When it comes to the Middle East, nothing is more important than maps. When you visit the Israeli Foreign Ministry for a briefing on peace initiatives, officials unfurl large maps showing every possible outcome, including charts with neatly drawn corridors linking the West Bank to Gaza.
At the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Jerusalem, a presentation shows the proliferation of security barriers across the region, which it regards as an affront to peace.
As much of an affront is the fact that many of them are unmanned but still counted.
On Israel’s northern borders, where successive Israeli governments have sought to forge a deal with Syria involving the Golan Heights, the maps focus on how close the Syrian outposts will be to the Sea of Galilee and the fate of the disputed Lebanese territory known as Shebaa Farms.
As for Iran’s President Ahmadinejad: he wants to wipe Israel off the map altogether.
Anyone who follows these matters cannot be too shocked at the sensitivities. In recent days there has been extensive coverage in the media of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism “ThinkIsrael” ads on the London Underground. As people flash by on the Tube, the posters — intending primarily to promote Eilat — appeared to show a “Greater Israel” incorporating the West Bank, Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.
Most of the press coverage surrounding the poster reported on the Israel Government Tourism Office’s (IGTO) decision to remove them. The Guardian noted that the decision to take them down was made “after the advertisements were referred to the Advertising Standards Authority”. The protesters were not Londoners, going about their normal business, but groups with an axe to grind: the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and Jews for Justice for Palestinians. Both groups complained to the ASA and CBS Outdoors. Transport of London (TfL) was reported to have received some 600 separate objections.
The Guardian reported that the ad had gone up on 108 sites and was due to go up on another 42 before it was pulled by IGTO. The paper also noted that the same ThinkIsrael campaign had run into difficulty in 2008 when it implied that Qumran was in Israel, when it is actually in the West Bank.
A BBC website article on the dispute focused on Israel’s Tourist Ministry describing the posters as a “mistake”. The Ministry denied suggestions that it had asked TfL to have them removed. It made the point that in general it was not a good idea to use maps on billboards. The posters were described as a “professional mistake” with no geopolitical intentions.
The BBC took care to point out that the offending maps — coloured in a striking yellow — do have faint white lines marking out the Palestinian territories. But not “Syrian territory which Israel annexed in 1981”. The Syrian Embassy in London had described the posters as “offensive”.
The London billboard story was deemed important enough to appear in papers on both sides of the Atlantic and in Israel, including USA Today, the New York Times, Ha’aretz and the Jerusalem Post. Most of these reports noted that in the last month the British-based airline BMI had been required to apologise to the Israeli government for leaving Israel off its electronic in-flight map altogether. BMI excused what had happened because it had bought aircraft from a defunct Arab carrier.
So while it is routinely OK for Arab countries to take Israel off the map altogether, an Israeli tourist map which does not use geopolitical precision is regarded by Israel’s critics as an outrage. Why should we be surprised?