Israelis are resolute. World Jewry is united. President Obama has been unequivocally supportive. Many foreign leaders have shown understanding, even sympathy. Media coverage has been balanced, at worst. In the social media universe, the IDF Spokesman rules.
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It was good while it lasted, but now it’s over. The tide may be turning. The zenith of Israel’s public relations campaign has been reached. And to mix in yet another metaphor, it’s all downhill from here.
It is an inevitable process, one repeated in almost every serious military campaign that Israel has waged in recent decades. From the First Lebanon War (1982) through Operation Accountability (1993), Grapes of Wrath (1996), Defensive Shield (2002), the Second Lebanon War (2007) and Operation Cast Lead (2008) – there is an inescapable progression from support to censure, from approval to opprobrium, from murmurs of sympathy to howls of protests.
First Israel launches an attack for what most of the world concedes is a very good reason, against an enemy that is widely recognized as a terror organization that is hell bent on mayhem and destruction. Israeli civilians then tell the world that they can’t go on like this anymore. The IDF launches a sophisticated assault that somehow succeeds in being both overwhelming and surgical at the very same time. Military connoisseurs around the world are duly impressed and international public opinion couldn’t care less.
But within 72 hours, more or less, newspaper editorials begin to question Israel’s motives and to wonder it isn’t using excessive force; gruesome photos of civilian Palestinian casualties start to get more air time than the low resolution videos of hi-tech aerial assassinations; world public opinion starts to pay attention, and then turns nasty; internal Israeli criticism gets increasingly vocal; then, some operational mishap occurs, a surgical strike goes awry, a hospital is bombed or an entire family is killed; finally, Israel is left to fight a rearguard PR battle that it has no hope of winning.
This is doubly true if there is a ground campaign, as may very well take place in Gaza within the next few days or hours. A full-fledged incursion by ground forces not only entails more civilian casualties on the Palestinian side, which inflame anti-Israeli sentiments around the world, but also many more Israeli casualties, which immediately elicit growing Israeli concern but also gives rise to the start of significant political dissent, which is then amplified in the world media.
Television cameras get closer to the battle, usually from the Palestinian angle, and the view of the campaign shifts to the side that is dramatically outmanned and outgunned. Lonely gunmen in narrow alleys of poverty-stricken slums confront IDF tanks and the homes of innocent civilians are seized, if not destroyed, as desperate old women wail in the background and dazed children peer directly and plaintively into the cameras. From this point on, it is only a matter of time before even Hamas terrorists are suddenly cast as valiant freedom fighters opposing the forces of darkness, the oppressed fighting off the oppressors.
It is a frequently travelled road, which is, or at least should be, familiar to all. It can be days, weeks or months, but the final destination is fixed in advance. In Operation Grapes of Wrath in April, 1996, it was only a matter of days between the sympathy and understanding shown by most members of the UN Security Council for Israel’s wish to stop Hezbollah’s shelling across the border - and the international revulsion and condemnation sparked by the accidental artillery fire on the Qana refugee enclosure in which 102 civilians were killed. More recently, it is the road that led from the extraordinary visit to Israel of six European leaders at the start of Operation Cast Lead which was meant to convey sympathy for Israel’s previous campaign against Hamas - to the eventual publication of the Goldstone Report and Israel’s indictment as war criminals on the international stage.
This is the inevitable bottom line of the so-called asymmetric warfare that Israel has been waging for the past three decades against Hezbollah, Fatah and Hamas. It is a direct consequence of the continuing occupation of the West Bank, which, whether justified or not, prevents Israel from maintaining the higher moral ground for any length of time. No matter how despicable the specific group Israel is fighting against, how villainous his deeds or how depraved his ideology, the “David versus Goliath” scenario inevitably kicks in, and it is Israel, much to its surprise, that is once again cast as the giant brute imposing his will.
If the current campaign does not end soon with a cease-fire, it will follow in the footsteps of previous engagements, at least as far as the public relations effort is concerned. This, of course, is not a factor that should determine Israeli policy one way or another, but not one that should be completely ignored either, especially in a new and precarious Middle East in which Arab public opinion plays a far greater role in determining the attitudes and policies of Israel’s neighbors.
Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev