Friday, April 04, 2008

Axis of the unloved

A BBC poll released this week found that Iran has edged out Israel as the most unpopular country in the world, 54 percent to 52%, with Pakistan coming in a close third.
Welcome to the Axis of the Unloved.

To the question "Which countries have a mainly positive or mainly negative influence in the world?" 52% of respondents identified Israel as having a harmful role, while only 19% thought of the Jewish state in positive terms.

Egyptians and Lebanese have become even more entrenched in their animosity toward Israel. That's not surprising given the unrelenting anti-Zionist "reporting" broadcast 24/7 by Arab satellite stations as well as local Egyptian and Hizbullah media outlets.

Ninety-four percent of Egyptians think of Israel in negative terms (up from 85%), while 87% of Lebanese rate Israel negatively (up from 78%). At the same time, 62% of Egyptians think positively of Iran.

Majorities in Spain (64%) and Japan (55%) disapprove of Israel, the BBC found.
In Africa, 45% of Kenyans view Israel's influence as positive, up from 38%, while Ghanaians are divided: 30% positive versus 32% negative.

It's disconcerting that negative views have apparently increased among Americans (39%, up from 33%); though 43% of Americans have a positive attitude compared to 39% who think of Israel in disapproving terms. This seems to mesh with a poll released by The Israel Project, also this week, in Jerusalem which found that 40% of Americans see Israeli policies as extreme. The Israel Project also found that only 7% of Americans put the Arab-Israel conflict at the top of their agenda. Still, Americans support the creation of a Palestinian state, though most don't see it as ending the conflict. Curiously, Iran's negative rating in the US dropped to 55%, from 63% last year.

On the bright side, majorities with negative views of Israel have fallen in France (52%, down from 66%), Germany (64%, down from 77%), Brazil (57%, down from 72%) and Chile (43%, down from 57%).

WHAT ARE we to make of all this? Public opinion is both influenced by, and commands the attention of politicians and the media. Valid public opinion surveys (not to be confused with statistically suspect Internet click polling) do give us insights into what "the people" are thinking.

But let's remember that most folks don't follow current events closely - or intelligently - enough to develop informed opinions. Not a few are influenced by hateful imams, demagogic ministers and malevolent, manipulative televised images. So even when opinion surveys accurately reflect the views of the masses, policymakers need to take into account the profound ignorance and intolerance which sometimes color public opinion.

Take the case of the March 6 terrorist attack on Mercaz Harav. The fact that 84 percent of Palestinians supported it does not make the slaughter of young yeshiva students acceptable. Abroad, surveys have shown that a majority of African-Americans believe the HIV virus is man-made, a US government conspiracy to decimate the black population. And a significant segment of US blacks hold that Washington is responsible for spreading narcotics in the inner cities. Many Muslim Americans actually believe Arabs were not responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
The point is that while what people think cannot be discounted, it is sometimes immensely misguided and must not automatically be allowed to serve as any kind of guide for Israeli actions. At the same time, effective public diplomacy, bringing basic facts to people's attention, really can change people's views.

Influencing opinion rather than being victims of it should be the focus of Israel's public diplomacy efforts. We need to connect with Generations Y and Z - born since 1980 - who get much of their news unfettered and unvetted from FaceBook, MySpace and other social networking sites. And we must address the crying need for an Israel-based 24/7 satellite news channel.

Public opinion is malleable. But we cannot expect people to embrace Israel's cause if we fail to present it to them in a coherent and accessible way.

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