Israel's public relations problems did not begin with Mohammed al-Dura, the 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot dead on the world's television screens on the first weekend of the intifada. They go back to the aftermath of the 1967 war, when Labor governments started to consolidate the occupation.
From the day they witnessed Israeli bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes in front of the Western Wall in June 1967, the media turned critical, if not downright hostile. The Arabs, as most foreign reporters saw it, were the victims; the Israelis, the victimizers. And it has stayed that way ever since.
It was not always Israel's fault. As early as August 1967, the Arab kings and presidents pulled the plug with the "three no's of Khartoum": no negotiations, no peace, no recognition. The Western media were horrified by the Palestinian bombings, hijackings and murders that followed. Yet their sympathy for the underdog meant that they were ready to explain away these atrocities. At best, they remained uncomfortable, fearing that to side with Israel would look like they endorsed the occupation and the measures necessary to sustain it.
Journalists are by nature skeptical and opinionated. If they don't come to the Middle East with an attitude, most foreign correspondents soon acquire it. Whatever the subtle rights or wrongs, they see Israel giving the Palestinians a hard time. This left them open to Palestinian claims that the intifada was a spontaneous grassroots revolt. They found it hard to swallow Israel's contention that Yasser Arafat simply rejected a generous offer from Ehud Barak and reverted to armed struggle.
With few notable exceptions, the media chill is pragmatic rather than ideological. News agencies don't challenge Israel's right to exist within the old Green Line border. However, they don't buy the settlers' contention that if Jews have no right to live in Elon Moreh, they have no right to live in Tel Aviv. They are alienated by the messianic mission to "redeem" the biblical homeland. It sounds like mumbo-jumbo, if not hypocrisy. Correspondents are conscious of the 2 million Arabs already living there.
The Six-Day War spawned an Arab/Palestinian lobby to compete with the long-entrenched Jewish/Zionist lobby. For 34 years now, editors and correspondents have been cajoled and bombarded from both sides: invitations, briefings, calls, letters, faxes and e-mails.
The best and bravest of journalists say their job is to dig out the truth, to guide their audiences between fact and fantasy, reality and propaganda. Since the intifada erupted last September, they have indeed put their lives on the line to gather words and pictures firsthand. Yet there is a temptation to seek shelter in balance -- "on the one hand, on the other" -- whether or not the situation justifies it.
On satellite TV, there is little time or appetite for context. And since there are more Arabs than Jews being shot, more Arab homes being wrecked, Israel comes out as more culpable. Print journalists have greater space, but what their news editors see on CNN often sets the agenda. They want the same.
This enhances the lure of a media consensus. Foreign correspondents, posted to the Middle East for three or four years, seldom learn Hebrew or Arabic. They buy translations, hire interpreters and fixers. But this limits their access to what Israelis and Palestinians are thinking and feeling.
In sum, like it or not, the public relations cards are stacked against Israel. Policy is more important than propaganda. It was no coincidence that the tally of states maintaining full diplomatic relations with Israel multiplied after the 1993 Oslo accords.
The trouble is that policy is not always Israel's to control. Barak offered huge concessions, but Arafat had his own constraints and opted for a war of attrition rather than a compromise peace. Israel had to ensure that the Palestinians didn't win by force more than they had spurned at Camp David. Israel was wary of setting precedents or appearing vulnerable. But that doesn't play well on camera.
Moreover, Israel's PR campaign since September has been flawed. Because Barak's spin team couldn't accept that the diplomatic game was over, it was slow to spell out exactly what Barak had offered. He was weakened by the disintegration of his coalition and the recognition that he would have to fight an early election.
The picture has improved under Ariel Sharon. Likud officials, perhaps because they are more aware of the need to explain their hawkish policies, have been more adept handling foreign media. The question remains, however, whether the media will buy Sharon's message. They are, as I said, a skeptical bunch, and they're no friends of Greater Israel.