount of expensive PR will be able to prevent it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.