Israel must not lose sight of democracy’s strengths.If, as I suspect, the readers of this Web site have a special interest in Israel, it is easy to guess that they are disturbed by the image of Israel coming off their TV screens and the pages of their daily newspapers. They may be angry at the media and even angrier at Israel’s inability to get its message across to the public, while Palestinians always seem to look legally, politically and morally correct. In their frustration, friends of Israel direct their anger towards Israel’s public relations apparatus, which, they believe, is simply not doing its job. Everyone seems to agree that public relations and image-related issues are Israel’s biggest weakness. This merits some serious thought.
There are three main reasons why the Palestinian image comes across so efficiently: The Palestinians speak in one voice because dissent is not allowed; there is no public scrutiny of the “party line” (because the media are not independent and civil society is muzzled); and, to the western ear, the story of a weak, oppressed people living under occupation and fighting for independence is simple, plausible and easily digestible.
On the Israeli side you will find the exact opposite.
Israel’s political leadership, including the government, is comprised of a multitude of opinions. The word “pluralism” doesn’t even begin to describe the picture. Everyone has an opinion on everything and is more than happy to share it with everyone. Foreign correspondents looking for argument and internal division have a field day.
Anyone who knows anything about the energetic, investigative Israeli media will understand that it is impossible for the government to hide the truth or tell a lie. It would never get away with it. Besides, Israeli government agencies consider credibility a crucial asset for the conduct of their work and are therefore rarely inclined to take risks with the truth.
As for public scrutiny, the combination of a lively public debate and a free media opens virtually every act or decision of the official establishment to critical review. Nothing will go unnoticed and everything will be questioned, thus laying every dilemma out for the world to see.
The story of the Middle East, as seen from Israel, is far more complex. Understanding it requires not simply empathy, but historical background and geopolitical context as well as knowledge of religious and ethnic nuances. All this is impossible to convey through images on a screen or 10-second sound bites.
Ironically, the only times when Israel enjoys a favorable image in the world media is in the wake of terrorist attacks. But that is mere sympathy, not support, a feeling Israelis would gladly do without.
Under these difficult circumstances one may well wonder why Israel was never seriously tempted to restrict freedom of the press. This could be done by restricting access to information or to conflict areas, allowing only “official” coverage of events and prohibiting demonstrations. In times of crisis and war, surely that would seem acceptable and would certainly make possible a more efficient and targeted public relations campaign. However, tampering with the basic tools of democracy always seemed to be too big a risk to take, particularly in exchange for a media quick fix. Every society has a choice to make: Is it open or is it closed? You can’t have it both ways. You cannot be open and democratic when it suits you and closed and authoritarian when it doesn’t. Either way there is a price to pay.
Israel made this choice at the very beginning of its society-building process, even before the establishment of the state. Despite its tormented history, Israel has ferociously defended its right to be criticized.
So would I trade the strength of the Palestinian’s image for the weakness of their societal foundations? Not in a million years. Democracy may tie one hand behind our backs in the struggle over world opinion, but when all this is over, as I pray it will soon be, Israel will go back to building a future of modernity, progress and prosperity within its natural “family” of western democracies. The Palestinians will still have the difficult task before them of transforming their dream of democracy into reality. As an Israeli, I wish them success. I would rather have a second democracy in the neighborhood than yet another dictatorship. Indeed, many Palestinians recognize that the proximity of Israel, even as an enemy, has given them the taste of democracy, a notion they will have trouble finding among other Arab sister nations.
In the long run they will recognize that what they consider their strength is really a weakness and what we consider a weakness is really a strength. So will we.