I don't know which phenomenon to lose more sleep over. On the one hand, Israel's image in Western Europe and the Islamic world has deteriorated radically, and anti-Semitism is on the rise. On the other, Israel's image in the United States is so solid that the Bush administration gives Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a blank check to build fences and settlements and destroy what may be the last opportunity to reach a two state solution that will preserve Israel as a Jewish and a democratic state.
No Israeli public diplomacy and information (hasbara) campaign can effectively counter the effects on world opinion of occupation, targeted killings, settlements, fences, and malnutrition among Palestinian children. While the Muslim world is in any case predisposed against us, even Western Europe is not particularly inclined to support us, given its hang-ups about colonialism, its growing Muslim population and its dependence on Arab oil. Only Israel's image in the US seems to be an exception, due apparently to the American reaction to the Muslim radical attacks of 9/11 (in effect, a better capacity to identify with Israel's dilemma), the large and influential Jewish and evangelical Christian communities for whom Israel seemingly can do no wrong, and the US perception of "shared values" with Israel.
The growing wave of anti-Semitism in many parts of the world is, in view of historical precedent--the Holocaust--in many ways a far more frightening phenomenon than Israel's bad image per se. There are ugly anti-Semitic strains in Islam and in post-World War II Europe that have nothing at all to do with Israel and its behavior. Like the twin towers on 9/11, the synagogues in Turkey would have been attacked even had Israel been at peace with its neighbors.
But many of the recalcitrant anti-Semites, particularly on the fringes of Islam and the conflict, feel empowered right now to emerge from their intellectual and religious cocoons only because the Israeli-Palestinian war has painted Israel in such negative colors. They are too ashamed to show themselves when there is a dynamic peace process.
Right now the process may be dynamic, but it is leading us toward an even more brutal war, rather than peace. By dint of a combination of geography and demography the clock is ticking on the two state solution. The spread of the settlements renders it increasingly difficult to disengage into two states, while the Palestinian birthrate will soon generate a situation whereby a Jewish minority rules over an Arab majority. The consequent doubts cast upon the Zionist ideal of a Jewish and democratic state have further blurred the lines between anti-Semitism and legitimate anti-Israel opinions. Here and there a few dare to suggest that a rationale for Israel's existence no longer exists.
Never mind that no other nation in the world is treated this way by its detractors--suggesting that it is the root of all evil (Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis), that it is a "race of perpetrators" (German parliamentarian Martin Hohmann and his military admirer, Brigadier General Reinhard Gunzel), that it controls the world and--even as Jews in Israel and in Istanbul are being murdered by suicidal Muslim fanatics--sends others to die for it (outgoing Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammed). No amount of hand wringing is going to alter the unique and precarious status of the Jewish people in the eyes of most of the world--something Israel's very existence was supposed to have done.
Yet we can blunt this new anti-Jewish offensive; we can discredit the anti-Semites and force them back into their caves. This is for the most part not a task for information officers. Rather, it is mainly the obligation of our political leadership. We have the means and the capability to negotiate a two state solution with the Palestinians. And if, as I suspect, there is no serious negotiating partner on the other side with the leadership capability to make hard decisions and enforce them, then we have the means and the capability to disengage unilaterally, including dismantling of the problematic settlements. We have to do these things not because the Palestinians necessarily have earned our good will or won the information war, or because we are intimidated by the anti-Semites--but because this is the only way for a democratic and Jewish Israel to survive. And that makes for good hasbara.
More and more Israelis, including very prominent political and security figures, are sounding the alarm regarding Israel's future. It is absolutely vital that diaspora Jewish leaders--many of whom are currently gathered in Jerusalem--and American political leaders join and encourage them, rather than sit back and pay lip service to Israel's current leadership, right or wrong, or keep silent because the war on terrorism ostensibly dictates a united front. The potential consequences of the South Africanization of this conflict--for the Jewish people and for American interests in the region--are too awful to warrant maintaining a hands-off policy any further.
We have to win the internal information war among Israelis and their supporters before we can alter Israel's image abroad.
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.
Propaganda is key in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both parties are very dependent on external factors, and therefore expend a great deal of effort in trying to swing support to their side, subsequently exerting pressure on their opponent. Adding to the stakes, the international community views the Middle East as a region of crucial importance. This is Europe's backyard, it is where most of the world's petrol is produced, it is central to the world's monotheistic faiths and also forms a bridge between the geographic east and west.
For these reasons, Israelis and Palestinians respectively have devoted a great deal of effort to trying to convince the outside world that their cause is deserving of support, with the fault lying with the other side. Israel relies on external assistance, especially from the United States, to guarantee its security through arms and financing. Israel is also dependent on the support of the Jewish community in the diaspora, particularly that of Jews in the United States and Europe. It is crucial, therefore, that Israel be able to convince those parties that it must have their backing, and with this in mind, Israel often presents itself as a victim that needs protection, as well as the standard bearer for American and western values.
But sometimes, reality gets in the way. When the state of Israel came into being, a great injustice was inflicted upon another people. Now, in order for Israel to survive under the terms it has established for itself, Israelis must illegally occupy that same people and their land. This occupation is maintained through all sorts of violations of human rights and international law--just the sort of actions that Israel would like to avoid in view of its target audience. To explain this disparity between reality and the ideal, Israel maintains a sophisticated public relations machine whose job is to offset the negative propaganda that results from Israeli actions. Sometimes, this means hiding the truth, twisting reality, or just plain lying, if necessary.
There is no doubt that Israel has the equipment to succeed at this task. Israeli officials have very high expectations in this regard and they invest tremendously in producing results. At the same time, Israel benefits from an understanding of its American-western audience, because in some ways, Israelis are part of it. The interplay between Israeli propaganda efforts and the western audience is illustrated vividly through the obvious differences of opinion generally found between foreign media representatives stationed in Israel, and their editors "back home." Because the correspondents in the field are more attached to reality and relatively less influenced by propaganda and games of interest, their views are often more textured, fair and less subject to manipulation that those to be found in western capitals near the halls of power and influence.
On the other hand, for so long, Palestinians thought that the justness of their cause was so obvious as to need no explication. Particularly in the first two or three decades of the conflict, Palestinians were completely ignorant of the importance of media and public relations, first because of a lack of expertise, and second because of a lack of contact with the western world and a resulting naivetè about what westerners held to be true. But starting in the 80s, particularly with the first intifada of nonviolent public demonstrations that attracted world attention and brought Palestinians in contact with the western world, Palestinian eyes were opened. They saw that Israel was viewed as the victim, despite that it was the region's most powerful military, and the only regional nuclear power. Since then, Palestinians have recognized the need to compete at public relations, but are still light years away from succeeding in the field.
Examples of Palestinian PR failures are not hard to find. It is my view, for example, that the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians that have characterized the latter part of this intifada are not only morally wrong, but a terrible public relations error, particularly in light of the international hypersensitivity to attacks on civilians following September 11. Palestinians have suffered from negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, and these stereotypes are now enjoying resurgence. Israel uses those images to obscure and justify its occupation, and Palestinians have been unable as yet to convey the essence of their struggle--a quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
In another devastating miscalculation, after the failed Camp David talks, Palestinians did not explain to the world that these talks were only the beginning, that they had not included concrete and comprehensive proposals, that significant progress had been achieved and more discussion was necessary, but instead, they remained silent. Meanwhile, Israeli and American representatives repeated over and over that Palestinians had refused the gracious Israeli offer and therefore brought the talks to a skidding halt.
So much of the tragedy of the last three years rests on that public relations coup. As soon as the parties went back to talks at Taba weeks later, Israel did improve upon the positions it presented at Camp David, thus proving the Palestinians correct in their Camp David stance. But it was too late. The Israeli government led by Ehud Barak had already poisoned Palestinian-Israeli relations by stopping implementation of the Oslo accords and further troop withdrawals, thus leaving the parties with no arrangement for governing their relations. Violence commenced, and the world blamed the Palestinians because the Israeli narrative ruled.
One can only conclude that since the international community is so influential in this conflict and its progression, superpowers like the United States and Europe bear a great deal of responsibility in avoiding propaganda, and instead using international legitimacy as their ruler for judging the parties' actions. This is the only way to neutralize the effect of the mutual vitriol and allow for an effective third-party role to intervene and end the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis.
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is minister of labor in the Palestinian government and for many years prior was featured in the press as a political analyst.
When 10-year-old Muhammad al Dura was shot and killed on camera in the opening hours of the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel lost the information war. There was a child, a boy, hugging his father on the back, hiding behind a barrel, ducking and dodging as bullets whizzed between Israel and Palestinian positions, only to be killed for all to see. It did not matter that a Palestinian bullet may have been responsible. The image of Israel as a ruthless aggressor and occupier, guilty of disproportionate use of force, was cast forever.
So much was this the case that Ehud Barak, speaking at a conference at Tel Aviv University two years later, related how as prime minister he visited several countries in Europe, and almost all the heads of state he met had Dura's picture framed in their offices, making normal political and diplomatic discourse impossible.
Since then, Israel has been fighting a losing media battle, even when the media should have been on its side, like during the horrific lynching and decimation of three Israeli reservists who had strayed into Ramallah by mistake early in the war, or the devastation caused by the many suicide bombings that have rocked the country over the past three years. While these images generated revulsion around the world, they did not translate into empathy for Israel or its cause. Israel continued to be seen as the aggressor, even though it had not initiated the conflict in September 2000.
Despite the devastation of suicide bombings, Israel continued to be perceived as Goliath and the Palestinians as victims. No matter how repulsive suicide bombers who specifically go after civilian populations may be, they did not negate the negative imagery of F-16s, helicopters, tanks, artillery and bulldozers operating in populated areas, nor create a sense of equivalency in the eyes of the international public.
The image problem for Israel was more than just a vanity issue. As the war progressed, the harm to its international relations on all fronts, other than the United States, was tangible. The media was also one of the main avenues for the Palestinians to achieve their primary strategic goal of internationalizing the conflict.
The information war, in consequence, took on an important strategic dimension. The authorities responded in two ways: the military grasped that it had to cooperate with the media on the understanding that if you cannot cap the story, cooperate with those working on it to get your point across. The new war crimes regime at the International Criminal Court and its implications, coupled with the intrusive eye of the camera in documenting the army's behavior, also had an impact on the army modulating its behavior toward the media.
In government however, particularly the Prime Minister's Office and the Government Press Office, it was decided to deal with the problem by declaring the media an enemy of Israel. Danny Seaman, head of the GPO, went as far as calling the foreign press contingent in Israel "anti-Semitic." His colleague, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman to the foreign media, Raanan Gissen, has made the same assertion in private and public. Instead of trying to win over the media, they went to war against it, rallying the muscle of Israel's friends abroad to pressure networks into being "fair and balanced". Well-meaning members of the Jewish community established media watch organizations hoping to stem the tide of criticism, while others hired spin doctors and media experts to help the Israeli government make its case.
The Israel Defense Forces has had some success in changing its relationship with the media, but government foreign media relations remain tenuous, based on suspicion, not cooperation, as witnessed by Seaman's recent failed attempt to regulate who holds a press card by submitting the list of applicants to the General Security Service. And despite all the investment, Israel's international image continues to deteriorate to a point where, whether we like the poll or not, most Europeans think Israel is the number one threat to world peace.
The truth is that you can hire all the spin doctors in the world, but when you raze three seven-story apartment buildings to the ground in Gaza in response to an attack on soldiers at Netzarim, or when wild settlers are allowed to cut down 200 and more Palestinian olive trees with impunity, with no attempt being made to find the perpetrators, you will not get the media to tolerate you, let alone love you.
If Israel spent more time thinking about its policies than its information problems, the country's image would improve remarkably. Media should be taken into account before bulldozing houses and orchards or building a security fence that--if allowed to go on as planned--will imprison 140,000 Palestinians in four concentrated areas and cut them off from their fields and, in many cases, from their families.
If Israel wants to win the information war it should stop shooting itself in the foot, something it has done so consistently it is a wonder the country can still limp along.
Hirsh Goodman is a Senior Research Associate at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a columnist for The Jerusalem Report.
Since other articles in this forum will present the Israeli perspective, I will commit myself solely to the Palestinian perspective.
During the government of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, a man who always openly expressed his support for peace efforts as the way out of this bloody conflict, a Palestinian-Israeli committee was formed to deal with the issue of incitement. Notably, the Israeli government saw it as a committee for handling Palestinian incitement. In response, in August Palestinians republished the 1997 presidential decree against incitement, which was issued by President Arafat as one of his obligations after talks with Benjamin Netanyahu's government at Wye River Plantation.
Subsequently, I began to see how many Israeli journalists and foreign correspondents in Israel and the Palestinian territories picked up on the issue of "incitement" and began to move across the barriers erected to separate the Palestinian and Israeli sides from each other in order to cover the story. Many of these journalists asked me for my opinion on the subject, but what caught my attention most was their reiterated accusations that the Palestinian educational curriculum and media was full of incitement.
While speaking to the correspondent of the Wall Street Journal, I related to him that the Palestinian governmental television and radio stations are those least watched and listened to, and are not at all influential in forming Palestinian public opinion. I told him that, according to public opinion polls, only five percent of Palestinians watch government television, and that only ten percent of Palestinians rely on its news reports, according to a survey carried out in October 2003. I also told him that all serious studies that have been done on the Palestinian school curriculum demonstrate that it is free of any text that might be considered incitement--that is, of course, if we agree that incitement means pushing the audience to hate others for their religion, ethnicity or opinions.
Still that correspondent continued his deluge of questions: "But an Israeli official asserted to me that a Palestinian math teacher in an elementary school in a Palestinian village teaches his pupils mathematics by using numbers of murdered Jews in questions of addition and subtraction."
I could not respond. Who can really give a negative or positive answer in this case, when no one knows who collected that information, and in which school and village it took place, or the name of the teacher? All the same, this "example" was used by the Israelis to prove the presence of Palestinian incitement in school curricula. It was evidence used by an official. Notably, the story has no room for a narrative that states that Israeli soldiers' humiliation of Palestinians has an impact and is a source of "incitement."
Yesterday, Agence France Press Jerusalem bureau chief Christian Chaise protested via letter an article published by David Bedein entitled "Press Passes for Terrorists," which was published in FrontPageMagazine.com on November 13, 2003. The author wrote that Palestinians seek to acquire press cards from the Israeli Government Press Office in order to facilitate their alleged terrorist activities. The author proffered the example of a stringer that he claimed worked for AFP in Jenin and had been arrested by Israeli forces for being "a terrorist." The writer used this to "prove" that Palestinians who work for the foreign press in Israel are terrorists, or at least potential terrorists.
The director of AFP in Jerusalem denied the story and challenged the author to substantiate it. Consequently, David Bedein apologized in an open letter to the Foreign Press Association in Israel, and said that he had used sources in his article that proved unreliable.
But the damage was already done, and there was no notice placed on the website that published the article indicating that the story was false. The extent of the change made was for the author to strike the line that accused the foreign press and Palestinian journalists of being terrorists, and supporting terrorism. But this all stemmed from a purely fabricated story about an alleged terrorist stringer!
So where then are the boundaries of incitement and political propaganda, and when do public relations reach their limit?
I fear that the media has become a "channel without a filter," that passes "messages" which politicians, security people and the military desire to send to the public, in this case, the Israeli public and world public opinion. Both of these publics are targeted because--after all--this competition is over who will win their favor.
The mechanism is very simple, particularly when the media does not question official stories, especially those coming from the military. When news stories are related to Palestinians, the principles of the profession, which dictate checking the source from a variety of perspectives, seem to vanish. These principles are ignored in favor of other principles: "national considerations in time of war."
This holds true in the opposite direction, as well, but the Palestinian and Israeli media experiences are vastly different. Each varies in structure, history, and composition, and has a subsequently unique impact. Israel's media is immeasurably more influential, however, and when it errs, the consequences are graver and more dangerous.
I rarely find that anyone is interested in asking how this accumulation of hatred latent in the philosophy of the official line in times of war can be erased. Its impact on both the Palestinian and Israeli publics is very serious, and it will be difficult to rid ourselves of this hatred when the need for "propaganda" ends, and is replaced by public relations experts committed to reestablishing the bridges of confidence that allow for the minimum of coexistence between our two peoples.
-Published 17/11/2003 ©bitterlemons.org
Nabil Khatib is bureau chief of Middle East News and teaches mass communications at Birzeit University.
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