In the endless discussion over Israel's problematic image in the international media, an argument often repeated is that once Israel was seen as a David fighting the Arab Goliath, while in recent years the image has been reversed: The Palestinians are described as a small and brave nation fighting for its liberty with stones and primitive bombs and Israel is depicted as the giant, equipped with F-16s and nuclear weapons.
Public opinion in the West instinctively supports the handsome underdog who defeats the boorish armored giant. The reason can easily be understood, for when the Israeli shepherd from Bethlehem killed the Philistine warrior from Gath, not only was he honored by winning the hand of the king's daughter and ultimately getting crowned himself; he also won the competition for shaping perception. The winners, after all, are the ones who write history, and the David perspective has been established as the correct narrative.
But let us assume for a moment that Goliath had been victorious, and that the Philistines had been the one to pass on the story to future generations. It would read more or less like this: An advanced nation whose members had helped create Western science and culture came on ships from Europe to the shores of the Land of Israel, set up cities in the lowlands and, with the help of superior military technology, tried to defeat the primitive mountain men. The war lasted several generations, until the mountain men were defeated and the kingdom of the lowlands took over the entire area.
Sound grating? That is precisely the issue: It is not the facts that set the tone, but the way they are framed. If we are taught that the Philistines were uncircumcised, evil losers, we will treat them with disgust and won't listen to them, even if part of their story remind us of our own narrative.
The battle over perception has not changed much since biblical times. The foreign media reporting from here has come to cover the conflict, and is not interested in Israel as an independent entity. From its point of view, Israel is part of an ongoing story about war and peace, not an advanced, Western, high-tech country, as it is described in the Israeli media.
The story is framed in a way that tends to be to Israel's detriment, because those who compare Israel to Goliath and the Palestinians to David are secretly hoping for a victory of the shepherd over the warrior. The Israeli attempt to convince others that we are just like the West sounds something like a Philistine arguing that the outskirts of ancient Ashkelon, where Goliath was renowned, was more similar to liberal and advanced Athens than to the fields of Bethlehem, where David herded sheep.
The usual excuses for the problems besetting Israel's public relations are pathetic and focus on silly things: The politicians speak in poor English, the army doesn't let the public see photographs right away, the Palestinians are liars and Goldstone is a scoundrel. But even if Avigdor Lieberman was as eloquent as Abba Eban, it would not help Israel's image. The problem is found in the framing, in which Israel is perceived as the evil occupier and settler, and the Palestinians are righteous freedom fighters.
The occupation in Afghanistan is depicted in the West as a justified defensive war against the evil Al-Qaida, so the killing of civilians in Tora Bora is viewed as a necessary evil. Operation Cast Lead is described as a merciless onslaught attacking an innocent population, so the killing of civilians in the Gaza Strip is condemned as a war crime. The Israeli claim that Israel was acting in self-defense, with the objective of halting Palestinian rocket fire, is about as convincing in the West as the alternative Goliath story.
This does not mean that Israel is always right and is just having a hard time justifying its ways. Under the existing circumstances, the framing of the story is much more powerful than Israel's PR efforts. A thousand complaints to the BBC and CNN about reporting errors will not change this reality. At best, they will deepen the bitterness toward Israel and its representatives.
So what should be done? The seemingly inevitable conclusion is that if we want to be seen favorably in the West, we need to adjust our behavior to the norms there and realize that blockades, assassinations and settlements look bad. But we can also imagine a different end to the biblical story: The Egyptian pharaoh comes to the Valley of Elah the night before the decisive battle, calls in King Saul and the five Philistine military leaders for a peace conference, and reaches an agreement on dividing the land between the kingdom of the lowlands and the kingdom of the hills.
Such an ending would save a lot of blood and killing, but it sounds a lot less heroic and exciting than the story on which we have been raised. Perhaps that's why it's a lot less popular than the hope of being both victorious and right.
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