Is this the war in which Israel won the hasbara, or public information, battle?
Although it’s not hard to find references to Israeli “disproportionality,” and public opinion can change on a dime, what seems to make this Gaza incursion different from those that came before is a lack of condemnation from the usual quarters.
American Jews especially are sensitive to the notion that “the world” gives the Palestinians a pass, and that “the media” want Israel to turn the other cheek. But in the current war’s first two weeks, Congress and the White House were fully and loudly on board with Israel’s right to defend itself, the UN was quiescent, and even dependably pro-Palestinian or at least even-handed European capitals have been slow to criticize. Most newspaper editorials, while urging “restraint,” also asserted Israel’s right to defend itself.
Perhaps most significantly, the Muslim world has either been distracted or — pinch me — critical of Hamas for jeopardizing innocent lives in Gaza or taunting the Israeli bear.
Many Muslim leaders took their lead from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who criticized Hamas on Palestinian television for provoking “unnecessary deaths” and “trading in Palestinian blood” by firing rockets at Israel. “It’s remarkable,” Palestinian analyst Diana Buttu told The New York Times on Sunday. “In all the other invasions and assaults on Gaza, there was at least some government that would come out and talk about how what Israel was doing was illegal and show some support. This time around, there’s been nothing. The silence is deafening.”
Those who complain that the world just doesn’t get it point to the Times’ editorial page, leftist reliables like The Guardian, and a particularly incoherent bit by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. But if Israel lost Jon Stewart, it gained Bill Maher, who defended Israel on his HBO show, and The Onion, which on July 18 ran an item with the headline, “Palestinians Starting To Have Mixed Feelings About Being Used As Human Shields.” The parodic article seemed to accept Israel’s charge that Hamas militants “strategically store their missile batteries” in and around private homes and are “actually okay” with civilians dying.
As for the Times, even some of its usual critics of Israel don’t quite seem to have their heart in it this time around. Thomas Friedman had barely written on the conflict by July 22. Nicholas Kristof wrote an even-handed column on Sunday, but if pro-Israel readers bristled at his description of Gaza as an “open-air prison,” they might have cheered at his defense of Israel’s right “not to to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings.”
So to what does Israel owe all this relative good will? You can thank Hamas, for refusing to still the rocket fire and for rejecting the early Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to accept the ceasefire, over the objections of his right wing, was a master stroke that did more to make Israel’s case than a dozen interviews on CNN could have.
Timing also helps. Just as the war heated up, the Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine, diverting front pages and the cable networks from what would have otherwise been nonstop coverage of the Gaza war.
Hamas also had the bad luck — or excellent timing, from Israel’s perspective — of sending Israelis into air-raid shelters in the wake of the ISIS takeover in eastern Iraq. That crisis has solidified Western fears of radical Islamists, in whatever their guise. On CNN Sunday night, a pro-Palestinian activist’s condemnation of Israeli actions was underlined — and undermined — by a screen crawl reporting that ISIS had expelled Christians from Mosul under the threat of conversion or death.
Even the vicious anti-Israel riots in Europe may have prompted typically hostile media to tone down the pro-Palestinian rhetoric.
So why do so many in the pro-Israel camp stick to the narrative that “the whole world is against us”? In part, it is reflex — they’ve become accustomed to having to justify even the most basic right of Israel to defend itself, and have been conditioned to expect one-sided or incompetent reports on the conflict. Part of it is self-justification: Images of mourning Palestinians and mangled children are sad and horrifying, and defenders of Israel are desperate to counter any perception that Israel has ceded the moral high ground.
You can also blame social media, which amplifies the extreme voices on all sides. When was the last time someone shared an article with the recommendation, “Take a look at this sober and balanced article about the Middle East situation that respectively and accurately depicts the complex positions on both sides!!”
I am under no illusion that Israel will continue to win the hasbara war — there are already predictions that deadly incidents like the July 20 battle in Shejaiya will change the narrative from restraint and self-defense to disproportionality and overreach. Until then, Israel and its supporters are being shown a fairly clear example of what works in the court of public opinion: transparent goals, a distinct and ruthless enemy, and, unfortunately, an unmistakable dose of Jewish suffering.