The five-day escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and Israel in early May produced a mixed diplomatic result for Israel, and, above all, underlined the lack of a long-term Israeli strategy regarding the Hamas-controlled enclave as well as an ineffective Israeli public diplomacy system.
On the positive side, the escalation demonstrated that despite US President Joe Biden’s negative perception of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following the latter’s attempt to reform Israel’s judicial system, the American commitment to Israel remains strong. This vital commitment continues to extend into international organizations, as demonstrated by Washington’s blockage of an attempt to pass an anti-Israel decision at the United Nations Security Council.
During this last escalation, the international media and the international community’s criticism of Israel’s actions were not particularly voluminous. This resulted from the fact that the escalation was short-lived with a relatively low number of casualties and limited destruction in Gaza, when compared to previous rounds of fighting against Hamas.
At the tactical military level, Israel achieved its goal in the first few seconds of Operation Shield and Arrow, when it simultaneously hit three senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commanders in Gaza, in three different locations. At this point, after regaining at least some of its lost deterrence power vis-à-vis the terror organizations, Israel would have preferred a swift end to hostilities.
However, the operation dragged on for five more days, due to the absence of an effective completion mechanism to bring it to a halt. Iran, which finances and trains the PIJ, encouraged its proxy to continue firing on Israel.
In addition, the operation exposed a gaping hole in Israel’s ability to coordinate a unified public messaging campaign that involves various components, such as the Prime Minister’s office, the Foreign Ministry, the IDF Spokesperson Unit, and others.
To this day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to appoint a head of the public diplomacy division, which is stationed in his own office and is answerable to him directly. Nor has he yet appointed a spokesperson to the international media. Luckily, this last Gaza operation ended before international pressure started to mount. Israel cannot however afford the luxury of lacking a functioning professional public diplomacy apparatus.
To make things worse, Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan, lacks any experience in this line of activity. She appeared to be caught off guard by the military operation and released amateur and ineffective video messages during the escalation, which appeared to be a diversion to her acting as a divisive internal Israeli voice that attacks protesters against the judicial reform.
Netanyahu needs to pay attention
NETANYAHU, WHO has always paid great attention to public diplomacy, should urgently pay attention to this matter and repair what is now clearly a dysfunctional structure – before a much more serious regional or international challenge erupts.
During this minor escalation with the relatively marginal PIJ terror organization, Israel did not pay a heavy price for this governmental chaos. But future, larger conflicts, will surely exact heavier prices from Israel on the international stage.
This latest round, therefore, is a clear warning that the Prime Minister must take significant steps to put his house in order.
Israel’s diplomatic standing is also harmed by the fact that Jerusalem lacks a strategy for Gaza, and the Palestinian issue in general. This lack of strategy has a knock-on effect on all other aspects of the state’s performance in this context, including public diplomacy.
Rather than looking for an arrangement, or at least some sort of long-term agreement, it seems that Israel is being dragged into endless bursts of violent eruptions against Hamas, PIJ, or both. And it seems that the intervals between these rounds are getting shorter.
The lack of any new strategic concept that can fundamentally chip away at the old Gaza equation is taking a toll, internally, regionally, and in the wider international arena. Thus, it is clear that the next round is around the corner.
The world is preoccupied with burning global issues, like Russia’s assault on Ukraine and economic challenges, and is getting tired of repetitious clashes between Gazan terror factions and Israel.
This is not welcome news for Israel, which needs active international attention directed to Iran’s nuclear advances and its network of terror.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad is a small part of the Iranian web of client terror organizations that constantly threaten to destabilize the region. Far more significant members of this network are Hamas and, of course, Hezbollah. The likelihood of simultaneous attacks on Israel by Iranian proxies on more than one front is growing.
The IDF is preparing for such developments. It is essential that Netanyahu also uses this time to put his public diplomacy structure in order. It may be needed sooner rather than later.
The writer is a publishing expert with The MirYam Institute. He is a former deputy director-general of the Foreign Ministry.