By Matthew M. Hausman
In the wake of Israel’s interdiction of the Gaza Flotilla and the predictable storm of international protest, pundits have discussed ad nauseam the need for Israel to improve her image. Some bemoan Israel’s failure to provide advance justification for her actions, while others lament that she does not adequately explain them as they unfold. Many believe that effective public relations could have mitigated the backlash that followed the flotilla or even the war in Gaza. Apparently, some commentators would prefer Israel to telegraph her strategy before she acts in order to mitigate the reproach that is sure to follow. Such thinking is nonsensical from a strategic standpoint, however, and is premised on the false assumption that inordinate criticism of Israel is related to any specific Israeli actions.
The international community typically vilifies Israel regardless of how much justification is provided before or after any particular military operation. This was amply illustrated by the world’s reaction to the war in Gaza. Despite Hamas’s unrelenting rocket attacks after the disengagement, Israel was chastised from all sides for doing what any sovereign nation would have done in response to such aggression. Not surprisingly, the Goldstone Report chastised Israel for supposed war crimes in Gaza without any independent verification and without any acknowledgment that Hamas precipitated the war by attacking civilians and kidnapping Israeli soldiers.
Such reactions to Israeli defensive operations are the norm and clearly reflect an international effort to delegitimize the Jewish State. Unfortunately, not even all those who claim to support Israel see these condemnations for what they really are, as evidenced by liberal Jewish commentators who put the onus on Israel to justify the kinds of defensive actions that would not be questioned if carried out by any other country. Worse still are those who believe that Israel can improve her image only by aping the values of those who condemn her.
According to Carlo Stenger of Haaretz, for example, Israel would be better off presenting herself as a progressive, liberal society. In a recent column he wrote:
- Israel will have to decide:it cannot rebrand itself as a liberal, creative and progressive country without being one. Our business sector, our artists and academics are mostly progressive, liberal and creative. But their impact on how Israel is perceived will remain negligible as long as Israel’s politicians and emissaries keep harping on victimhood and survival and as long as its policies are repressive.
This being said, for me the most important point is not how the world perceives us, but how Israel really is. We should care about being liberal, progressive and creative because these are values in themselves. Once the young global elites of the world will see that this is what we are, because we will have changed Israel’s policies, Branding Israel will take care of itself.”
(“In Order to Change its Image, Israel Must Change its Policy,” Carlo Stenger, Haaretz, May 20, 2010.)
This view would have Israel take policy cues from a progressive constituency that may not have her national interests at heart. It also seems to discount that Israel is already a liberal democratic society – one in which Haaretz is free to publish any content it wishes and Arabs sit in the Knesset – and that the “young global elites of the world” to which Stenger refers include those on the left who reject Israel’s Jewish character and even her right to exist. Ironically, such a vision would have policy dictated by a cadre whose more extreme elements blame Israel for inciting the very terrorists who seek her destruction and who accept the myth of Palestinian nationality and political virtue.
Such views eschew both history and common sense, however, and do nothing to enhance Israel’s image. On the contrary, they are often used to validate the systematic denigration of her legitimacy. In a pattern that has become all too familiar, the radical left routinely exploits its support by progressive Jews to claim that its fixation on Israel is not antisemitic, regardless of the classical stereotypes and outrageous caricatures it employs to tar Israel’s image.
A seemingly less extreme position holds that Israel is responsible for her own bad press for perpetuating the so-called “occupation,” and that she could improve her image by simply liberalizing her foreign policy agenda and ceding territory. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Roger Cohen had this to say about Israel’s image:
“Israel is a liberal democracy stuck in the blind alley of a morally corrupting 43-year-old occupation that has made force its reflexive mode of operation. Several factors have nudged the country rightward: religious-settler extremism; obliviousness to the Palestinian plight now concealed behind walls; Russian-imported strands of Arab-baiting intolerance. But it is still a liberal democracy, home to a level of debate and openness unknown elsewhere in the Middle East. This needs broader acknowledgment.
What Israel in turn must realize — before it is too late — is that the real threat it faces today is not one of destruction but of de-legitimization. Its tactical lurches, often violent, do not add up to a strategy; they have resulted in a shocking erosion of Israel’s stature. I was talking the other day to the Israeli ambassador to a West European nation and he complained that he could rarely set foot on a university campus these days. Universities represent the future.
The only way to re-legitimize Israel and integrate it is an end to the occupation and the achievement of a two-state solution, with Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people and Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people. Israel cannot do this alone. Feckless Arab powers must step forward.”
(“Modern Folly, Ancient Wisdom,” Roger Cohen, The New York Times, June 10, 2010.)
Noticeably absent from Mr. Cohen’s analysis is any mention of the historical role of Arab-Muslim rejectionism and its doctrinal basis, or any recognition that the rejection of Israel predates the so-called “43-year-old occupation.” Also absent is any hint of understanding that the term “occupation” refers to all of Israel, not just Judea and Samaria, and thus serves as an existential hot button. These issues go to the heart of the matter, but omitting them from the discussion actually exposes the real crux of Israel’s public relations problem, which is the naiveté of those who uncritically accept the Palestinian narrative, ignore the role of Arab-Muslim rejectionism, and overlook the integrity of 4,000 years of Jewish history.
Despite the simplistic wishes of the Jewish left, Israel cannot improve her image by adopting a revisionist narrative that is premised on a denial of Jewish history; and any public relations efforts based on such a paradigm are doomed to failure. No amount of spin can change the fact that a country called Palestine never existed or that the people known today as Palestinians never claimed to constitute a nationality – or were ever recognized as such – before the 1960s.
Moreover, nothing can alter the fact that there was no demand for the creation of a Palestinian state from 1948 to 1967 – the period during which Egypt occupied Gaza and Jordan annexed Judea and Samaria. Clearly, the Arab-Muslim world rejected Israel long before the existence of any so-called settlements and before the belated creation of a Palestinian national identity.
The failure to acknowledge these facts bespeaks an intellectual conceit that also ignores the high degree of respect for human life that distinguishes Israel from her enemies on the battlefield. Hamas and Hezbollah routinely target Jewish civilians while using Arab noncombatants as shields. They hide in mosques and hospitals, use ambulances to transport weapons and munitions, and refuse the Red Cross access to prisoners. Their goal is to inflict as many civilian casualties as possible. In contrast, Israel takes unprecedented steps to reduce civilian casualties, including the use of mass electronic communications and air-dropped leaflets to warn civilians to evacuate before hostilities commence. These tactics alone should engender a positive public image. However, those who are dedicated to destroying Israel and exterminating her people will always remain deaf and blind to the facts.
The belief that military planning should include public relations strategy is dangerous because it tacitly accepts that Israel is judged by a higher standard than any other country acting in self-defense. No other nation is expected to explain its actions in advance or to provide color commentary in the heat of battle. Some rationalize the double standard on the theory that Israel is more ethically evolved than her enemies, and thus should be held to a higher degree of scrutiny.
This rationalization – disingenuous though it may be – is often expressed by Jewish intellectuals who fail to see that the obsessive preoccupation with Israel has nothing to do with history or justice. If historical integrity were truly the central issue for those who support the Arab cause, one must wonder why they adhere to a revisionist myth that is inconsistent with known history. That the nation of “Palestine” never existed is irrelevant to these people because the reality contradicts their political dogma. Efforts to educate these extremists would be wasted because their animus is not grounded in reality, but rather in moral relativism, historical manipulation and classical antisemitism.
An essential point missed even by many advocates of Israel is that the Gaza Flotilla operation and similar events are first and foremost matters of self-defense. They are not public relations opportunities to be spun and marketed. If Israel needs to respond to naval blockade runners in the Mediterranean, terrorist assaults from Gaza, missile attacks from Lebanon, or the nuclear threat in Iran, she can ill-afford to let public relations control her military decisions. One cannot worry about what the neighbors will think when one is assaulted or threatened with deadly force. If the only alternatives to swift action are injury or death, the choice should be clear regardless of the potential publicity implications.
None of this is to suggest that Israel should ignore the value of self-promotion, only that it is not integral to her strategic defensive needs. And even when public relations are relevant, Israel must think strategically to identify the appropriate audience and maximize the impact. No amount of marketing will erase generations of doctrinally-based rejectionism. The Arab-Muslim world has always rejected Jewish autonomy in the Mideast and has consistently sought Israel’s destruction. Moreover, Europeans who advocate the Arab cause for economic or antisemitic reasons, or radical leftists who support any movements they deem to be revolutionary, have little incentive to change their views. That the Jews are an indigenous people and that Israel is not a colonial nation are merely inconvenient truths that interfere with revisionist political delusions.
Nevertheless, Israel should not merely shrug her shoulders and remain silent when faced with propaganda that is often accepted out of ignorance. On the contrary, there may be no greater ally than a former enemy who has finally learned the truth. However, concern for public image should never trump military priorities or tactical necessities. If Israel’s strategic needs demand a particular action – whether stopping the next flotilla or acting against Iran – she needs to act first and explain later. Or perhaps not explain at all.
The most important targets in the battle for public opinion are those who condemn Israel out of ignorance rather than malice. Although Arab-Muslim rejectionists and left-wing ideologues are not likely to change their thinking, Israel should work to mitigate the way their propaganda is perceived by those who are merely ignorant. Comprehensive educational initiatives are essential for achieving this goal, but they should never take priority over strategic security concerns. The public relations war is a distinct conflict that must be waged on its own terms away from the physical battlefield. Israel’s military, in order to remain effective, must be able to respond to circumstances as they arise on the ground without being constrained by the policy of image making and marketing.
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