Winning the debate by changing the terms
The difficult incidents of the last couple of weeks, including the terror attack near Eilat and the subsequent barrage of rockets from Gaza into Israeli cities and towns, inform us of two things. First, Israel’s enemies continue their commitment to attack and target Israeli civilians in a variety of ways; and, second, when Israel rightly defends itself and responds to these attacks, it will suffer from criticism and a public image dilemma.
After the attack outside of Eilat, Israel immediately chased the perpetrators as they attempted to escape into Egypt. Israeli forces fired into Egypt, killing three Egyptian soldiers accidentally. Israel was immediately condemned by Egypt and others in the international community. Even worse, the main news story on most news sources became the “tensions between Israel and Egypt” due to the killing of the Egyptian soldiers, as opposed to what should have been the main story: the horrific terror attack against Israelis.
After the attack, over 100 rockets were launched from Gaza at Israeli cities including Be’er Sheva, Ofakim, and Ashdod, killing one Israeli and injuring many others. Israel immediately responded with airstrikes into Gaza targeting terrorists and their locations. The media’s coverage was peculiar — The New York Times headlined “Israelis Hit Gaza and Militants Fire Rockets after Deadly Attacks,” accompanied by a picture of a Palestinian man crying, with a caption: “Palestinians at a Gaza hospital after an Israeli airstrike in retaliation for attacks near Eilat, Israel.” A second article in the Times was headlined “Casualties on Both Sides as Israel and Gaza Trade Fire,” with a picture of a dead two-year-old Palestinian child being carried at a funeral.
At best the media covered the story with moral equivalency, as if the targeted murder of civilians driving in their car was morally equivalent to Israel’s pursuit of those responsible for the attacks, or that rockets aimed at civilian populations was morally equivalent to the indirect killing of civilians in strikes aimed at the attacks’ masterminds.
Unfortunately, we have seen this scene before. What is the best way to respond? My experience in training thousands of students to advocate effectively for Israel on college campuses over the past 10 years has taught me the following important principles:
Arguments and facts are important, but narratives and emotional connections affect people. It is important for people to understand that Israel is the victim in this situation, not the aggressor, and has a right to defend itself. But simply stating that, even with an explanation of the timeline of events, is not enough. What’s crucial is to give people an emotional connection to the situation that Israelis are feeling. Tell them about Yossi Shushan, a 38-year-old Israeli man who was killed in Be’er Sheva? as he raced home to check on his pregnant wife, while a major Israeli city was being deluged with rockets. Communicate President Obama’s response in 2008 to similar attacks on Sderot: “[I]f missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that.”
Control the debate, don’t just argue the other side’s issues. While our knee-jerk reaction is to argue that Israel is not targeting Palestinian civilians and that Israel is acting with restraint, we also have to realize that by arguing this issue — even if we are right — we are losing the bigger battle. For example, if two people are debating whether someone should go to jail or not, it doesn’t matter the outcome of the debate; even if the person is exonerated, he has lost in the world of public image. Israel’s detractors know that we have the facts and truth on our side. But they also realize that they’ll win the PR battle by putting Israel on the defensive.
So what should we do? Communicate the messages that show Israel in a different light, a view that is positive and creates an emotional positive reaction. For example, instead of arguing that Israel is not targeting Palestinian civilians (which is obviously true), say, “People on both sides of the conflict have unfortunately suffered, but the real issue is how do we move forward? How do we create a situation where neither innocent Israelis nor Palestinians need to suffer? Israelis have shown their willingness to live in peace with the Palestinians and to compromise to achieve this peace. Unfortunately the Palestinian leadership has not reciprocated.”
By communicating in this manner, we can get across a message that is well received — that Israelis want peace and are willing to compromise for it — as well as focus on a message that we want to communicate, not falling into the trap of Israel’s detractors.