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Israel in world public opinion: more lies, damn lies and statistics

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  • AMI
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    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 22, 2011
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      Israel in world public opinion: more lies, damn lies and statistics


      The headlines signaled Israeli unpopularity unequivocally: Haaretz declared, “Israel grouped with Iran, North Korea as world’s least popular countries, and even the Jerusalem post intoned, “Poll: Israel among the world’s least popular countries.” In a Haaretz Op-Ed, Doron Rosenblum told the world, “Israel’s diplomatic fiasco is serious as a military blunder.”

      Rosenblum wailed:

      With well-honed apathy, one can dismiss the horrifying survey the BBC released this week saying that a huge percentage of the public in 27 countries places Israel among the most hated states in the world, alongside Iran and North Korea.

      Rosenblum was not shy about assigning blame for this disaster:

      Only one voice has been heard – the profound and courageous words of Ilan Baruch, the Foreign Ministry official who resigned in protest over the “malignant diplomatic dynamic” of the Netanyahu government, which is acting provocatively in a way that “threatens Israel’s international standing and undermines the legitimacy not only of the occupation but also Israel’s very membership in the family of nations.”

      The contention is clear: before the “Malignant Diplomatic Dynamic” of the Netanyahu government Israel’s standing in public opinion was fine, and all we need to make everyone love us again is change the diplomacy of the Israeli government. Alas, the data do not support this simple conclusion. Changing Israeli foreign policy may be an urgent priority, but it probably will not improve Israeli popularity very much.

      Among the many uses and abuses of survey data is bandwagoning: If people can be convinced “everyone” holds an opinion, they will adopt that view too (see Israel Advocacy Guide). Conversely, if word gets out that Susie is the most unpopular girl in junior high, nobody will ask her for a date: A self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, Rosenberg’s article did not cause Israeli unpopularity by the articles detailing Israel’s unpopularity were generously abused for this purpose by all the usual suspects, who used them as evidence of the failures of Zionism. That is how these data are used.

      Survey statistics of this type are usually abused to make a political point, Doron Rosenblum wrote:

      Even though the diplomatic fiasco that Israel is experiencing now is no less serious than a military blunder, and its implications in the long run are perhaps even more threatening to the country’s future and robustness, no protest movement has sprung up against those clearly responsible for the failure. No commission of inquiry has been appointed. Even the state comptroller does not sniff any possibility of unveiling the rot. Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman continue to stretch out in their armchairs, their arrogance and defiance grow, and they have rolled up their sleeves to continue the same “policy,” while it explodes in our faces daily.

      Rosenblum and Haaretz set the rules of the analysis – bad diplomacy, a “malignant diplomatic dynamic,” was responsible for Israel’s unpopularity. The numbers refused to oblige. A more careful reading of the results showed plainly that while Israel remained very unpopular, there had been a steady improvement over the last few years. There is no evidence that Israel’s popularity has deteriorated recently, whether because of Netanyahu and a “malignant diplomatic dynamic” or from any other cause.

      The same day as it published Rosenblum’s article, Haaretz also published a more considered analysis of the actual results, headlined, “Israel’s popularity climbs in annual BBC poll, but overall global impression is still negative.” The poll is done for the BBC each year by Globalscan. Participants in different countries are asked to estimate if a country is a positive or negative influence. The results always look dismal for Israel, which is always grouped with North Korea and Iran. But no real probing is ever done to understand what influences these estimates.

      The researchers who ran the survey reached a somewhat different conclusion than Rosenblum in analyzing their data:

      Evaluations of Israel’s influence in the world are still broadly unfavourable. However, unlike countries that have seen
      their negative views worsen, Israel has seen a very slight improvement.

      Their graph of survey results over the years (positive opinion – negative opinion) is revealing.

      Israel popularity

      Israel is always grouped among the four least popular countries, so that is hardly news. What is news, is the possible improvement in Israel’s popularity since 2007, which does not support the idea of a “malignant diplomatic dynamic.” These have not been easy years. Operation Cast Lead (AKA the Gaza War) the Goldstone Report, the boarding of the Mavi Marmara, Israeli refusal to stop settlement construction, and the “outspoken” and undiplomatic Avigdor Lieberman, should have caused Israeli popularity to plunge. If Doron Rosenblum was correct in assuming that plunging popularity was due  to policy errors, we have to believe that since 2007 Israeli diplomacy is nothing short of brilliant and that we must be doing something right.

      In fact, what the numbers tell us is that the numbers are not telling us much. Israel undoubtedly has an image or popularity problem that is partly reflected in these results, but the absolute standing and the changes in standing revealed by the survey are probably due to factors other than policy. Large, rich counties tend to rank high in the survey. Countries that are in the news tend to get lower ratings, accounting perhaps for the unexpected recent popularity problems of South Korea.

      There is no doubt that Israel has a poor public image, but we cannot begin to correct the problem until we stop abusing survey data and find the real reasons for Israel’s unpopularity, which might be disinformation, or different fundamental views. 47% of Germans are convinced that Israel is exterminating Palestinians.  This misapprehension cannot be corrected by changes in Israeli policy. Those who believe that all of Israel is built on Arab land will not be more favorably disposed by concessions in the West Bank, for example, which is probably what Doron Rosenblum had in mind.

      Whether we agree or disagree with Doron Rosenblum’s political opinions, the survey data do not indicate the Netanyahu’s policies are responsible for the Israeli popularity problem. It is expedient to blame Israeli unpopularity on politicians and policies we may not like, but the contention is not supported by the data. We have a real image problem, but the problem existed before Benjamin Netanyahu took office, and his policies have not made Israel less popular.

      Ami Isseroff

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