Snap Judgement: The limits of empathy

The 9/11 attacks did not noticeably influence discourse abroad on the Israeli/Arab conflict, or generate any additional sense of identification with victims of terrorism here, for several reasons.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro at the 9/11 Living Memorial in Jerusalem, September 11, 2016 (photo credit: US EMBASSY)
US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro at the 9/11 Living Memorial in Jerusalem, September 11, 2016
(photo credit: US EMBASSY)
On 9/11 I was working in the old Jerusalem Post office, watching the events in New York unfold live on television. As a jet slammed into the second tower of the World Trade Center, erasing any doubts that this was a terrorist attack, a colleague standing beside me muttered: “Well, now America is finally going to know how we feel.”
That comment didn’t sit right with me on a couple of levels, including the tone of resentment at a time when nothing more than shock, sympathy and sorrow were called for. Still, I could understand where the remark was coming from; Israel was in the midst of its own unprecedented wave of terrorism, and much of the world’s concern seemed far more focused on how the Palestinians were affected by the Israeli countermeasures to stop it, rather than on the victims of the initial acts of violence.
Beyond that, I felt this prognostication would prove wrong, and this subsequently proved to be the case. The 9/11 attacks did not noticeably influence discourse abroad on the Israeli/Arab conflict, or generate any additional sense of identification with victims of terrorism here, for several reasons.
To start with, a sharp line of distinction was drawn between Palestinian terrorism against Israel, and al-Qaida’s crusade against the US and the West – this despite the scenes of celebration seen on 9/11 in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. One big reason was surely that the face of Palestinian militancy belonged at that time to Yasser Arafat, who was still seen internationally as a banner-carrier of the revolutionary Third World anti-colonial resistance spawned in the 1960s, a secular political ideology that seemed a philosophical world away from the inchoate radical Islamic rage that fueled the 9/11 attackers.
Another factor was that the sheer scale of the incident, so beyond any previous terrorist attack in the West and even in Israel, made it seem like an unprecedented, one-off fluke, a “Black Swan” event unrelated to broader trends, and an unlikely harbinger of things to come. That latter notion, of course, turned out to be the biggest false assumption about 9/11.
It is only in the last few years that we have moved into a world where acts of radical Islamic terrorism have become an unavoidable feature of the global landscape, with Islamic State inspiring a continuous stream of violence beyond anything al-Qaida achieved in the years following 9/11. And, I would argue, it is this wave of more recent attacks that finally achieved what my colleague thought would occur 15 years ago – much of the world, including the US, does have a better idea of what it’s like to live in a society continually under the threat of terrorism.
A strain of terrorism, not incidentally, that is no longer perceived by many abroad as unrelated to those who seek to kill Israelis and Jews. Arafat is gone, and the banner of violent Palestinian resistance is now carried by Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and “lone wolf” attackers inspired by the same Islamic State social media that motivate attacks in the US and Europe.
Of course this doesn’t mean that the international community has suddenly adopted wholesale the Israeli narrative of the conflict with its Arab neighbors, or diminished support for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza that is shared by at least half of Israel’s own public. But you only have to examine how the international community reacted to Israel’s most recent military operation against Hamas in 2014, or to the wave of Palestinian solo attacks that kicked off about year ago, to see a notable shift in how much of the world views Israel’s response to Palestinian violence.
Yes, certain Israeli measures against the Palestinians, including collective punishments such as home demolitions and incidents of collateral fatalities from Israeli fire, still draws routine international condemnation; but these have practically become a sort of pro forma diplomatic virtual theater, with little actual significance.
ONE PERSON who has surely detected this attitude change is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. One way he has sought to utilize it is through the several trips he has made over the past year to European countries – including Italy, Germany and the Netherlands – now more likely to prove receptive to the idea of Israel as a full front-line partner in the battle against Islamic terrorism. Before leaving for the Netherlands, Netanyahu said his goal was to create a “new understanding” in Europe of Israel’s central role in “preventing the spread of radical Islamic terrorism,” a mission that perhaps for the first time won’t fall entirely on deaf eyes abroad.
However, there are limits to the empathy Israel can hope for from the international community, no matter how much the global terrorism landscape has changed in recent years – and the prime minister surely pushed beyond those boundaries in his latest English-language video message accusing the Palestinians of demanding “ethnic cleansing” by demanding the removal of all Jewish settlements from a potential Palestinian state in the West Bank.
Netanyahu’s goal here was clear, in wanting to use against the Palestinians some of the some over-heated rhetoric they routinely hurl against Israel, including the spurious “ethnic cleansing” charge. Unfortunately, simply judged as a tactical public diplomacy ploy, this attempt was doomed to fail as a defense of Israel’s settlements policy.
It’s not just all the logical fallacies involved here: Is the prime minister suggesting it would be acceptable in a final-status deal to have those Israelis residing over the Green Line live under Palestinian sovereignty? Is his call for the right of Jews living anywhere they want between the Mediterranean and Jordan not opening the door for a similar concession to all Palestinian refugees, a.k.a. the right of return? Is he fine with making no distinction between Israelis living in east Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, and those in unauthorized, isolated settler outposts specifically erected to thwart any chance of Palestinian statehood?
The even bigger problem here is that anyone abroad who follows the Israeli/Palestinian conflict close enough to understand why the whole “ethnic cleansing” issue is relevant to this debate, is not going to be swayed by any attempt to justify this government’s settlement policy. The prime minister, who knows a thing or two about public diplomacy, seemed to forget here the most basic political messaging rules: Know who your audience is, and K.I.S.S., i.e. Keep it simple, stupid.
Netanyahu is right in believing that he can now win some hearts and minds abroad by selling Israel as a front-line Western state in the war against radical Islamic terrorism; he’s wrong in believing the same atmosphere will support a turn-around in the international community’s position on settlements, no matter how hard he tries to sell it.
Still, it must have seemed very clever to some people in the Prime Minister’s Office to throw back the “ethnic cleansing” smear at the Palestinians. I’ll leave the final word on that to David St. Hubbins, the dim-witted heavy-metal rocker in the classic movie mock-umentary This is Spinal Tap: When informed why his group’s latest album cover is “sexist” and not “sexy,” he memorably responds: “It’s such a fine line between, uh, stupid and clever.” Fine line, indeed.
Calev Ben-David is the political/diplomatic correspondent of IBA News, Israel Television’s English News broadcast.
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