By Eitan Na’eh, Israeli Deputy Ambassador
One of the most repeated narratives of the summer’s events in Gaza has surrounded the effect of the conflict on Israel’s standing in international public opinion. As a result of the events in Gaza, or so the story goes, Israel is losing public sympathy around the world, and particularly in the West.
This story has become a refrain in Parliament. It has even graced the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, forming the thesis of not one but two op-eds in recent weeks.
But is this narrative accurate? Certainly, for anyone who supports Israel, not to mention her diplomats, the criticism of Israel expressed in some quarters this summer, and the sympathy sometimes extended to Hamas, was profoundly shocking. Yet we must be careful not to mistake the people shouting the loudest for the majority view.
Scratch beneath the surface, and a different picture emerges of British public opinion. A Populus/We Believe in Israel opinion poll conducted earlier this month reveals that perceptions of Israel and the Palestin-ians have actually shifted very little in recent years. A minority of respondents is broadly favourable towards Israel, but that proportion has grown slightly since 2011; the same proportion is broadly favourable toward the Palestinians.
A greater proportion of respondents blames Israel for the non-settlement of the dispute than blames the Palestinians, but the proportion who hold the Palestinians responsible has increased since 2011; the majority continue to apportion blame equally to both sides.
The Populus poll is not alone in showing relative stability in public opinion. Half the respondents in an ICM survey commissioned by the Guardian in August – during the war – said their opinion of Israel had either stayed the same or improved as a result of the conflict. Nor is the UK an aberration. In the US, a Pew survey conducted in July found support for Israel remaining constant, at near record highs.
If public opinion has not significantly shifted against Israel subsequent to the recent conflict, it is by no means cause for celebration, much less complacency.
The fact that so many people in the UK hold a negative view of Israel, or consider Israel to be as culpable as Hamas, is deeply troubling, and only serves to show the necessity of making sure the facts of Israel’s case are heard.
Research testifies many people would be more sympathetic to Israel if they knew that it guarantees religious freedom for people of all faiths and has sacrificed land for the hope of peace.
The capacity to argue Israel’s case itself depends on maintaining an environment of critical inquiry, in which the tenor of discussion is rational rather than pathological, and centres of learning do not capitulate to a systematic campaign of delegitimisation attempting to silence any debate.
But what it does show is that the narrative of Israel alienating international publics through recent actions is not only overstated but potentially dangerous.
Those who see, in the events of the summer, an opportunity to launch a new political assault on Israel may claim to speak on behalf of the body politic, but their true constituency consists of a vocal but small minority of pressure groups, whose aims are far more extreme than the public would be likely to tolerate.
In truth, the political establishment would be better served not by co-opting public opinion, but by listening to it. The people, in this instance, have a clearer view than many of their elected representatives.
They recognise that the fundamental issues to be resolved between Israel and the Palestinians are the same today as they were three years ago.
And they also recognise, perhaps, that the approach of the international community hasn’t changed either.
Pressuring Israel to make concessions without demanding compromises from the Palestinians was never likely to yield an agreement acceptable to both sides. The search for reasons to pressure Israel even more can only perpetuate the status quo.
If members of the international community truly want to see progress, whether on the ground or in public opinion, then they may need to be the change they believe in.