Opinion Dilemma1

Published on November 20th, 2012


The Israeli Dilemma – Why Security Trumps Popularity

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen

Since Israel is the strongest actor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is often held responsible for the unsettled conflict. This is probably the conflict in the world with the most exposure from the media, and the international community closely monitors every military action with Israeli involvement.

During the ongoing bombings of Gaza the international media heavily covers its brutal effects with images of civilian casualties, often illustrated with wounded and dead Palestinian children. Since such coverage may potentially hurt Israel’s international reputation it is natural to pose the question: why does Israel repeatedly undertake military operations that make the state become so unpopular?

Yesterday Popular Social Science published an article that showed how the realism perspective of political science explains the behavior of the Israeli state. In mid-November Israel launched its operation Pillar of Defense as a response to several months of ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza. The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has stated that the operation will continue as long as rockets are fired from Gaza.

Israel is often met with strong criticism for its military actions. One critique is that Israel is not only brutal, but it also does not understand its own good.  From a strategic point of view this negative image is not in the states favor, and it may seem like Israel is hurting its own interests by undertaking unpopular military actions. In this opinion I will point to the Israeli dilemma which circles around taking care of security issues on one hand, and preserving the public image on the other.


The Middle East conflict and the world attention

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is probably the most visible conflict in the world today, as it is closely followed internationally. If one compares Israeli military operations with those of other countries, the amount of attention they are given appears striking, not only from the media but also from different international institutions. According to experts on international law, in addition to military analytics, Israel does not stand out negatively compared with other democratic countries when it comes to breaking international conventions in wars. But as a result of massive worldwide attention their military actions become extremely visible, and to a stronger degree held up to moral and judicial evaluations. Herein lies the Israeli dilemma of either choosing between taking military steps leading to increased security, while at the same time taking care of its public image that is almost automatically weakened in the aftermath of military operations.

Although Israel like any other nation is concerned with its reputation, there are considerations of greater importance than popularity abroad. When Israel is under attack from its neighbors it must take into account several factors. First and foremost, it is responsible for the security and protection of its own citizens. In general this is always a states´ number one priority.  The response should also work as deterrence for future precedence, similar to how penalties within the jurisdiction system may work preventive.

In realist terms, the military response in Gaza will lead to an Israeli maintenance of its own security, while at the same time demonstrating its power as a means of avoiding future continuation of rocket firing into Israel.  At the same time a response must take into account the principle of proportionality; the reaction must be proportionate to the goals one is trying to achieve. This last point is also intertwined with public popularity and public relations.

Following the Oslo Accords in 1993 Israel experienced a series of terrorist attacks that led to massive sympathy in the world opinion. This sympathy was further strengthened since the Israeli strategy was to not respond by retaliation, with the reason given that they did not want to disrupt with the ongoing peace process. After continued long standing terrorist attacks the Israeli public did not find any comfort in international sympathy, and all the violent events finally resulted in a public demand for military response. This resulted in increased military actions from the IDF and one may morally dislike and even condemn this but after all, conflicts and wars are not popularity contests. This historical example shows, just as we observe in Gaza these days, that the need for security trumps the need for international popularity.


Tank photo by Amir Ebrahimi

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2 Responses to The Israeli Dilemma – Why Security Trumps Popularity

  1. M. Clark says:

    The analysis is generally OK, but when discussing the popularity or (perhaps more accurately) the lack of popularity, of Israel, it fails to mention one of the most condemned aspects of the state’s policy – the settlement policy on the West Bank, which has clearly intensified over the last years. Even more than the tendency to respond heavy-handedly to attacks from its northern and southern borders this policy is certain to maintain a lasting negative sentiment against Israel and might also be more challenging to explain from a realist, security-oriented perspective.

  2. joachim says:

    Thanks for your comment. I of course agree with you that the settlement policy in the West Bank certainly does not help with regard to Israel’s popularity. However, the main point of this article was to focus on effects of exposure, especially as a result of the conflicts´ huge news value. I chose to make a point of this as it is seldom paid very much attention to in the analysis.

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