THE MOST popular Israeli pop song in the 1970s was The World Is Against Us. It was hardly a masterpiece: the rather simplistic message was accompanied by an equally banal tune. These were the halcyon days of the PLO in the international arena and the 1975 General Assembly resolution which defined Zionism as a form of racism.
The resolution provoked tremendous bitterness and self-righteousness in Israel, whose critics were dismissed as the enemies of the Jewish people. The World Is Against Us was quite successful as an expression of a none too subtle injured innocence. It betrayed the strong narcissistic streak in our society. The hostile world was once again ganging up on us.
This was sad, but also convenient. The shadow of Golda Meir (resigned, April 1974) still loomed large, double standards were taken for granted. We occupied not only the West Bank and Gaza, but also the Golan Heights and the entire Sinai peninsula. Yet we nurtured the sense of being the underdogs, the oppressed rather than the oppressors. Those of us who even questioned this formula were dismissed as a treacherous fringe.
Much of this sense of isolation and persecution almost disappeared in 1993. Israel’s marketing of the Oslo Accords was impressive, and most impartial observers in the West were deluded by the early demonstrations of Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.
The official reaction in Europe was particularly striking, adopting the Israeli-American interpretation of the agreements, including the idea that the two parties were now responsible for the fate of the conflict and any outside intervention could destroy the delicate balance between them. This premise completely ignored the lack of equality between a mighty occupying power, aided and abetted by the US, and a poor, oppressed, newly emergent entity devoid of any real leverage to attain its objectives.
It was an expedient state of affairs from the Israeli point of view, and the effect on the national psyche was immense. Yitzhak Rabin and his partner Shimon Peres reassured the Israeli middle classes that peace and prosperity would follow the agreements and pointed out, with ample justification, that Oslo was a major gain for Israel. But the manner and pace of implementation of the accords caused disappointment and frustration in the Arab world. Rabin’s most important achievement, the commercial and diplomatic ties with some conservative Arab states, was threatened by this. But for at least three years the Israelis were impressed by the breakthrough. That is to say, the better-off in Israel were impressed.
The general public reacted to Hamas bombs by voting Netanyahu and his Likud-led coalition into power in 1996. It is significant to stress in this context that most Israelis still wanted to keep the peace process going — even Netanyahu had to commit himself to Oslo to get elected four years ago. Israel’s image abroad played a part in this, but most people — apart from the settlers (for them, the equation has always been crystal clear: normality, smooth international relations and peace have no place in their world; they thrive on conflict, pessimism and xenophobia) — simply opted for the pursuit of happiness in preference to territorial expansion.
Now once again Israelis accuse the international media of being hostile. It is a strange reaction, since most Europeans consider the Israeli propaganda to have been very successful, given the number of Palestinian civilian casualties. But the average Israeli thinks that news organizations such as CNN and the BBC are infested with anti-Semites. Some former doves who defected and joined forces with the establishment are as shrill in their accusations as the traditional right-wingers.
The facts themselves might be expected to stand in the way of this perception. How do Israelis reconcile over 200 Palestinian dead and 7,000 wounded with their soft self-image? Arab casualties hardly exist in the collective consciousness of the Israeli public. The notion that “Arabs care less about their dead than we do” holds sway, coupled with the official version that the Palestinians send their children to riot in order to get them killed to score points in international public opinion.
This is an idea the Israelis have marketed rather skillfully, playing on the Western public’s customary treatment of the death of a “European” in a different way to that of a “native”. Thousands of tendentious films have strengthened this mentality (some of it, of course, subconscious). Much of the bitterness of the Palestinians stems from this phenomenon. And while Israelis fail to understand why the outside world does not romanticize them anymore, the international community still gives us the benefit of the doubt.
The country that has suppressed the Palestinian people for 33 years and killed hundreds of civilians since 28 September is still widely accepted in enlightened quarters, while the Palestinian victims are often reviled by critics who should know better. The colonialist mentality in the West may have been weakened in recent years, but it has clearly still not perished.