An Offensive Strategy for Israel on the Second Battlefield: The Global Media

By February 5, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 66

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Global media coverage of Operation Cast Lead brutally delegitimized the State of Israel, causing Israel significant damage for the long term. This paper reviews the way in which the media covered the Israel-Hamas conflict, and Israel’s own failings in the field of public diplomacy. It suggests an offensive strategy for Israel, involving the establishment of a “second-battlefield” professional hierarchy with clear modes of operation, to mount an effective strategic information campaign for Israel.

This Perspectives Paper is based on an address to the ninth Herzliya Conference on Israel’s national security, on February 3, 2009.

Israel could have done much more to help its cause in the media coverage of Operation Cast Lead. But what we witnessed primarily in covering the recent Gaza war was a failure of journalism.

The international media tends to misrepresent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a David and Goliath clash – with Israel as Goliath on the basis of its military power (never mind its tiny geographic and demographic nature). The assault on Hamas was no exception. Aspects that don’t fit the guiding narrative are played down.

In this conflict, Hamas’ ruthlessness against its own people was “no story.” Hamas’s war against Fatah – the executions, the shooting in the knees – was largely ignored – because Israel is the big, ugly bad guy, and the Palestinians are weak and helpless. Incidentally, having the prime minister brag that he got President Bush out of a lecture to change America’s vote at the UN Security Council is precisely the kind of comment – whether true or not – that helps fuel the “Israel as Goliath” misconception.

The international media tends to obsess about Israel in comparison to other global hot-spots. This is a function of our area’s religious sensitivity, of double standards sometimes stemming from anti-Semitism, of the relative comfort for reporters in working here – and a host of other factors. They too, as ever, applied in this conflict.

Furthermore, much of the world media – indeed, much of the free world – has not internalized the nature of Islamic extremism, and its death-cult imperative to kill and be killed. So there is little understanding of the need to confront Islamic extremism and little sympathy when nations, and notably Israel, go to war against it. I’ll go further: There is little media and wider public tolerance, emphatically including in the West, for wars at all, no matter how just.

Britain, for instance, simply refuses to acknowledge the death-cult motivation of Islamic extremism, even though central London was blown up by homegrown Islamists in 2005. Britain is still casting around for the quote unquote “real reason” for this domestic Muslim hostility. Was it Tony Blair’s support for George Bush in Iraq, perhaps? Or Blair’s sympathy for Israel?

Of course, it’s much more convenient to not believe that part of your country’s Muslim population is being radicalized and becoming a potent threat to you. It’s much easier to blame, say, Israel. Especially when, as in France, you have up to ten times as many Muslims in your country as Jews; or when, as in Britain, the most popular new boy’s name is not Jack, John, Michael or David, but Mohammad.

That unwillingness to acknowledge the basic nature of Islamist groups like Hamas was central to media coverage of the Gaza conflict.

It should be no surprise that Arabic TV stations such as Al-Jazeera, which acknowledged seeking “to mobilize public opinion about the massacres,” would report the conflict with little regard for its root causes.

What is dismal is the extent to which Western media showed the same failings. A senior BBC presenter was shown late in the operation on Israeli Channel 2 news declaring that “the numbers speak for themselves” – 1,000 or more dead Palestinians and “only” 13 Israelis, as she put it. The implication: if only a few hundred Israelis had been killed too, everything would have been all right.

But of course the numbers did not speak for themselves. The purported “disproportion” of death was a consequence of Israel doing everything to protect its people from Hamas’s best efforts to kill them, while Hamas did everything it could to raise the Gaza death toll – by choosing to fire and fight from people’s homes and schools and mosques and hospitals. With exceptions, the international media largely failed to highlight this.

Hamas’s prime culpability was so clear. Israel had wrenched all its civilians and its military positions from Gaza, and yet the rocket fire had only escalated since 2005. But disengagement was long forgotten.

Fighting out of uniform, Hamas rendered every Gaza civilian a suspect. It deliberately created a civilian theater of war, and the IDF warned and pleaded with those civilians – via leaflets and phone calls and broadcasts – to leave that theater. Hamas remains avowedly committed to Israel’s destruction. And Hamas had killed dozens, maybe hundreds of fellow Palestinians when seizing power in Gaza in 2007. It was demonstrably indifferent to the deaths of its own people. Yet most of this was marginal to the media coverage as well.

Israel’s Weak Public Diplomacy

Sadly, Israel itself contributed to this sorry picture.

Israel has internalized the need to respond articulately in real time in the media – the rapid response to the shelling near the UNRWA school was a case in point. But Israel has not internalized the need for a strategic, long-term approach to the media battlefield, the second battlefield.

Ahead of time, Israel had failed, as ever, I’m afraid, to prepare the media and diplomatic ground for its resort to force with the same efficiency it displayed in its military preparations. The army researched its Hamas targets in the months ahead. Well, successful public diplomacy required highlighting – also for months ahead, in every forum – the destructive goals of Hamas, the relentless rocket fire, and the untenable reality this had produced for southern Israel.

Once the conflict began, Israel contributed further to the negative perception by failing to counter the Hamas-Gaza government claims that most of those killed in Gaza were civilians, including hundreds of women and children. Belatedly, Israeli officials now assert that most of the Gaza fatalities were Hamas members. Too vague. Too late.

As Israel had to know it would be, the toll of the civilian dead was the barometer by which Israel’s purported “disproportionate” response was measured; evidence of the skewing of that total needed to be produced right away.

Negative Impact

In the absence of more informed and sophisticated reporting, more and more people in this region and beyond are more hostile to Israel today than they were a few weeks ago, more disgusted by us, more convinced of our guilt. Latin American countries severing ties; Turkey shifting from ally to enemy; a global spike in anti-Semitism; efforts to bring Israelis to “justice” for “war crimes” – these are only the most overt indications.

On a Saturday night in the midst of the conflict, I was interviewed by the BBC after that night’s anti-Israel demonstration in London. The rank-and-file demonstrators were pleasant sounding people who spoke as though they truly could not fathom why Israel was committing “genocide” – and yes they used that word – and why Israel would not just liberate Palestine.

What happens over time is that the fair-minded international policy-makers and opinion-shapers who do understand what’s happening, get pummeled into submission by the sheer weight of awful, bloody, ill-explained footage. They become defensive and apologetic and ultimately fall silent… or worse. There will be more rounds of conflict, and the danger is that these will feature more adept manipulation by the Islamists, more superficial reporting, more international disinclination to strive for moral clarity. I know that sounds bleak.

How to Improve Israel’s Performance

Israel must internalize how critical the second battlefield truly is. Fighting successfully on it is not confined to ensuring that competent spokespeople are available to react to daily events.

Rather, Israel must help the rest of the world to better understand our reality. This effort needs to be overseen by a second-battlefield hierarchy with funding and clout. Not a new ministry, but a hierarchy with cabinet level influence. There is a coordinating spokesperson’s hierarchy in the Prime Minister’s Office today. It is inadequate for the task at hand.

The proposed hierarchy must have the authority to determine who officially speaks for Israel, and to advise those speakers, even when they are ministers. A tiny example: Somebody needs to tell Ehud Barak to stop speaking about attacks on Sderot and nearby settlements; TV viewers are left thinking Hamas is not attacking sovereign Israel. Similarly, Ehud Olmert must be made wary of threatening a “disproportionate” Israeli response to future rocket attacks, as he did this week. Disproportionate. That’s a loaded word to use when Israel already stands accused of disproportionate military action.

This second-battlefield authority needs resources to monitor what is reported – to identify problems, to correct misconceptions. The current effort is threadbare.

The IDF Spokesman’s department does not even see the raw daily footage sent out by the big news agencies to their clients around the world. It doesn’t merely lack the ability to respond to what the world is being told about Israel; it often doesn’t know what the world is being told about Israel.

It is hard to articulate the wider narrative over film of bloodied Palestinian children and ground-churning Israeli tanks. But Israel maintains a criminal strategic insistence on barely trying.

There is no Israeli satellite TV station, in English or Arabic. Our foreign language radio broadcasts are dying for lack of funds. The prime minister sails blithely on with his single English spokesperson.

The hierarchy I am proposing also needs to be the bridge that helps link Israel with support efforts worldwide – with AIPAC and pro-Israel activists, including on college campuses. Again, I’m not talking only here about defensive responses to crisis. The Saudis are endowing university chairs all over the US. More Jewish philanthropy needs to be channeled, with an agenda for the honest teaching of Israel and the Middle East, into the universities.

With both Hizballah and Hamas, a strategic effort was needed to explain the inevitable conflicts that were looming – to diplomats, politicians, journalists, activists. But this applies equally, right now, to the ongoing threats posed by Hizballah and Hamas, and by Iran. Certain Israeli agencies did try to highlight the Iranian nuclear threat to world leaders at the turn of the millennium. They failed. The response should not have been to despair at western short-sightedness, but to devise better ways to sound the alarm.

It is no coincidence that the most dependable political climate for Israel is Capitol Hill. That’s partly because AIPAC brings rising American politicians to Israel. Our best public relations tool is the reality of Israel. Get people here. Show them the country. Explain it. Don’t only do this for American politicians.

Strategic information campaigns must be mounted in the foreign media. In Britain, the heaviest pressure to boycott Israel has come in the academics’ and the journalists’ unions. These are professions dedicated to the dissemination of information, to empowering through knowledge. Our enemies want those channels shut down, because the more Israel is understood, the more our narrative resonates.

So bring leading editors and reporters and TV anchors here. Reach out to the Israel based foreign reporters – with credible, fascinating information they will want to report. Do this in the years between conflicts. Use the best speakers with the most sensitive information that we dare release without harming our own security.

The Air Force has footage of Kassam crews taking kids with them when they go out to fire on Israel – confident that Israel will not fire on them. Show that footage ahead of operations like Cast Lead.

Plainly, Israel had video evidence of fire directed at Israeli targets from near UNRWA facilities. Some of this footage was released, after all, after our shells landed near the school. That kind of evidence should have been made available long before the resort to force, so that reporters were truly familiar with the context.

On a related topic, keeping Israel-based foreign press out of combat zones is a mistake. We saw in 2002 the error of allowing a false narrative to thrive in Jenin. Yes, Israel is concerned about foreign reporters being hurt and has misgivings about their coverage. That’s pretty astounding – that Israel would rather have Palestinian stringers covering the war. But what happens is that the conflict is first reported by those stringers. The foreign correspondents simultaneously, and risibly, claim there is a media ban. And as soon as entry is allowed, they go and do more of the same stories their stringers have already done, and Israel gets bashed a second time.

A very brief word on my own newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s only original English language window on the world, with the world’s most read Jewish newspaper website. A newspaper so resonant that John McCain, when he visited Israel last year, gave us his only interview here. Barack Obama, when he visited, spoke only to me and to Nahum Barnea.

The Israeli political and military leaderships should be begging to reach out, via The Post, to the global audience most passionate about Israel. And some in both hierarchies do understand this. I wish others, including the current foreign minister, would do the same.

Defining Strategic Goals

But I want to end by stressing a wider challenge that Israel faces against the rising tide of delegitimacy – namely that it is exceptionally difficult to “sell” a product that is not clearly defined.

What I mean is that Israel needs to urgently determine its own red lines – the permanent contours we seek for our country.

As things stand, representatives of Israel in every forum speak in a jarring discord of patriotic voices. Israel should retake Gaza; no, it is well out of Gaza. Israel must retain all of Judea and Samaria; no, it must return to the pre ’67 lines… On and on, we argue – with ourselves.

Our diplomats and advocates are thus left promoting a product whose basic dimensions they cannot decisively describe. Our friends cannot know which Israel they ought to be supporting; we haven’t told them.

Contrast that with the Palestinians. The Abbas-led PA says it wants a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem and a just solution on the refugees. Hamas seeks the elimination of Israel, with the possibility of an interim deal along the ’67 lines. Duplicitous or not, these stated agendas are clear to both Palestinians and outsiders.

Until we can define “product Israel,” we will be setting out our needs, and facing our enemies, amidst a cacophony of contradictory voices. That has to change.

I don’t delude myself that this is about to happen. What can change right now is that self-defeating negligence regarding the media and public diplomacy. It is high time to establish the hierarchy I’ve discussed – the high-level framework from which to mount a strategic, sustained, desperately needed offensive on the second battlefield.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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David Horovitz

David Horovitz is editor-in-chief of The Times of Israel and former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.