Thursday, January 08, 2009

FINALLY, Someone Gets It

Brilliant piece in Ha'aretz today by Gideon Lichfield explaining my take on the Gaza thing.
I frequently get asked by Israelis, "why aren't we winning the PR war? Why don't people understand that this is what we have to do?" Many are convinced that there is something wrong with Israeli hasbara (public advocacy), that the spokespeople aren't effective enough, or that the Palestinians have a huge and demonically efficient propaganda machine. When I hear this I have to explain that Israeli hasbara is so sophisticated that there is still no adequate word for it in English; that some of Israel's spokespeople could talk the hind legs off a donkey and then persuade the donkey to dance the hora, and that the Palestinians barely even know what a spokesman is, let alone be able to provide one who is available when he needs to be and knows anything about what is actually going on. So why isn't Israel winning the PR war?
I had forgotten that word, hasbara. It's a damned good word, and a one-word summary of this sort of monomaniacal advocacy and apology is damned handy, too. Especially when it's precisely that hasbara that annoys me so much.
Partly, of course, it's because the numbers are against it. Six hundred Palestinians dead versus nine Israelis, as of today's figures: There's just no way to make that proportion look pretty. Retired generals can drone on all they like about what "proportionality" really means in the laws of war, ambassadors can helpfully point out that many more Germans were killed than British in the Second World War, but these are theoretical notions; on television, what looks bad looks bad. (Nor do I really buy the argument that if Israel's casualties were more visibly bloody - if, say, the media showed the gory pictures of the few people who have been hit by Qassams instead of holding them back to keep the home front from getting agitated - then you could counter the stream of barbaric images from Gaza. There's just no competition.)

But the deeper reason is this: Israeli hasbara is perpetually trying to answer the wrong question: "Why is this justified?" Of course, it's natural for either side in a conflict to try to explain why it, and not the other side, has the moral high ground. But, especially in a conflict where both sides have been claiming the moral high ground for decades, nobody in the outside world is all that interested. From a foreign correspondent's point of view, it makes for boring journalism: "The Israelis said this, but the Palestinians said that." And since we're all studiously trying to be "neutral," we'll always balance your view against theirs; so the fact that you make more of an effort to explain than they do doesn't really matter.
And this is WHY I get annoyed. It's not that I think that both sides are equally justified in their behavior, although the issues that tend to end up below the radar (unfair distribution of water, for instance) are exactly the ones where Israelis tend to come off looking badly. It's that the hasbara always tries to focus on how bad Hamas is, and how righteous the Israelis are, and how it's Hamas' fault that each and every Palestinian died. And while some outlets (principally American) will dutifully follow along, most media organizations are going to "balance" as a matter of course.

And if the Palestinians don't have a spokesman? Well, the images will do the speaking for them, and the Israeli spokesman ends up looking like a callous ass for not being willing to acknowledge that the mayhem is even a necessary evil.
The question the foreign media really wants answered is invariably not "who's in the right?" but "how will this round of fighting improve the overall situation?" And on that point, Israel never has a convincing argument. Given the country's long history of engaging in wars that kill many more of its enemies than its own citizens but only buy a few months or years of calm, it's a tough call to explain how this latest escapade will change the strategic balance, bring peace and prevent the need for another such bloodbath further down the line. Often that's because there is in fact no good reason: Wars are fought for short-term gains. And it doesn't help that with the constant competition for power within Israeli coalitions, it's easy to interpret this war, like many others, as a political imperative, not a strategic one.

And so when the question the world is asking is not "who's right?" but "what works?" the consistent impression Israel leaves is that it kills people because, at best, it simply doesn't have any better ideas, and at worst, because some Israeli leader is trying to get the upper hand on one of his or her rivals. And no amount of hasbara can make that look good.
Exactly. This Gaza incursion isn't just reminiscent of the conflict in 2006, it's reminiscent of every foray into Gaza and the West Bank since the Sixties. Repeating rote arguments that it's Hamas' fault is not only not going to convince anybody that that's actually true, but it's not going to convince anybody that anything's going to change. Hamas isn't going to be deterred by this, and the Gazans are almost certainly going to rally around them.

But make the case that this will accomplish real strategic goals, that it will prevent more and bloodier conflicts in the future, that it will make for a safer Israel and speed a real two-state solution, and then I think people will start listening.

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