Growing Disenchantment on a Global Scale

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 23, 2011, issue of April 01, 2011.
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What do North Korea, Iran, Pakistan and Israel have in common? In December and January, the BBC commissioned a poll of more than 28,000 people in 27 countries around the world. The key question was “Please tell me if you think each of the following countries is having a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world.” There followed a list of 16 nations. Among these, the top scorers were Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Japan and the European Union, with positive rankings in the 52%-62% range and negatives in the 15%-20% range. There are seven in the next batch (including the United States, which scores 49% positive and 31% negative).

And then we arrive at the bottom four: Iran, 16% positive, 59% negative; North Korea, 16% to 55%; Pakistan, 17% to 56%; Israel, 21% to 49%. In all, the samples in 22 of the 27 countries polled saw Israel in an unfavorable light; two (Ghana and Russia) leaned positive, and three were divided. The American sample gives Israel 43% positive and 41% negative — an increase of 10 points in the negatives since 2010. A year ago, Gallup found that 67% of Americans felt favorably toward Israel. There may have been some falloff in that level of support, but the difference in the questions asked is the more likely source of the gap. Still, the example of Britain may be instructive: 14% positive and 66% negative, a jump of 16 negative points in the last year, indicating the volatility of these numbers.

How can we explain why Israel is apparently held in such low esteem in Canada, Germany, France, Portugal, the U.K., Spain, Japan and Brazil? (No explanation is required for its low scores in Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey and Pakistan.) Can it be residual — or not so residual — anti-Semitism in all those places? Is it simply poor hasbarah, public relations? Or perhaps most people around the world don’t think much about Israel, and when asked directly they instinctively think, in very broad terms, about the chronic conflict in which Israel has for so many years now been bogged down.

My own view is that while there is some truth in all the usual explanations, David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, adds a good deal to our understanding in his “Talk of the Town” column in the magazine’s March 21 issue. His explanation? Growing disenchantment with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Waiting for Netanyahu to make the kind of history-altering choice Nixon made regarding China is, Remnick argues, a “delusion.”

Whether Remnick is right or not in attributing Netanyahu’s obduracy to his ideological legacy is less important than his argument that Netanyahu, for whatever the reason, is simply not a willing partner for peace with the Palestinians: “Smug and lacking in diplomatic creativity, Netanyahu has alienated and undermined the forces of progressivism in the West Bank, and is, step by ugly step, deepening Israel’s isolation.”

Back when he was a political neophyte, Ehud Olmert once said to me, “We can wait. We are strong, and we will see how history unfolds. There is no urgency to resolving the conflict.” Olmert quite dramatically abandoned that view when he became prime minister and entered into far-reaching negotiations with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

But Netanyahu appears to hold the “why bother?” view, interrupted now and then by professions of interest in peace that seem intended merely to placate America and Europe, which have in fact lost all patience with him. When he called Angela Merkel, German’s chancellor, to chastise Germany for voting to approve the Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s settlement policy, Merkel replied, “How dare you? You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”

Once, it was possible to think that appointing Avigdor Lieberman as Israel’s foreign minister was merely a response to the unfortunate exigencies of coalition-building in Israel. Politics does make strange bedfellows, after all. By now, given Netanyahu’s persistent immobility, one is obliged to wonder whether these two, who appear indifferent not only to world opinion but also to the commitments asserted in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, are, heaven help us, blind birds of a feather.


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