Diplomacy: A case of over-messaging

The 'Victoria’ seizure might have long-term impact, but the world was preoccupied, the carnival-like display of seized arms hit a wrong note.

Victoria arms ship 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Victoria arms ship 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The Israeli public was violently awoken from its Oslo-induced reverie on October 12, 2000 when reservists Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami made a wrong turn, entered Ramallah and were brutally murdered in a Palestinian Authority police station.
The grisly picture of Aziz Salha triumphantly waving his open-palmed, blood drenched hands to the cheering crowd below convinced many that the notion we were just a few steps away from peace with the Palestinians was nothing but a pipe dream. That incident, known as the Ramallah lynching, exposed to many the depth of the hatred on the other side. It was a turning point in public opinion.
Fifteen months and numerous terrorist attacks later, naval commandos seized the Karine A and some 50 tons of arms – rockets, launchers, grenades, bombs, machine guns and Sagger missiles – headed for the Palestinian Authority. That incident rammed home to many fair-minded people in the world what Israel was up against. Six months later, after a continuation of mind-numbing terrorism that peaked with the Passover eve massacre in Netanya and the attack at Tel Aviv’s Dolphinarium in June, president George W. Bush delivered a key speech at the end of June 2002 essentially joining prime minister Ariel Sharon in ruling out Yasser Arafat as a peace partner.
Echoes of both the Ramallah lynching and Karine A were condensed into one five-day period this week. The incomprehensibly vicious murders of the Fogel family in Itamar on Friday night, coupled with the interdiction of the Victoria on the high seas early Tuesday morning, proved once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Fogels were Nurzhitz and Avrahami; the Victoria was the Karine A. Only the names have changed.
YET, IN a matter of days and sure as clockwork, prominent voices in the world and inside the country will once again be heard pressing Jerusalem to take steps to show the Palestinians it wants peace, and to take measures to build up Palestinian confidence. But, after a week like this, one asks, “How about our confidence?” None of this has been lost on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who in private meetings this week commented that Israel doesn’t know if there is a true willingness on the other side to reach peace. He also said that things were not made any easier by the fact that it was like “pulling teeth” getting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to issue a serious condemnation of the Itamar attack.
In other words, Netanyahu, who only last week was reportedly working on a major policy initiative to be unfurled in Washington that would, in one form or another, cede control and sovereignty over even larger parts of the West Bank, was apparently having second thoughts. His confidence that a diplomatic process was possible – never high to begin with – was obviously shaken.
As proof of this, there was no talk by Netanyahu’s aides of a new initiative.
Netanyahu himself, again in private meetings, refused to say whether he was planning a new initiative or working on a major new policy address, saying instead it was necessary to examine the rapidly changing situation in the region.
Instead of channeling public conversation this week toward a new diplomatic plan, the messages coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office had to do with Palestinian incitement and approval of a few hundred homes in the large settlement blocks. And there was also a full-court press trying to get the what-we-are-up- against-message out to a world understandably preoccupied with the triple disasters (earthquake, tsunami and possible nuclear catastrophe) in Japan and the volatile situation in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.
DESPITE OBVIOUSLY dramatic events taking place here, Israel found itself in the unusual position of not being at the center of the world’s attention, a fact that should have been kept in mind when planning Wednesday’s festival in Ashdod surrounding the display of some of the 50 tons of arms – quantitatively the same haul as taken off the Karine A – for the world to see.
An old adage repeated often in the army is that “if you do something and don’t report it, you didn’t do it.” Well, Israel did something extremely significant Tuesday morning in seizing the Victoria and its deadly cargo, but then fell over itself trying to over-report it.
There was something much too carnival-like in Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, OC Navy Adm. Eliezer Marom and Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs minister Yuli Edelstein all clamoring around the munitions taken off the ship at Ashdod Port to draw attention to what had transpired.
What transpired was indeed important, and it is vital for the world to see what goes into Gaza, but there are different ways of getting the message across. Any one of these men could have done that, but having them all there smacked too much of a credit-claiming show and detracted from Netanyahu’s cogent argument that the haul is the answer to all those who criticize Israel for stopping Gaza-bound ships.
Sometimes, one diplomatic official acknowledged, it is better to do things in a lower key, more modestly and humbly, and just let the facts or the events speak for themselves.
If things are presented in too bombastic a manner, they smack of propaganda.
(Strains of the same debate could be heard following the Fogel murders and the public argument over whether it was necessary to release gruesome pictures from the murder scene, or whether less graphic pictures would suffice.) Rather than simply inviting the media to Ashdod Port to watch soldiers unpack the crates Wednesday morning, or simply briefing key ambassadors and military attaches on the operation, a major choreographed media-event was ordered. Why? Because just as the word impossible, as the French proverb goes, is not French (Le mot impossible n’est pas français), understatement is not Hebrew.
But there is a danger to overstatement, to overkill. If the symphony is always playing at fortissimo, the music loses its effect and the audience’s attention.
To put it another way, food can be served in a number of different ways. A plate with enticing aromas can be placed before a guest who is then politely invited to partake, or you can shove the food into the guest’s face and scream, “Eat!” For various reasons, some of which have to do with Jewish historic experience and the need never to understate the creeping shadow because if you do, you may pay with your life, Israel often goes the shove-the-platein- your-face route.
But during a week in which an otherwise preoccupied world remained largely apathetic to two events that will have considerable effect on the collective Israeli psyche, and on the progress of the diplomatic process that has been hallowed by the world, it is not altogether clear this is a path that is yielding the desired results.