As Israeli officials continue to warn of the unacceptability of a nuclear-armed Iran, the 28th anniversary of Israel’s June 7, 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor approaches. The world of course was outraged at Israel’s effrontery, with the usual suspects – European leaders and the liberal media – leading the way.
“We don’t think [Israel’s] action serves the cause of peace in the area,” said French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, whose country had supplied Saddam Hussein with the ill-fated reactor.
“Armed attack in such circumstances cannot be justified; it represents a grave breach of international law,” said British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“Israel’s sneak attack … was an act of inexcusable and shortsighted aggression,” said a New York Times editorial written by editorial page editor Max Frankel.
“[The attack] did severe damage to the hope in which Israel’s true security must lie: the hope of realistic relations with all its neighbors,” wrote New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis.
“[Israel has] vastly compounded the difficulties of procuring a peaceful settlement of the confrontations in the Middle East,” wrote Time magazine.
How to account for the negative reaction on the part of individuals and publications usually given to shrill warnings about the dangers posed by totalitarian despots and the dire implications of nuclear proliferation?
The answer, it should be fairly obvious, is that the source of the attack was Israel. More specifically, the Israel of Menachem Begin.
For years after its establishment, Israel enjoyed the support of the Western world’s opinion-making elites. Guilt over the Holocaust was very much a factor, but so was admiration for Israel. The democracies, stuck in what appeared to be a no-win cold war with the Soviet Union, envied Israel’s fighting spirit, while socialist governments in non-Communist Europe felt a kinship with Israel’s ruling Labor party.
This widespread affinity for Israel crested with the 1967 Six-Day War. The media in the U.S. and Europe virtually celebrated Israel’s lightning victory, huge demonstrations on behalf of Israel were held in every Western capital and major city, and public figures from mayors to movie stars rushed to leap aboard the pro-Israel bandwagon.
But Israel’s decisive victory came at an expensive price. The media portrayal of Israel, so positive in the years leading up to the Six-Day War, became increasingly negative thereafter. To many journalists, Israel was no longer an underdog deserving of support but rather a neighborhood bully out to make life miserable for the weaker states in the area.
America’s prestige media had, by the late 1960s, joined other elements of the nation’s liberal establishment in appropriating a good deal of the language and attitudes of the countercultural New Left. As they grew increasingly opposed to America’s role in Vietnam, liberals were fast losing faith in all the old certainties. Any nation or movement claiming victimization at the hands of the U.S. or the West – and Israel was very much considered part of the West – was guaranteed to win a place in liberal hearts.
It was hardly surprising, then, that by the mid-1970s the media’s stock descriptions of Israel were “militaristic” and “intransigent.” The “plight of the Palestinians” (another stock phrase of the era) was in; Israel was definitely out. The frequent terrorist operations mounted by the PLO and its offshoots did little to win back media support for Israel, as the atrocities were invariably blamed on Israel’s treatment of the poor, suffering Palestinians.
Even with all that as backdrop, however, it was the election in May 1977 of Menachem Begin as prime minister that set off media shockwaves that continue to reverberate more than three decades later.
The quintessential outsider in Israeli politics since his days as head of the underground Irgun in the 1940s, Begin was a man reviled by the Labor-friendly Israeli media. (And it wasn’t just Begin’s right-wing ideology that had made him a pariah in Israel’s “proper” circles; his formal dress and courtly demeanor set him apart from the brash and informal image cultivated by other Israeli leaders of his generation.) If the Israeli media were merely stunned by Begin’s ascension, the reaction of the American and European media was one of initial disbelief followed by unremitting hostility.
Not even the 1979 peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt bought better press for Begin, who throughout the negotiations was derided as the intransigent (that word again) stumbling block in the way of Anwar Sadat’s noble quest for peace.
Begin left office in 1983, but the media template of Israel as an oppressive colossus was by then set in stone and has remained so ever since.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org