Canard: false or unfounded report or story… a groundless rumor or belief
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Upon the establishment of the cease-fire, I can say that there is a major military achievement here, as well as a major diplomatic achievement for the State of Israel.
– Binyamin Netanyahu, press conference, August 25.
Hamas’s popularity has skyrocketed in the wake of Operation Protective Edge to the point where… Ismail Haniyeh would win the presidency of the Palestinian Authority if elections were held today, according to a new survey of West Bank and Gaza residents.
– The Jerusalem Post, September 3.
The fighting in Gaza has ended – for now – and government spin doctors are out in force, scrambling to explain the inexplicable: How, after 50 days of combat, could the government claim that it achieved major military and diplomatic successes when Israel was unable to impose its will on a small, lightly armed militia that was hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned? How could they make their claim with international condemnation sweeping across the globe?
Woe to such ‘victory’
This is the fourth round of fighting (and the third in Gaza), in which, after weeks of battle, the IDF, despite overwhelming superiority in firepower and manpower, stopped short before silencing attacks on Israel’s civilian population by small groups of Arab irregulars. Why did they not inflict decisive, not to say indisputable defeat on the enemy? Without wishing to belittle the impressive feats of intelligence collection and technological advancement, and the praiseworthy organization of civil defense, the massive damage inflicted on Gaza was hardly a feat of breathtaking military prowess, given the unrestricted and unopposed use of the skies.
Moreover, as previous bouts have shown, aerial bombardments failed to have any lasting effect on the will to engage, and, within a short time, Hamas emerged with its operational abilities and its political status considerably enhanced. Indeed, as new polls have shown, despite the widespread devastation in Gaza, Hamas’s popularity has soared.
It is likewise difficult to see what diplomatic dividends the campaign reaped. By shying away from massive use of force at the start, the government frittered away all the incipient goodwill it enjoyed because of a widespread perception that Israel’s civilian centers had been subjected to unprovoked and indiscriminate bombardment.
Dismal diplomatic dividends
The sights of ruin displayed for weeks on end on TV screens across the world, as the fighting dragged needlessly on, returned transitory perceptions of Israel from victim to traditional victimizer – 4,000 missiles being rained down on its cities, towns, villages and farms, notwithstanding.
As the fighting dragged on, anti-Israel elements anti-Israel sentiments were allowed to mobilize and to mount, and countries whose censure of Israel is usually relatively mild began to display levels of rancor seldom seen.
Just how ephemeral any alleged diplomatic achievements were was quickly exposed by the international outrage at Israel’s declaration of (gasp) 400 hectares of land in Gush Etzion as “state lands.” (To give readers a sense of proportion, this is equivalent to an area roughly 1.5 miles by 1.5 miles.) In response to this “monstrous” act by Israel, the US officially called on Israel to reverse its decision: “We are deeply concerned about the declaration of a large area as ‘state land.’” A large area? Really? 2.25 square miles? The EU railed that it ”... reiterates that it will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties... We call on the Israeli authorities to reverse this decision.”
Diplomatic dividends? Difficult to discern, aren’t they?
Catalogue of canards
In light of the unwelcome outcome of Protective Edge, official government spokespeople and unofficial apologists tried to put a brave face on things, endeavoring to persuade us – unsuccessfully – that what we got was the best we could get, and to present – unconvincingly – what, at a stretch, was a mediocre benefit, as positively superlative.
To this end they provided a veritable catalogue of canards to explain away, excuse, rationalize, vindicate, and justify the unsatisfactory outcomes of the campaign and to ease the widespread sense of unease felt by large segments of the public.
However, by invoking these canards, they exposed a far deeper malaise afflicting the strategic discourse in the country and the dangerous mixture of misplaced resignation and complacency that accompanies it.
An exhaustive discussion of these canards, with the highly detrimental effects on Israel’s decision-making procedures, would call for a full column devoted to each of them. Accordingly, what follows is a brutally condensed catalogue, a short synopsis of the major ones and of the manner in which they damage the conduct of the nation’s affairs.
International pressure canard
International pressure, in general, and US pressure, in particular, is often raised as a major factor inhibiting more assertive policy decisions by Israel and more robust action by the IDF. This, however, is an argument that is difficult to accept and, on closer inspection, it seems that “international pressure” is more an excuse to justify, rather than a reason elucidating, Israel’s continued policy of political concession and military reticence.
For if the government were really concerned with world opinion and the allegedly constricting effect it has on Israel’s strategic policy-making, it is impossible to understand why it is allotting such pathetically puny resources to contend with it. If Israel’s leadership really believed that international pressure was a factor of genuine importance, the current behavior borders on the inexplicably irrational or the inexcusably incompetent.
The appalling truth is that the government invests less than Israeli corporations spend on promoting children’s snacks. In the words of one former Likud minister: “The results of the war in the media directly affect the results of the war in the field... It is dreadful to hear that the Osem snack Bamba has a promotional budget two to three times the total state budget for public diplomacy.” The consequences are hardly surprising.
International pressure (cont)
In similar vein, one leading UK expert lamented several years ago: “Israel needs to understand that hasbara [public diplomacy] is not a luxury... It is a strategic necessity....
You cannot expect the media to cover ‘your side’ of the story when you haven’t bothered to cultivate it.... If the government is taking hasbara seriously, then it is unclear why it is not investing in it.”
Obviously, if Israel is not investing in disseminating its message, there is little reason to expect it to be received.
Conversely, if Israel is not investing in repudiating the manifestly mendacious claims of its adversaries, there is every reason to expect them to be accepted at face value.
This abysmal situation is far more the result of ill-considered parsimony than of real financial exigencies. For as I have pointed out repeatedly, if the government were to assign 1 percent of the state budget for public diplomacy, this would make $1 billion available for making Israel’s case in the world.
So even without going into the questionable qualitative content of the message, the mere measurable quantitative aspects of Israel’s diplomatic endeavor (or lack thereof) stridently underscore Melanie Phillip’s scathing condemnation two weeks ago that Israel has abandoned the “battlefield of the mind” to its enemies.
This is a willful abandonment.
For if the nation’s leaders do not allot the resources necessary to forge the degree of freedom required to adopt a more assertively coercive policy toward our sworn enemies – despite the fact that these resources are available – it means that they choose not to.
The canard-compliant conclusions are clear for all who care to draw them.
The anti-Semitism canard
Not infrequently, the claim is raised that “no amount of PR can counteract anti-Israel acrimony,” and more vigorous public diplomacy effort is futile because of the visceral anti-semitism (I prefer “Judeophobia”) that pervades much of the public in many of the countries in the West.
As someone who grew up in a small mining town in South Africa, and as the only Jew on my high school rugby team, where Judeophobic sentiments were always bubbling close to the surface, I do not wish to belittle the impact of irrational anti-Jewish enmity that prevails in much of the world. However, I suggest that in many cases, rather than anti-Jewish sentiments fueling anti-Israel sentiments, it is Israel’s failure to convey its case effectively and cogently that facilitates the burgeoning propagation of hatred against the Jews we now witness.
In “Dereliction of duty” (October 25, 2013), I wrote: “The ongoing debacle of the (mis)conduct of Israeli public diplomacy... is not only endangering the nation’s security, it is imperiling the safety of Jewish communities across the globe.”
To underscore this, a 2011 study of public opinion across seven EU countries found that “more than 40 percent of citizens 16 years and older... agree with the statement that Israel is carrying out ‘a war of extermination’ against Palestinians.” An October 2013 Jerusalem Post editorial lamented: “An astounding number of Europeans feel a tremendous amount of opprobrium for anything connected to Israel... And since visibly identifiable Jews are connected with Israel,” rather than anti-Jewish prejudices generating anti-Israel prejudices, anti-Israel animosity translates into anti-Jewish animosity.
By allowing Israel’s image to become so distorted and debased, Israel has made being Jewish a risk-fraught experience.
The Obama canard
Many try to attribute Israel limiting its military operations in Gaza to pressure stemming from the blatant antipathy of the Obama administration. Again, I would submit that this is an excuse rather than a reason for Israel’s conduct.
But before I argue why that is the case, let me state categorically that I have little inclination to defend the US president. Quite the contrary, I consider the Obama incumbency an unmitigated disaster not only for the US and its allies (including Israel) but for the entire Judeo-Christian edifice of the Western world – see my “Will the West withstand the Obama presidency?” (November 28, 2013).
However, not everything can – or should – be blamed on its bias against Israel.
For example, the unsatisfactory conduct of the 2006 Second Lebanon War and 2008 Operation Cast Lead cannot be ascribed to Barack Obama, who only assumed office in 2009. Indeed, these campaigns were conducted during the George W. Bush incumbency – yet in both cases, much as in Protective Shield, Israel refrained from ordering the IDF to achieve decisive victory.
More significantly, for Israeli decision-makers, the attitude of the Obama administration was no surprise.
Unequivocal indications of the president’s Islamophilic proclivities have been long apparent. Yet although Binyamin Netanyahu has been in power continuously for over half a decade, he and his government have done nothing to put in place mechanisms to contend with the detrimental effects of the White House’s predilections.
There has been no concerted effort to mobilize the potent pools of support Israel has in the US general public (a 4:1 advantage over the Palestinians), or in Congress – and to leverage that into political clout vis-a-vis the executive branch.
There has been little or no effort to co-opt elites and initiate pro-Israel campaigns across US campuses to keep the White House in check and “on the back-foot”; or to set up a complex of “circuitously” funded NGOs to express positions that might be too “forthright” for Israeli officialdom to adopt...
If you know a storm is brewing, but take no measures to prepare for it, when the storm hits, who is responsible for the damage? The storm... or you?
It seems that this column has gotten away from me and constraints of space and time preclude me from discussing a host of other canards that have been invoked in the defense of the government’s conduct of Operation Protective Edge.
• The “Mowing the grass”/“managing the conflict” canard;
• The “New Mid-East alliances” canard;
• The “Weaken but preserve Hamas” canard and the related “If not Hamas, then Islamic State” canard;
• The “Strengthen Abbas” canard;
• The “Inadmissibility of ‘victory’” canard; and
• “The day after” canard.
Subject to breaking news, I will get to them next week.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.