Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
The government, as it plans out its future steps in waging this particular military operation, is trying to break patterns, destroy the idea that the conduct of this campaign, its outcome, and aftermath are oh-so predictable.
The predictable scenarios run as follows: Hamas fires rockets; Israel launches an operation to stop the fire; Hamas uses civilians as human shields; an errant Israel shell kills a number of Palestinian civilians, which the world determines is too many to bear; a cease-fire is brokered; the cease-fire is broken a number of months later; it all starts over again.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is trying to figure out how to break that pattern, to ensure that this time at the end of the conflict Hamas will not be able to replenish its arsenal and provoke a new round any time soon. Whether he will succeed is still an open question.
But another element of this scenario, also extremely predictable, is already repeating itself.
As the fighting winds on, voices are being raised inside Israel and among its supporters abroad saying, again, “If we only had better hasbara (public diplomacy).”
If we only we had better spokespeople, better footage, better videos, better arguments, we could present our case to the world and they would be on our side. If only we were better at Twitter, on Facebook, on MSNBC or the BBC. If only we would get our story out better, then The New York Times – whose deep antipathy for Netanyahu has led it over the last few weeks to simply skew the facts – would be on our side.
Were that it was so easy.
Granted, Israel’s hasbara, like almost everything else in the world, could be better. We could have better and more videos to circulate on social media, we could have more eloquent spokesman (though, truth be told, the ones out there are not too bad), we could come up with better answers.
But our problem is not with hasbara. Our problem is that we are fighting an asymmetrical war. As good and reasoned and sensible and logical as our arguments are, we are going to have a tough time competing with television images of Palestinians looking for their loved ones through the rubble of twisted metal rods and broken slabs of concrete.
Martin Luther King could explain on CNN that Israel spends billions of dollars to protect its citizens – developing Iron Dome and building hundreds of thousands of shelters –while Hamas uses its citizens to protect its rockets, but it would still be difficult for Israel to compete with those images.
The problem is not that Israel’s message is not getting across, the problem is not that the spokesman are not effectively presenting a strong case or talking to the world’s reporters. The problem is that there are parts of the world that will not accept our arguments and has simply closed its ears, for a variety of reasons, to what we have to say.
There are those, predictably, saying that Israel’s reaction is exaggerated, disproportionate, who will ask why so many Palestinians are being killed, but so few Israelis. They want a balanced fatalities “scorecard,” and won’t be happy – or won’t see Israel as justified – until they get one. But we, thank God, have no pictures to show the world of Jews being killed in this campaign.
This doesn’t mean that you stop trying to get your message out. You continue to try – you argue your case as best you can,with the most eloquent folks you can muster, with the best and most professional tools at your disposal. But if a television or radio anchor or commentator doesn’t accept it, and asks why the “unnecessary” and “disproportionate” force, the conclusion need not necessarily be to fall back on the default option and blame Israel’s public diplomacy – or their practitioners – for not doing their job. They are doing their job, but go convince those whose minds are already made up.
In general, there is often a tendency to look at hasbara through a very narrow lens. Good hasbara is hearing an articulate Israeli spokesman destroy a Palestinian talking head on NPR. Though important, that is not the be all and end all of hasbara.
Public diplomacy, in general, is one element of diplomacy, one tool in the diplomatic tool box designed at getting your narrative accepted by people who matter: by decision makers, politicians, elites.
Israel’s diplomacy over the last week has been aimed at getting the world to understand why Israel is acting the way it is. Have all the statements from all the capitals been exactly how Israel would have liked them phrased? Obviously not.
But in the capitals that really do matter in the world, there is an understanding as to what Israel is doing, and why. The world has given Jerusalem a week to pound Hamas. That is by no means a given, and that – too – is a product of hasbara.