What images come to mind when people think about the state of Israel? Israeli oppressors shooting at cherub faced Palestinians? Suicide bombings and exploded buses? Or maybe indifference reigns; why should we care about this faraway place that has no real bearing on our daily lives? Perhaps it is all of the above.
I was indifferent about Israel and the Middle East. However, last year when I visited Israel and the Palestinian territories for the first time, I was left with a very different impression of the place: Israel is a country misunderstood and misrepresented. Looking across the border with Lebanon and peering at Hizbullah strongholds, no more than 100 yards away from where I was standing, underlined the significance of Israel’s strategic frailty in the face of constant threat.
Touring the security barrier I was surprised to hear that the architect of the barrier had appeared before the Israeli Supreme Court on countless occasions to defend his decisions regarding the route of the barrier. On occasion, when his planned route was ruled illegal, the barrier was removed and re-built according to the judgement. I also learnt that as a country with sparse natural resources Israel has had to develop alternative methods of productivity. The country leads the way in hi-tech, green and agri-techniques as well as in scientific development.
My travels around Israel surprised me completely. The people were full of get up and go, eager to live peacefully in the region; the towns and cities were energetic and cosmopolitan; and the deliverance of democracy never failed to impress upon me. So why is there such a discrepancy between what I experienced and public perception back in the UK? When was the last time you heard a good news story emanating from Israel on your TV screens or in the newspapers? And why has Israel become defined simply by its inability to solve the conflict when it is so much more than that?
I raised these questions when I returned to Israel again last week with colleagues from the UK and Australia for a dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian politicians, journalists, academics and commentators. This serious problem is not being effectively addressed and Israel’s future is being undermined by its inability to promote itself both accurately and attractively. As an MP, I witness this difference between perception and reality, on a regular basis in the House of Commons. From Backbenchers through to Government Ministers and Shadow Ministers, colleagues suffer from a serial case of apathy where Israel is concerned. Seemingly no positive impression of the place has been determined in people’s minds.
Israel has consistently perceived military might as the number one way to protect and defend the state. Although an important factor, this cannot be the only focus. The country’s re-branding is now an issue of serious strategic importance. Israel must accept that engaging their critics, isolating and correcting their propaganda and successfully rebalancing the debate must be a priority in order to protect their future. All of us who see Israel as more than a conflict zone ought to play our part in this important task.
My challenge to anybody who feels strongly on Israel is to get on a plane and go and see the place for yourself. Visit Tel Aviv where you will see a modern liberal western society where most people are just getting on with their lives in peace. Chat to Israelis or to their politicians and you will be reminded that this is the only true democracy in the Middle East where political debate is passionate, diverse and vibrant. More vibrant than our own democracy perhaps. That is the true Israel, the real Israel.