The fatal error of neglecting the narrative

This error may have cost Syrian rebels the war – and it’s endangering Israel’s future.

Free Syrian Army fighter 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Aref Hretani)
Free Syrian Army fighter 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Aref Hretani)
Israeli politicians and opinion leaders are understandably preoccupied right now with the Iranian nuclear program. Nevertheless, they ought to spare five minutes to read last week’s column by Michael Young, opinion editor of the Lebanese Daily Star. Young analyzes how the Syrian regime, whose downfall once seemed inevitable, managed to turn the situation around so completely that its survival now seems certain. But his analysis is disturbingly relevant to Israel’s own international situation.
Young credits Syrian President Bashar Assad with a shrewd grasp of the Western mindset. The Syrian dictator understood that averting Western intervention required turning Western opinion against the rebels, and he crafted an effective strategy for doing so: equating them with al-Qaida. But the rebels’ own incompetence greatly facilitated this strategy, Young wrote: “They never appreciated how much the narrative matters. Rather than concentrating on unifying their fragmented ranks and speaking with one message and voice to the outside world, they have been caught up in internecine disputes, with each political and armed group pursuing a parochial agenda.” As a result, the West is now prepared to let Assad keep slaughtering them with impunity.
Change a few names and terms, and Young’s analysis is equally valid for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like Assad, the Palestinians “understood that one front in [their] war had to be fought over Western public opinion,” so they hammered home their message with the same monotonous relentlessness Assad used in painting the rebels as al-Qaida: Israelis are brutal occupiers who stole the Palestinians’ land; Palestinians merely seek to reclaim these “occupied Palestinian territories.” And, like Assad, their opponents “never appreciated how much the narrative matters” and proved incapable of “speaking with one message and voice to the outside world.” Consequently, the Palestinian strategy has worked every bit as well as Assad’s has.
Nowadays, few non-Israelis remember that the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which was subsequently reaffirmed by the UN Charter, assigned the West Bank and Gaza to the Jewish “national home” and explicitly called for “close settlement by Jews” on this land, in recognition of the Jews’ “historical connection” to it. Few remember that the “pre-1967 border” was determined by the 1949 Armistice Agreement, which stipulated explicitly that it wasn’t a final border: It was “dictated exclusively by military considerations” and does not “in any way prejudice the rights, claims and positions of either Party hereto in the ultimate peaceful settlement.” Few remember that the West Bank and Gaza were illegally occupied in 1948 by Jordan and Egypt, respectively, and recaptured by Israel in a defensive war. Few remember that UN Resolution 242 was deliberately worded to let Israel keep some of these territories, without land swaps, and that it in no way mandates establishing a Palestinian state. Few remember that even in the Oslo Accords and its successor agreements, Israel never waived its claim to retain some of this land or promised to stop construction there. In short, non-Israelis no longer remember any of the facts essential to making Israel’s legal and moral case – because Israelis never remind them. And therefore, Israel is seen as the villain and the Palestinians as innocent victims.
Clearly, no democracy could ever match the unanimity of messaging achievable by undemocratic entities like the PLO or the Palestinian Authority. Israelis have legitimate disagreements over both what should become of the territories and how to achieve this desired outcome, and these issues can and should be debated. Moreover, jockeying for political advantage is an inseparable part of the democratic game, and this often requires people and parties to sharpen rather than blur their differences.
Yet these debates too often obscure the vast areas of Israeli consensus. Outside the far-left fringe, for instance, nobody in Israel thinks the West Bank is “occupied Palestinian territory”; even those who favor ceding most of it for peace believe Israel has a legitimate claim to it. Similarly, most Israelis agree that Israel must retain at least some of this territory, and that ceding any of it is impossible without expansive security arrangements (an IDF presence in the Jordan Valley, supervision of Palestinian border crossings, overflight rights, etc.); as even Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn admitted three years ago, on these issues, there are no differences between the “right-wing” Binyamin Netanyahu and the left-wing Ehud Olmert. Most Israelis also agree that the Palestinians aren’t currently ready for peace in any borders. And so forth.
The problem is that few Israeli opinion leaders ever bother publicly explaining these points of consensus. Precisely because they are so widely accepted here, politicians and pundits see no need to expound on them, and would rather devote their energy to battling over areas where they disagree. Yet in so doing, they guarantee that people overseas will never share this Israeli consensus – because they will never even have heard the arguments in its favor.
Getting Israel’s message across is primarily the government’s responsibility. But precisely because Israel is a cacophonous democracy, the government can’t do it alone. When opposition politicians, for instance, relentlessly attack Netanyahu as “anti-peace,” non-Israelis don’t realize this means “we share 90% of his positions, but think we could manage the talks better”; they think the opposition is agreeing with the Palestinians that Netanyahu’s positions are uniformly unacceptable. And the world therefore concludes that since even mainstream Israelis agree with the Palestinians, the latter must be right.
Every Israeli (barring those outliers who really do buy the Palestinian narrative) has a supreme interest in persuading the world of the justice and rightness of Israel’s cause, both to avert potential sanctions and to win international support for Israel’s positions under any potential peace deal. Consequently, every Israeli opinion leader has a responsibility to stress these points of consensus alongside the points that divide us, rather than focusing solely on the latter. For if we don’t broadcast our own message clearly and consistently, nobody else will do it for us.
Like the Syrian opposition, we are leaving the field clear for our enemies define us – as “occupiers,” “oppressors” and “thieves.” And by so doing, we aren’t merely losing the battle for world opinion. We’re refusing even to fight it.