Israel’s a great place”, a young man selling bread tells us over the weekend at London’s Borough Market after recognising some Hebrew exchanges between us and the girls. He volunteered at a kibbutz in the south, he explains. Another merchant we get talking to says he’s always wanted to go, but didn’t know if it was safe: “Israel gets so much bad press here, one never knows what to think”, he says. I am tempted to confess my intimate involvement in this issue but I decide to keep silent this time, wary of the conversation that will ensue, which I’ve held countless times by now.
Does Israel get so much bad press in the UK? After six months here, I can safely say that it does. Most times, it seems that our actions are scrutinised using a super-sensitive magnifying glass, created exclusively for Israel. This magnifying glass rarely shifts to neighbours in our troubled region, where thousands of civilians have died in recent years, many through atrocious war crimes, and certainly not farther afield to Europe, whose responsibility for civilian deaths in our region in the past decade far outweighs Israel’s.
No matter what happens in our neighbourhood, or how bad things get, it seems that it’s always the children in the West Bank or Gaza’s fishermen that feature in the UK’s weekend magazines. This is not an academic discussion; it resonates and influences how Europeans view Israel, and perhaps more importantly, how Israelis perceive those whom we naturally look to as our allies, sharing in our democratic values and our aspirations. The message that this “bad press” sends us is that no matter what concessions we make, the axiomatic “injustice” will always be perpetrated by the state of Israel; the occupation of the West Bank will always date to 1967 (because there is no interest in the Jordanian occupation that preceded it); the Gaza from which we withdrew in search of peace will always be under Israeli siege (because there is no interest in the Egyptian border with Gaza, just as closely guarded as ours, due to the same terror threats); and, finally, the act of aggression will always be an Israeli one (as there is no interest in the aggression that more often than not prompts it).
Perhaps most alarmingly, it seems that the magnifying glass has no interest in Israeli lives. In the almost daily rocket launches which have been forcing thousands, yes, including children, into shelters for years; in the reality in which an entire country’s population keeps gas masks in their homes; and in persistent, institutionalised incitement against the Jewish state by the Palestinian Authority. Many seasoned correspondents live comfortably in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and visit Gaza or West Bank protests an hour’s drive away, yet have no eyes for Israelis living in the southern town of Sderot, and are surprised to be told of Israeli doctors treating Syrians in the north of the country.
Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will demand that both make significant compromises. For Israel, these may involve international guarantees, which historically have failed to offer security or prevent conflict. Current coverage of Israel reinforces existing mistrust and strengthens the world view of those who oppose change and its significant associated risks.
An incessant placing of blame on Israel does not bring peace closer. Rather, what is needed is reporting that will convey the predicament that both sides are in, generating the understanding and support key to overcoming the challenges ahead.
Yiftah Curiel is the press attaché at the Israeli Embassy in London