World Peace anyone?

Israel has been described as the top threat to world peace, ahead of North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, by an unpublished European Commission poll of 7,500 Europeans, sparking an international row, reports The Observer.

Melanie Phillips responds with a rant entitled ‘Europe signs up to terror’

The Observer adds that the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which claims 400,000 members in the US alone, has begun ordering a petition to condemn the European Commission and demand the EU no longer be represented in the so-called Quartet group trying to mediate an end to violence between Israel and Palestine.

The paper quotes Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Centre’s founder as saying: ‘This shocking result that Israel is the greatest threat to world peace, bigger than North Korea and Iran, defies logic and is a racist flight of fantasy that only shows that anti-semitism is deeply embedded within European society, more then at any other period since the end of the war,’

It is a tough choice to decide which is more depressing the poll results or the reaction?

The question posed is itself totally flawed. The concept of “a world peace” is rooted in the thinking of the cold war balance of power. To talk of a threat to world peace when there isn’t one in the first place seems odd. And surely it is clear by now that acts of war can be carried out by terrorists and not just nation states?

But whatever the flaws, this is an opinion poll not a pronouncement from the European Commission so the call for punitive action against the EU is ludicrous. Indeed the comments from the Wiesenthal Centre are almost as stupid as Phillips’ suggestion that a rising anti-Israeli sentiment means ‘Europe signs up to terror’.

How to win friends and influence people.

There is little cause for optimism in anything that has happened in Israel and Palestine in the past few years but it would be encouraging if Sharon’s supporters at least paused on occassion to consider why Israel has lost so much sympathy.

Innocent Israeli civilians have been murdered in discos, bars and restaurants. Schoolkids on buses have been blown up in horrific suicide murders. And yet sympathy for Israel, outside of the US, appears to be at an all-time low.

Why? The easy and convenient answer is that Europe is a continent seething with anti-semites. While there are worrying signs, that is simply not true.

Could it not be the case that the Israelis are simply losing a propaganda war?

It is surely not a hard case to present that the blame for the violence in the Middle East should not put exclusively at the door of Israel. Ordinary Israelis have been victims of the most appalling acts of terrorism.

But that image of the little Palestinian boy being shielded by his father against a wall, the images of bulldozers, of a wall being built, of refugee camps, innocent civilians dying in Israeli raids are all beamed into our homes as well.

When those actions are criticised, the defence we increasingly hear is that criticism of Israel is equal to anti-semitism. That might make those who are criticised feel more justified in their actions but have Sharon’s supporters given up on the idea of winning hearts and minds or even basic politics or PR? Is their only strategy now one of playing to the gallery of the most hawkish anti-Europeans in the Bush administration?

This is all presuming the Israeli hardliners and their friends actually care about winning hearts and minds in Europe and aren’t simply engaged in a political effort to push the EU out of any peace process and leave the US, always less willing to criticise Israel, as the sole partner in any settlement.

There is no sign of peace in the Middle East and Israel is not perceived as what Phillips calls “the planet’s most beleaguered democracy,” when it is launching helicopter attacks on offices and houses and occupying Palestinian territories.

If we must deal with a hierachy of this kind (and I can’t for the life of me think why the EU felt it necessary to engage this sort of polling) the reality is that Israel’s violence is far more visible than that of North Korea or Iran.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Israel is a bigger threat to the world or a worse country than those two – of course it isn’t.

But it does mean that if Israel has a lot of work to do if it wants to win support.

I am sure if a poll was carried out in Europe, or the US for that matter, on the issue of how to bring an end to the conflict in the Middle East, there would be a majority of people in favour of a negotiated two-state settlement.

Israel would be better served by its friends if some effort was made to show the world that they are ready to reach such a settlement – a propaganda war that is winnable.

Slandering a continent, as Phillips and the Wiesenthal Centre prefer, helps no-one and certainly not Israel.

Update: After writing this I notice a Phillips article on Israel’s failures in communication from the Jewish Chronicle, which backs up the point that Israel is losing the propaganda battle.

She illustrates specifically how the Palestinians are more skilled at getting their position/claims across and how the Israeli government appears to have a defeatist attitude in this area.

I asked Natan Sharansky, minister for the diaspora, why the Israelis were so indifferent to the task of public persuasion. His answer was shocking. The government’s view, he said bleakly, was that throughout their history the Jews had been forced to justify their existence; they were no longer prepared to do so. I heard something similar from many others, who added that attempts to persuade people were all hopeless, especially in Britain and Europe.

Melanie Phillips seems to think that needs to change and that Israel needs to be much more professional and active in presenting its case. She is right.

But does she not strengthen those defeatists when she writes of the EU poll: “The Europeans want to see Israel eliminated, too. They now say so. That’s why it’s the top threat. Because it exists”?

Update 2: Gene points to this article in Haaretz where the Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom rejected claims that the poll ranking Israel was proof of European anti-Semitism.

“There’s no comparing the amount of media exposure Israel gets in Europe compared to Iran or North Korea. The images broadcast from here have an impact, but we should not get exertedby it,” he told Haaretz.

Shalom was asked about the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s call to throw the European Union out of the Quartet of Middle East peace brokers,and deny it any role in negotiations.

“I don’t want to clash with this or that institute, but I don’t see things the extremeway they do,” he said. “One need not dramatize every poll and there’s no need for bile.”

He said the poll could also be viewed as the result of decades of Israeli neglect of the European arena, while at the same time the Palestinians invested much effort in Europe.