Israel Needs Better P.R.
When did Israel become so inept at public relations? There was a time when Israel had the sympathy of most of the world. When it was established as the result of a 1947 U.N. resolution, the Arab countries and particularly the Palestinian people regarded it as a disaster, but most of the rest of the world cheered. It was not only compensation for centuries of bigotry, culminating in the Holocaust, it was also a homecoming almost 2,000 years in the making. This was followed by Israel being the victorious underdog in a series of wars against an array of Arab armies. Admiration for Israel peaked with the daring raid on Entebbe which freed kidnapped Israeli civilians. So what happened?
By winning the wars inflicted on it, Israel lost its underdog status. Worse, by occupying the lands it conquered (West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights) it became a conqueror. This might not have been so bad--the Allies occupied Germany and Japan for many years--if it was clear that they intended to return those lands, especially the West Bank and Gaza, to its occupants, the Palestinians, who had become like the Jews before them, a people without a land of their own.
When Hamas, an organization dedicated to destroying Israel, took over Gaza in 2007, Israel's response was a blockade not only of arms and raw materials, but of most food supplies. The idea was that the people of Gaza would blame Hamas for their distress. Bad p.r. move! Most of the people, not only in Gaza but in the world at large, blamed Israel. It would have been better to send food and medical supplies in packages labeled "A gift from the people of Israel."
Actually, it was not a starvation blockade, but that was the image that much of the world had. Even those who knew that some food was permitted were angry at the apparent arbitrariness of it: frozen meat, yogurt, and margarine were allowed in, but fresh meat, vinegar, and jam were prohibited. As an article in Salon put it: "The real winner in Israel's Gaza blockade: Hamas."
The blockade had another motive. In 2006 Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier named Gilad Shalit from the Israeli side of the border. In negotiations, Israel offered to exchange as many as 450 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit. This failed because Hamas insisted that two notorious terrorists be included, and not exiled. A German mediated effort calling for the exchange of 100 Palestinian prisoners for Shalit was also rejected by Hamas. (Google: Shalit Hamas Deal)
Now there is a deal. Israel is releasing ovcer 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, including some notorious terrorists in exchange for Shalit. It shows how much Israel cares about even a single citizen, but it also makes Israel look weak and Hamas strong. What Israel should have done years ago was make public a list of 100 prisoners it was willing to swap for Shalit and let the families of those prisoners pressure Hamas to agree.
When a group of Palestinian sympathizers attempted to run Israel's blockade of Gaza in what was more of a publicity stunt than a humanitarian effort, Israel's clumsy response struck the world as excessive. Israel did offer to allow humanitarian aid through either by unloading the materials at the Israeli port of Ashdod so they could be inspected for armaments, or by letting the flotilla be inspected at sea. Both offers were turned down. Instead of publicizing these offers and exposing the real motive of the blockade runners, Israel produced an insensitive parody of the flotilla effort. Now a new flotilla effort is underway even though Egypt has opened its border with Gaza, and the blockade no longer includes humanitarian materials
Since 2007 when Hamas took control of the Gaza strip, they and allied groups have lobbed thousands of rockets and mortar shells at civilian targets in southern Israel. No one condoned this violation of international law and decency, but no one outside Israel condemned it either. Perhaps this was because there were relatively few causalities, the result of an early warning system and a network of shelters. As underdogs, the Hamas Palestinians were given a lot of moral leeway.
Finally, fed up with the rocket attacks and frustrated at the lack of progress Israel launched an offensive they called Cast Lead, and were immediately cast as the villains. The charges against Israel were excessive use of force and killing of civilians.
The Israeli offensive probably was excessive in an attempt to wipe out Hamas's military capabilities. Much civilian infrastructure was destroyed, partly because Hamas regularly hid rocket launch sites, weapons depots, and military offices in civilian buildings. Perhaps it was also another misguided attempt to get Gaza's civilians to blame Hamas for their woes.
A U.N. inquiry headed by Richard Goldstone that was supposed to be restricted to identifying human rights violations by Israel found transgressions on both sides. There is also a YouTube video of Col. Richard Kemp, a former British commander with extensive Middle East experience testifying before the U.N. that "During operation Cast Lead the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare." You can view it here . Israel has said that, but the message has not gotten through to a wider audience, perhaps because as Col. Kemp also pointed out "Hamas and Hezbollah are expert at driving the media agenda."
Israel's latest failure to improve its relations with the world in general and the Arab people in particular is the result of failing to respond positively to the Arab spring. When the uprising in Tahrir Square succeeded, Prime Minister Netanyahu should have welcomed another democracy to the Middle East. Instead, he petulantly warned that Egypt might go the way of Iran "where calls for progress will be silenced by a dark and violent despotism." He could be right, but which approach is more likely to offend the Egyptian protesters? Now, Egyptians are rioting against Israel. Would that have not occurred if their revolution had been welcomed by Israel? We will never know.
Of course, good p.r. will not substitute for peace. There is one gesture Israel could undertake, and it would not only be a p.r. coup, it would be the right thing to do: Make a generous offer to the Palestinians. Why is good p.r. important to Israel? Besides the world's respect that any country craves, the security of an out-numbered Israel in any future peace deal will depend in part on the willingness of the U.S. and perhaps other countries to guarantee its protection. Right now, the light unto the nations has grown dim.
Jerome Richard is the author of The Kiss of the Prison Dancer and numerous short stories and essays. His website is: www.jeromerichard1.com.