Improve the Image

Israel is losing its grip on important, influential parts of public opinion in the West, and is being shoved into the corner with rightist, Christian groups that preach in favor of a war of civilizations with Islam.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says that today's UN would not pass the November 29, 1947, decision that called for the partition of the Land of Israel and the establishment of the state of Israel. Livni is pointing to a genuine problem: Israel is struggling to maintain its existential legitimacy as the Jewish state. The question is what the foreign minister and her colleagues in the government are doing in the face of the danger.

The British Guardian published two lengthy articles this week comparing Israel to the former apartheid regime in South Africa. It was not pleasant reading, a listing of Jewish Israel's sins against its Arab citizens and the Palestinians in the territories: discrimination, separation, hatred and occupation. The troubling problem is not the presentation of the facts but the unwritten message: if Zionism is the same as apartheid, than it can be deemed as worthy of eradication as apartheid.

In 2006 an ideological alliance has emerged between liberal circles in Europe and the conservative, fire-breathing Iranian president. Both describe Zionism as a European effort to get rid of the hated Jews of the old world at the expense of the Palestinians; both accuse Israel of exploiting the European Holocaust (which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies ever took place) to oppress the Arabs; and both would like to see it eliminated. The only difference is that the Iranian president proposes to the Europeans that they take back the Jews, and the European liberals prefer a Jewish minority in an Arab Palestine (as "a state for all its citizens").

Israel usually writes off such views as expressions of anti-Semitism. But even if that is true, the problem remains just as bad: Israel is losing its grip on important, influential parts of public opinion in the West, and is being shoved into the corner with rightist, Christian groups that preach in favor of a war of civilizations with Islam.

As a result, there is a growing gap between the Israeli interpretation of reality and the way Israel is perceived in the world. Moves that appear to Israelis as withdrawal and compromise - starting with the separation fence and the disengagement from Gaza - are interpreted overseas as exercises in perpetuating the occupation and annexation. The boycott the Olmert government has declared against the Palestinian Authority in response to the Hamas victory is presented as a defensive measure against a murderous enemy. But overseas it will be perceived as subversion of democratic elections, with the goal of avoiding negotiations and expanding settlements. The BBC will show Olmert touring the fence and promising to annex the settlement blocs and Jordan Valley, juxtaposed against Hamas leaders' proposals for a cease-fire, and images of the growing distress in the territories as a result of closed border crossings and the freeze in fund transfers.

David Ben-Gurion said that Israel's fate is dependent on two things: its strength and justness. His heirs believed strength was enough. In the current election campaign as well as those in the past, the candidates are competing over who will annex more territory and hurt the Palestinians more. None are speaking of Israel's legitimate problems and saying what must be done to fix them.

Olmert once warned that the occupation would turn Israel into a leper, but when he reached the leadership position he forgot and returned to the solutions of force. His rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke as finance minister of the "tsunami of the markets" that neutralize independent governments and bend them to the demands of the global economy, apparently believes that globalization doesn't apply to political life, so Israel can put up fences and settle and ignore the international community.

Force is a necessary condition for the state's existence, but it is not a sufficient condition on its own. The time has come to change priorities, and to give some importance to Israel being just. That doesn't mean getting up and running out of all the territories. Even after such a withdrawal, there will be things that Israel will be blamed for and accused of. But the next government must place the problem of Israel's legitimacy in the forefront and invest every possible effort to improve Israel's image in the world.