Before the 1967 Six Day War, Israel was seen by much of the world as a valiant David struggling to survive against the bullying Arab Goliath. But after the crushing victory over the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, this image began to change, and within a few years, the roles had reversed. This inverted narrative, which first birthed the 1970s’ “Zionism is racism” sentiments, later morphed into the BDS movement and other campaigns to single out and demonize Israelis.
In some ways, the reversal was inevitable. Many Western intellectuals, including Canadians, have adopted a political philosophy that automatically categorizes power and success as evil, while weakness and victimhood are simplistically imbued with virtue. Once defeated by the powerful and therefore no longer embattled Israelis, the Arabs became the objects of pity, and were assigned the part of victim.
But there is much more to this story, beginning with the rise of the Palestinian national movement. When the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was founded and began to conduct terror attacks in 1964, they received scant attention, particularly outside the region. The PLO’s factions were mostly beholden to various Arab states and had little support among Palestinian Arabs, and so were more nuisance than serious force. However, following the 1967 war’s humiliation of Arab regimes, the PLO and the Palestinian cause took center stage as defenders of battered Arab honour.
In parallel, Israel’s control of territories formerly ruled by Arab states – Egypt, Jordan, and Syria – and more importantly responsibility for the Palestinian populations, fit easily into then widespread narratives of strong, Western states oppressing weak, non-European peoples. Israel became known as a colonialist power, and the PLO joined the dozens of leftist “national liberation movements” active on the periphery of the Cold War.
In 1969, a new PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat, recognized that many young (and some older) Westerners embraced revolutionary figures such as Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Ho Chi Minh, and he cleverly built a similar persona, always appearing in military uniform with a signature keffiyah wrapped around his head and a pistol holstered on his hip. When the PLO’s terror campaign expanded from Israel’s borders to European capitals, attacks on synagogues, aircraft, and athletes were publicly justified in the name of national liberation from an oppressive occupier.
These events coincided with the unpopular American war in Vietnam, and in a number of dimensions, the two issues overlapped, particularly among the global left. On university campuses and on the streets of major cities, demonstrations against the Vietnam War became intermeshed with protests against Israel. The close links that developed during this period between the U.S. and Israeli militaries, including the IDF’s increasing use of the same American weapons being used in Southeast Asia, reinforced these associations.
Arafat and the PLO understood Israel’s strength. In September 1970, they tried to take over the government of Jordan, and were defeated, with the strong presence of the IDF in the background behind the Jordanian regime.
The PLO was expelled from Jordan, and moved to Lebanon, where they focused on guerrilla tactics, seeking to exploit Israeli military strength as a form of political weakness.
Israel’s response in the 1982 Lebanon War accelerated the transition in the perception of Israel from a valiant outpost struggling to survive, to a regional bully. The images of the bombing of Beirut, the evacuation of thousands of besieged Palestinians, including Arafat, and then the carnage at the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps, committed by Israel’s Maronite allies, did irreversible damage. The IDF’s use of American weapons added to the protests, and the Reagan administration even suspended the transfer of combat aircraft. The Israeli justification, focusing on the use of Lebanese territory to launch terror attacks against Israeli civilians and the attempted assassination of Ambassador Shlomo Argov in London, was largely lost.
The conflict introduced Israel to many of the same challenges that had troubled the Americans in Vietnam, including the development of domestic moral questioning about how Israel used its strength, and even a growing anti-war movement, although without the luxury enjoyed by the United States, including geographic immunity from attack.
After two decades of Israeli military government, the late 1980s saw the Palestinian popular uprising, or intifadah, against Israel’s occupation. Arafat’s PLO, marginalized in Tunisian exile, were caught by surprise but moved to take advantage of the situation, particularly in the propaganda war. The impact on Israel’s image is embodied in the infamous photograph of a slingshot-wielding boy facing an Israeli tank.
The increased political pressure resulting from the intifadah, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War led to a new political opening. The PLO was greatly weakened (in part because Arafat sided with Saddam), and secret negotiations led to the 1993 Oslo framework, under the leadership of the Labor Party and the late Yitzchak Rabin, who believed the status quo to be causing international condemnation and isolation.
Twenty-six years after the Six Day War, this agreement was designed to end Israel’s control over the Palestinian population, beginning with the creation of the Palestinian Authority, which gained control over the cities and surrounding land (Areas A and B), and leaving Israel in control of Area C, which included all Israeli security installations and civilian settlement. The future of these settlements and other issues (refugees, Jerusalem, security, etc.) were to be negotiated in a “permanent status agreement.”
But the Oslo process failed, and another 24 years have passed in which temporary arrangements remained in place. The post-1967 occupation and Israeli civilian settlement in the territories again became central (Palestinians and their supporters blamed this for the failure of Oslo, and Israel blamed continued terrorism).
The Oslo framework quickly failed (the evidence indicates that Arafat was never serious about peace, and used it to rebuild his power) and in 2000, mass violence resumed in what became known as the Second Intifadah, based on deadly suicide bombings. This was accompanied by a new and more virulent form of anti-Israel demonization, through the BDS movement and efforts to label Israelis as war criminals, led by political groups such as Amnesty International that claim to promote human rights.
In the resulting narrative, the image of an all-powerful Israel has also superseded the very real security threats that Israel continues to face. Even with the addition of the occupied territories, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, Israel remains a tiny country barely visible on most maps of the Middle East. The vulnerability to attack was highlighted in the numerous terror incidents, as well as 1991 Iraqi Scud missile attacks, the rocket-wars of 2006, 2009 and 2014, and the increasing threat from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. In contrast, the maps (real and virtual) that accompany the discussion of the conflict and the “Middle East peace process” begin at the Mediterranean and end at the Jordan River. This artificially and misleadingly presents Israel as a superpower, and adds to the image of Palestinian weakness.
The United Nations is one of the most effective promoters of Palestinian victimhood. The bloc of 56 Islamic states is a powerful lobby, and has used its influence to capture control of key institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs. The agendas of these bodies are essentially set by the Islamic bloc, which explains the singling out of Israel for condemnation. In addition, the UN Department for Palestinian Affairs and the UNRWA (the “temporary” Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees created in 1949) act as Palestinian propaganda arms. In the UN, the assault against Israel’s legitimacy through terms such as apartheid began before 1967, and boosted periodically, as in the scurrilous 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution.
In Europe, where the UN is still taken seriously, pictures of powerful Israeli soldiers at checkpoints seemingly harassing Palestinians or firing their weapons widely reinforce accusations of apartheid and war crimes. Against the constant flow of such pictures, arguments that highlight decades of incitement and rejectionism are lost, while criticism of Israel merged with theological anti-Semitism.
European leaders made a virtue out of convenience and moral compromise, and the leaders of many countries, including Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium agreed to turn a blind eye to the Palestinian terror activities in their countries, including training, recruitment, and fund-raising, in exchange for pledges that the actual attacks would take place elsewhere. Rather than admitting that the refusal to support Israel was due to weakness and fear, political officials and diplomats cited the post-1967 “occupation”, and Israel, as the “strong” party, was blamed for the failure to end the conflict. In 1980, Europe officially adopted a plan for Palestinian independence, and condemned “Israeli settlements” as a “serious obstacle to the peace process.” This language has not changed in 37 years.
As in the past, the Israeli government largely ignored these campaigns, and as a result, officials often played into the images of Palestinian victimization and Israeli aggression. A generation of journalists, political officials, and other elite opinion makers were indoctrinated into accepting this narrative and the accompanying images without question. This environment smoothed the way for the BDS campaigns and other forms of demonization, again led by the UN and false-flag human rights frameworks, mixed with anti-Semitism. The infamous UN Durban Conference in September 2001, in which Canadian officials naïvely played a major role, officially launched this wave of anti-Israel warfare.
For Israel, the pressure to return to the pre-1967 armistice lines and resume the role of the plucky but besieged David, was not acceptable. But once again, Israel – as the powerful occupier – was blamed for the failure.
In 2009,Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to understand the need to change Israel’s image, and, under pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama, he endorsed a “two state solution” as the way to end the conflict. But many of his ministers, and later, Netanyahu himself, backed away from this policy, in large part due to real security concerns in the region.
Instead of dealing with substance of the issue, the politicians in Netanyahu’s coalition turned to heavy-handed and counterproductive responses, including legislation to ban foreign BDS leaders, and awkward attempts to punish groups who refer to IDF soldiers as “war criminals.” These measures only reinforced the negative images of Israel.
Fifty years after the 1967 war, the images of Palestinian victimization and Israeli guilt continue to dominate the outside discussion, and the “temporary” nature of Israeli control over the occupied territories has outlived its shelf life. Although Israel cannot and will not return to being the plucky David besieged by Arab (or Iranian) armies ready to destroy the tiny Jewish outpost, the damage in this war of perceptions and images can be reduced significantly.