Well, in case you weren’t absolutely certain, it’s now official: Israel is the least-liked country in the world. A new BBC poll of the attitudes of 28,000 people in 27 countries shows Israel at the bottom of the list, with 17 percent viewing it positively and 56 percent negatively—slightly below Iran (18 and 54 percent) and North Korea (19 and 48 percent).
The only four countries in the world in which more people are favorably rather than unfavorably inclined toward Israel are the United States, India, Nigeria, and Kenya—and not by big margins in any of them. Forty-one percent of Americans, for example, thought well of Israel while 33 percent didn’t, a serious drop-off from previous polls.
At the other end of the spectrum, apart from Muslim countries, Israel did worst in Europe. In Italy the vote was 58-to-18 against it. In England, 65-to-17. In France, 66-to-17. In Greece, 68-to-11. In Germany (Germany!), 77-to-10. These are frightening—I would almost say terrifying—figures. They show that the international campaign against Israel has succeeded incredibly well.
Nor is it much comfort that the United States did badly too, with 51 percent of the BBC’s respondents viewing it negatively and 30 percent positively, or that America and Israel appear to be linked in the eyes of world public opinion. For one thing, America’s position will start to rebound as soon as the Bush administration steps down, while Israel’s almost certainly will not. And secondly, the world’s greatest power need not feel endangered by such unpopularity, but it must be viewed differently by a small and beleaguered country toward whom the world’s attitudes can ultimately be a matter of life or death.
Although public opinion has less influence on foreign policy than on domestic policy, governments are not ultimately immune to it there either. So far the European Union, whose good will is crucial to Israel, has behaved toward it, if not always supportively, at least with a reasonable measure of sympathy and fairness. How long can this be expected to go on? How much longer will the government of Germany, which over and over has led the pro-Israel forces in Europe, continue to do so when its citizens, by a ratio of nearly 8-to-1, disapprove of the country it has been defending?
When one debates what “legitimate” criticism of Israel does and does not consist of, such figures need to be kept constantly in mind. No criticism of Israel that further distorts the wildly inaccurate picture of it that prevails in most of the world can possibly be legitimate. Israel is fighting a war for public opinion that is, in the long run, part of the war it is fighting for its survival—and it is being routed. Those who care for it, no matter how much they disagree with its current policies, should think not twice but ten times before they say or do anything that can only make this rout worse.