The Only Way Israelis Can Win the PR Battle: Die More

For now, all Israel can do is continue to hunker down and take comfort in the fact that while its image may be bleeding, its citizens aren’t.

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People take cover inside their building staircase during an air raid siren warning of a rocket attack in Tel Aviv, July 12, 2014.
People take cover inside their building staircase during an air raid siren warning of a rocket attack in Tel Aviv, July 12, 2014.Credit: Reuters

For a snapshot of how the conflict between Israel and Hamas is playing out in the world media, one need look no further than renowned comedian and commentator Jon Stewart’s opening monologue on Monday night’s Daily Show.

Stewart put the images of two foreign correspondents reporting on the conflict onscreen side by side - one reporting from Gaza, the other from Israel. The Gaza correspondent was wearing a full helmet and heavy protective vest - total armor. The one reporting from Israel was a tanned guy wearing a bright tropical orange short-sleeved shirt, his hair, unhelmeted, blowing in the Mediterranean breeze.

Stewart commented that the Gaza reporter looked like an extra from the Oscar-winning Iraq war film “The Hurt Locker” and the one in Israel seemed as if he was about to grab a margarita and head for a Jimmy Buffet concert. The audience roared.

Stewart’s images were a lighter and less gruesome version of the contrasting images of smiling Israelis in bomb shelters next to horrific photographs of dead and maimed Palestinian adults and children that have circulated as the rockets have flown in both directions - but it made the same point.

It is completely understandable for the world to be focusing on the devastation and destruction in Gaza, no matter whose fault it is, no matter who started it, no matter who is agreeing to ceasefires and who is determined to fight on. From the outside, Israel looks like that gigantic kid on the schoolyard who has an angry much-smaller child relentlessly kicking him in the shins. Each time he swipes back, seriously injuring that little kid with his superior strength, he is faced with a schoolmarm telling him he should be ashamed of himself harming someone so much smaller and less powerful than he. But when she turns her back, the little kid starts kicking again.

Unlike the previous clashes in Gaza, this conflict caught me on an extended stay with family in the United States, and so the past week has been bizarre experience of watching Operation Protective Edge being covered by the correspondents on the television screen while simultaneously following events from Israeli friends and family on social media, (and making the rather masochistic move of putting the Red Alert app on my smartphone - now put on silent, after the incessant alarms didn’t go over well at the supermarket or in the local restaurants in my quiet New England hometown.)

In a bizarre way, it feels from this end, as if ‘Israelis vs. Palestinians’ is a somewhat pleasingly familiar story for American journalists to cover. It’s nothing like the confusing Rubix cube of players in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, with bizarre unpronounceable ever-changing names and a geography and history lesson every time a new extremist group emerges. This one is the current events version of watching a remake of an old and familiar classic movie, where usually you can guess what comes next. (At one point someone proposed a drinking game where you take a shot every time CNN’s Wolf Blitzer cuts off an interview with an Israeli official so he can head to the bomb shelter on-air.)

Unfortunately for Israel’s international image (though very fortunately for its population) the new twist on the old story this time around is that Gazans are dying and Israelis are remaining (relatively) unharmed.

Israelis vs. Palestinians is old news. What is new and interesting, as far as world media is concerned, is the game-changing performance of the Iron Dome system. The combination of the magic of the technology of the Iron Dome, the utter inability of Hamas to aim its rockets, and the fact that Israelis "know the drill" when it comes to protecting themselves has meant that the number of those injured by the rockets has stayed blessedly low, and the number of those killed currently at one.

I don’t want to say it’s hopeless for Israel to try to make its case to world opinion under these circumstances - but it’s near-impossible, and essentially a lose-lose proposition.

Israel loses big when it tries to make the world understand that living under the constant threat of Hamas rockets is stressful and painful in any way. The reaction: how dare they feel sorry for themselves when the population of Gaza is living a much more hellish and bloody reality for which Israel is responsible? How dare they compare the inconvenience of being forced to stay near bomb shelters waiting for the next red alert to the horrible extermination of entire families in Gaza? Not to mention that the sight of miserable, suffering Israelis is precisely the goal of the entire exercise as far as Hamas is concerned. Exacting visible Israeli pain, after all, makes Hamas look heroic to much of the Arab world and encourages them to continue.

But Israel also loses in any effort they might make to look strong, resolute, and upbeat. All of the morale-boosting humor, the smiling selfies in the bomb shelter, the videos of Israelis emerging from the rocket fire and Iron Dome interceptions and returning to their cafes in “life goes on” defiance, and the now-infamous photograph of Israelis on deck chairs watching fire rain down on Gaza - plays even worse on the world stage and comes off as making Israelis seem callous and blind to Palestinian suffering.

No matter how articulate our spokesmen, how agreeable we are to ceasefire proposals, no matter how hard Israel tries in any way to explain its side or plead its case - in the face of these images and the body count, it's all fairly hopeless.

Nothing is really going to score major points on the public relations front short of agreeing to die painful deaths in higher numbers in order to look more sportsmanlike. And nobody in Israel - or who cares about Israel - or, who, for that matter cares about human beings in any way - wants that.

For now, all Israel can do is continue to hunker down and take comfort in the fact that while its image may be bleeding, its citizens aren’t.

A screenshot from the Daily Show episode.

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