Israel and the West’s Future Reputational Problem

Images at stake: Israel and its Western allies face reputational risks emanating from the war in Gaza. Image: The White House / Wikimedia Commons

Public support for Israel is in decline in the West and low in emerging economies. A much less violent security strategy is needed to enhance its image, and that of its allies.

At the end of 2023, US President Joe Biden argued Israel was losing its support because of its ‘indiscriminate bombing’, while South Africa's current genocide case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has garnered support not only from Muslim-dominated countries but also several in Latin America. The ICJ's recent interim ruling, recognising the plausibility of some of South Africa’s claims that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza, adds additional harm to Israel’s international image.

But Israel’s reputational damage stems from beyond the recent violence and is likely to worsen over the long term because of demographic and geo-political shifts. Western governments, and public opinion in some Western countries, initially rallied around Israel after the 7 October attacks but over the coming decades, geopolitical power will shift substantively towards countries with governments and/or populations that have an unfavourable view of Israel. And in the West, younger generations are increasingly more sympathetic to the Palestinians.

This presents a problem for policymakers in Tel Aviv and Western capitals alike. In killing large numbers of Palestinian civilians, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and its government will further isolate Israel on the international scene. For Western powers, unqualified public support for Israel will not only further undermine their credibility as upholders and promoters of democracy, human rights and international law, including vis-à-vis autocratic countries, but also their relationship with future key trading partners.

Israel, the West and the World in 2050

Israel’s allies have dominated geopolitics over the last few decades, but this situation is changing.

Current forecasts strongly predict a shift in dominance of the global economy from the G7 to other countries and groupings, including the ‘Emerging 7’ (Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia and Turkey). According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, by 2050, China and India will sit above the US as the largest world economies (measured by GDP at purchasing power parity). Indonesia will jump from 8th to 4th place, Turkey from 14th to 11th, and Saudi Arabia will be up two places to 13th. Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan will all enter the top 20 while Italy, Spain, Canada and Australia will drop out, and every Western country or ally will fall in the rankings. Investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts the US will retain second spot in 2050 but reports a similar trend. The weight of global GDP will shift towards Asia over the next 30 years and by 2075, Nigeria, Pakistan and Egypt could have some of the largest economies in the world.

Autocratic powers such as Russia and China are already using Western backing for Israel to challenge the narrative that Western countries support an equitable, fair and just solution to the conflict

The long-term problem for Israel and its allies is that, though comparable data on global attitudes towards either Israel or the Palestinians is dated, a growing number of countries and people will likely be less sympathetic towards Israel in the future economic order. The last large scale comparison, conducted by Pew Research Center in 2013, indicated that in China, 41% of respondents had an unfavourable and 25% a very unfavourable opinion of Israel. Surveyed in 2007, when asked which side of the conflict they sympathised with, participants in India and Brazil were more sympathetic to Israel (30% and 32%) compared to the Palestinians (20% and 15%). Of the other non-G7 countries near the top of the rankings, opinion was broadly split in Russia and Mexico. But attitudes to Israel are less favourable in other countries moving up. In Indonesia, 68% of respondents sympathised with the Palestinians, with predictable hostility in Turkey, Nigeria and other countries with large Muslim populations.

Israel’s ‘PR problem’ is deepened further by large numbers of younger people holding an unfavourable opinion of the country or its role in the conflict. In the US, a March 2023 Pew survey indicated that 56% of Americans aged 18–29, and 47% aged 30–39 have an unfavourable view of Israel, in contrast to older generations’ more favourable opinions. This trend is replicated in other surveys. In Europe, fewer than half of respondents tend to sympathise with one side in the conflict but, with the exception of Germany which is broadly split, they sympathise more with the Palestinians. And across Europe, younger people are more sympathetic to the Palestinians than older people. In a 2023 survey, 36% of Canadians aged 18–34 and 31% of those aged 35–44 viewed Israel as ‘a state with segregation similar to apartheid’, the most negative option available and the top choice for these age groups in contrast to Canadians above 55 (21% chose that option, and 20% of those above 65).

Future Isolation

For Western countries, support for Israel presents two problems. First, it smacks of double standards and undermines their stated values and policies and approaches to influencing governance outside the West. The sheer level of bombing is antithetical to the principle of minimising civilian casualties. Within a week of the 7 October attacks, the IDF claimed to have dropped 6,000 bombs on Gaza, more than the US dropped annually against Islamic State in 2014–17. By the end of January 2024, at least half of Gaza’s buildings had been damaged or destroyed, together with large swathes of farmland. Nearly 26,000 Palestinians have now been killed in the conflict, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, a data source most international observers recognise as accurate.

It is difficult for Western countries to advocate that other parts of the world need to democratise, uphold human rights, support international law, and so on, when the Israeli government is inflicting this level of destruction, domestically implementing reforms to reduce judicial independence, and restricting rights based on religion/ethnicity (either for security reasons or, in the view of human rights organisations, to the level of apartheid). Moreover, autocratic powers, such as Russia and China, have more closely aligned themselves with the Palestinian position. They are already using Western backing for Israel to challenge the narrative that Western countries genuinely support an equitable, fair and just solution to the current conflict, or, indeed, a reshaping of the global order in accordance with these values.

Second, support for Israel may also undermine Western countries’ national interests, including key commercial relationships. In the coming decades, Western countries will need to forge security, diplomatic and economic relationships in a global economy they will no longer dominate.

Whereas Hamas’s extreme violence can be characterised as not representative of the Palestinian population, the violence of Israeli state actors has a more prominent impact on Israel’s reputation as a whole

The US, the UK and Germany are still predicted to be big players in the world's top economies for the foreseeable future, and populations in many emerging countries do not currently hold strong views on Israel or Palestine. But the overall shift is clear, and Western powers may find support for Israel is lower down their list of priorities, and even a hindrance, when seeking international collaboration to manage other domestic and international priorities.

Lower levels of support among younger generations in Western countries should concern Israeli policymakers. This is especially the case with the US, which since Second World War has given Israel over $260 billion in military and economic assistance and access to advanced military technology. Prior to the 7 October attacks, the once taboo subject of reducing US support was gaining ground not just in Democratic but also in Republican circles. The US has rallied round its ally with extensive additional military assistance, but support for Israel is already declining and young Democrats now lean more favourably to the Palestinian side. The conflict is unlikely to be the key issue in future Western elections, but it is still a prominent one in the UK, the US and others and, over the longer term, support for Israel may increasingly be a vote loser rather than a vote winner. The next generation of Western politicians may not be incentivised towards policies and actions in support of Israel.


There is no simple way for Israel to improve its image in the world. Longstanding and increasing levels of anti-Semitism undermine Israel’s standing. There is also no such thing as a universally accepted, fair and proportionate response to violence on the level of the 7 October attacks. Israel will need, to some degree, to adopt security measures within a highly hostile neighbourhood, many of which generate negative PR.

What is clear, though, is that the Israeli government’s and IDF’s current security playbook is unsustainable. In the past, Israel could rely on the support of the US and other key allies, and this is likely for the foreseeable future. But changes in global economics and generational shifts mean it is unlikely to be indefinite. If Israel wants security, it may need to find this without such strong allies in the future. Maintaining and deploying expensive military resources would be costly with less US assistance, which comprises around 16.5% of Israel’s defence budget – itself around 4.5% of Israel’s GDP, almost double the global average for defence spending. Israel also needs to manage the conflict with the Palestinians with much less violence. As well as being incompatible with human rights and democratic norms and undermining any future resolution to the conflict, its actions also seriously tarnish Israel’s image. And, reputationally, whereas Hamas’s extreme violence can be characterised as not representative of the Palestinian population, the violence of Israeli state actors has a more prominent impact on Israel’s reputation as a whole.

Western policymakers also need to adopt a long-term, strategic perspective. If they want to shape the world’s future economic and political order in line with their purported values, they need to consistently uphold the latter, especially against the challenge posed by autocratic powers. This will require both Western countries and their allies to live by their values.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Liam O’Shea

Senior Research Fellow

Organised Crime and Policing

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