I recently published "Op Eds Now More Central in War than Bullets"; this entry probes the subject further.
John T. Broom adds in important ways to the historical dimension of my analysis in his comment, "The Philippines and Ireland as addtional examples of early press influence." (October 19, 2006)
Apr. 1, 2009 update: In "George Bush and History's Croakers," Claudio Veliz shows that the British tradition of sympathizing with the country's enemy goes back to Napoleon, nearly a century before the Boer War.
July 3, 2009 update: Not to be forgotten in the focus on public opinion is the concomittant legal battle. Amir Mizroch discusses this today in "Israel worries over intense 'legal war'," in the Jerusalem Post.
The defense establishment is concerned at intensifying legal campaigns in foreign courts that aim to deter Israel from using force against Hamas and Hizbullah.
Reeling from four damning reports in one week from human rights organizations about the IDF's conduct in Operation Cast Lead, the sense among senior defense officials is that the "legal front" against Israel is growing at an alarming rate. ... Officials are calling for an increased appreciation throughout the government of the complexities of fighting and winning asymmetric wars within the boundaries of international humanitarian law. ...
"There is a war being waged against us in the legal sphere. Its aim is to delegitimize Israel and to create deterrence against a possible use of force in Gaza and Lebanon again," a senior defense official told The Jerusalem Post. The Post has also learned that, increasingly, legal officers, as well as soldiers from the IDF Spokesman's Office, are taking part in operational planning for possible future conflicts, at the highest levels.
"The last Gaza war is not over yet. It is being fought on another front for now. It is not just in Spain, England and Belgium. Lawyers and jurists in many countries, some of them Arab, some Jewish, are using legal means to attack Israel. There are hundreds of petitions, cases, legal opinions and actions cropping up across the world. The phenomenon is very wide and growing. The other side has a lot of money that comes from countries and people not friendly to Israel. This is another front in the war, and if we don't realize it we'll have a problem," the senior defense source said.
July 6, 2009 update: More on British pro-Napoleonic sentiments, from an article by David Pryce-Jones, "The Dark Lord," about the poet Lord Byron:
Living through the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars that followed it, he declared himself a Jacobin and sighed for a republic. He took advantage of his hereditary seat in the House of Lords to speak for men so frightened of the Industrial Revolution that they were engaged in breaking machinery — an ignorant mob, of course, rather than real rebels. In poems and epigrams, he incessantly ridiculed favorite hate-figures of his, such as the Prince Regent and the foreign minister, Lord Castlereagh. The "freedom" for which he was agitating so strongly remained conveniently abstract, a mere slogan. Bertrand Russell, of all philosophers, pointed out that Byron's concept of freedom was the same as that of a German prince or a Cherokee chief: the pleasure of doing as one pleases and not having to account for it.
George Gordon Byron
In the course of the prolonged struggle between the nations, Napoleon could have destroyed conservative England, and this was Byron's wish. In the days leading up to the decisive battle of Waterloo, Byron was writing of Napoleon, "All seems against him; but I believe and hope he will win." British victory then made Byron "damned sorry." Don Juan has a sarcastic couplet addressed to the Duke of Wellington, victor in that battle: "And I shall be delighted to learn who, / Save you and yours, have gained by Waterloo?" That poem characteristically makes fun of Wellington's nose as the hook on which to hang the whole of Europe. Wellington, the archetypal high Tory, repaid Byron with some finality: "There never existed a more worthless set than Byron and his friends, for example — poets praise fine sentiments and never practice them." Revealingly, Byron ordered a copy of Napoleon's traveling coach, costing £500, an immense sum at the time. Adopting the name Noel for financial reasons, he took to signing himself "NB," the initials he shared with his hero.
Apr. 26, 2010 update: Leslie Susser has an important article in The Jerusalem Report on Israel's predicament, "Tide of Delegitimization." He begins by setting out the stakes:
In the first two weeks of March , events marking Israel Apartheid Week were held on campuses in over 40 cities worldwide. A month earlier, Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., was shouted down at the University of California in Irvine. And last December, Kadima opposition leader Tzipi Livni canceled a visit to London, where a warrant had been issued for her arrest on war crimes charges.
The common denominator in all three developments was a stepped-up public campaign to portray Israel as a racist state and serial violator of international law, with no right to be heard and no right to exist. The delegitimization strategy is not new. But it is growing more insistent. And the danger is that if allowed to go unchecked it might achieve a critical mass that could seriously jeopardize Israel's existence as the state of the Jewish people.
He then explains why this tactic has become so prominent:
Indeed, Israeli analysts argue that for some time now the guiding assumption for many of the country's inveterate foes in the Arab world and the West has been that while Israel cannot be defeated on the battlefield, it can be brought down the way supremacist white South Africa was: through an incremental erosion of its legitimacy, backed up by an ever widening campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
Do Israel's decision-makers understand this new challenge? "Some astute observers maintain that the government does not fully comprehend the enormity of the threat and has yet to fashion a coherent strategy to meet it."
The rest of the article summarizes work done in this field. The Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank, argues that delegitimization be given the same level of attention as military threats. It warns
of the ripening of a common strategy between Islamist rejectionists – like Hamas, Hizballah and Iran – and an increasingly effective and coordinated alliance of Islamist and local delegitimizers in the West. According to Reut, both aim to bring Israel down by weakening it politically and economically, and ultimately forcing a one-state solution with a Muslim majority. Paradoxically, the rejectionist strategy is to force Israel into maintaining the occupation – which "overstretches" it economically and politically – to which the Western-based delegitimizers seek to add boycotts, divestment and sanctions, and arguments for the one-state solution.
It finds that
delegitimizers are particularly active in places like London, Madrid and the California Bay Area, which Reut calls "hubs," where they form grass-roots "networks" of activists, NGOs and fellow travelers against Israel. According to the Reut Report, the "tipping point" in their work would be growing international consensus around the one-state solution. "Perhaps the existential threat to Israel is not yet around the corner. But as we know from history, state paradigms collapse exponentially. Suddenly a few things happen to create an irresistible momentum, as happened with the Soviet Union or with apartheid South Africa," Eran Shayshon, one of the authors of the Reut Report warns.
The main goal should be to prevent delegitimization spreading from the fringes to the mainstream. As for policy recommendations:
Shayshon argues that the country's decision-makers need first to internalize the fact that Israel is facing a challenge with potentially existential repercussions. That means the delegitimization problem should be addressed in the National Security Estimate. It also means a thorough overhaul of Israel's Foreign Service. Shaped in the 1950s, Israeli diplomacy is geared to handle states and geographic areas, not "hubs" and "networks." In Shayshon's view, the new focus should be on the "hubs," like London, Madrid and the Bay Area, where dozens of additional diplomats should be deployed to engage as many people as possible in the decision-making elites on a one-to-one basis. … Another major Reut recommendation is to build anti-delegitimization networks based on Jewish and Israeli groups abroad, including NGOs. They would be better equipped than government agencies to confront and discredit the delegitimizers. "It takes a network to fight a network," Shayshon says.
Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor,
believes Israel is losing, partly because the government has no idea of how to deal with "soft power," like NGO and other stigmatization of Israel, and is quite oblivious to the seriousness of the delegitimization threat. "They don't understand how the media, the Internet and the international system work when it comes to 'soft power.' So they are easily targeted," he claims. Moreover, according to Steinberg, things are only getting worse, and the grim possibility of Israel receiving South Africa-style BDS treatment is growing.
Manfred Gerstenfeld, chairman of the Board of Fellows at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, sees this phenomenon as an aspect of antisemitism:
the campaign to delegitimize Israel parallels the total global war against the Jews waged by anti-Semites in the 20th century – the only difference being that the Nazi war against the Jews was centralized, whereas in the post-modern world of the 21st century, the war against Israel is a highly fragmented affair, fought by countless groups of different sizes. "In the modern era of the 20th century, there was one huge chimney, the German Nazi party, spreading its poison all over the world; in post-modernity the poison is spread by the exhausts of millions of cars," he elaborates. "It's highly fragmented and therefore successive Israeli governments, not having made the effort to understand the phenomenon, have had so much difficulty combating it."
June 3, 2011 update: Could the Israelis be learning to take public relations more seriously? From "How will Israel deal with the next flotilla" by Yaakov Katz in the Jerusalem Post, concerning IDF preparations for another Mavi Marmara-style breaching of the Gaza blockade:
insiders argue, Israel should be doing more to undermine the legitimacy of the flotilla. Media briefings should become a daily routine for the IDF and the Foreign Ministry – not only showing reporters the military preparations, but also explaining the legal legitimacy of the blockade now, as opposed to waiting to explain the day after, when Israel may be on the defensive.
Comments from senior officials, for example, questioning why IHH even needs to send a flotilla to Gaza when the infant mortality rate in Turkey is higher – 23.94 deaths per 1,000 live births – than it is in Gaza – 17.12 deaths per 1,000 live births (stats can be found in the CIA's official World Factbook) – should be all over the papers. …
Israel should be doing more to explain the reason for the sea blockade to begin with, the insiders say, like repeating the stories behind the Francop cargo ship in 2009 and the Victoria several months ago. The Foreign Ministry, for example, could highlight to the world how Israel's capture of the Chinese-designed C-802 anti-ship missiles, made in Iran, is currently an intelligence treasure, helping Western navies study the missile and learn how to defend against it.
One lesson that has been learned already is the need to disseminate information to the media immediately. Last year, the morning of the flotilla, it took IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu some five hours to release an official statement, and around 10 hours to release the video showing the commandos getting ambushed and lynched aboard the Mavi Marmara.
Nov. 23, 2012 update: It appears that the Israelis – and more specifically Minister for Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein – are indeed catching on to the importance of the political battle. David M. Weinberg writes in "The blog is mightier than the sword":
What truly shined over the past week of warfare with Hamas in Gaza was Israel's human infrastructure in public diplomacy. Everyday citizens of Israel and supporters of Israel around the world, especially young people, took to the airwaves and Internet bandwidth to defend Israel. Through new media and social media and from any and every home-based computer station, Israel's case was well-broadcasted and backed-up. Colorful, easy-to-comprehend graphics and snappy videos were produced quickly and shared on Facebook, Twitter and other web-based platforms in the millions.
Israel's Minister for Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein.
Even The New York Times and The Guardian were forced to take notice and run (not completely hostile) stories on the pro-Israel social media blitz.
A good deal of the credit for this new and welcome phenomena goes to Minister for Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein, who early-on understood the growing importance of non-official publics in public diplomacy and equipped Israel accordingly. What we saw this past week is partially the result of 3 ½ years of quiet preparation and training under his leadership.
Weinberg then gives an example of Edelstein's creative public diplomacy:
One of the most simple but effective, never-before-tried, exercises, was this: For several days in a row he led groups of foreign correspondents into the 106 hotline rooms of municipalities in the south. These are the telephone call-banks in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat and similar towns that receive the calls for "help" and assistance of plain-old, beleaguered Israeli citizens under fire — the elderly and infirm; the poor and the lonely; new immigrants and veterans, in dozens of languages.
Edelstein had foreign reporters sit-in and monitor the calls in the languages of their choice. They were exposed to the plight of Israelis under terrorist fire in the most unvarnished, raw way possible.
It was a simple, brilliant, and effective initiative. No correspondent could accuse the Israeli minister of public relations grandstanding or Hollywood-style glitz. It was unfiltered and authentic. It was typical of Edelstein's modest manner and effective leadership style.
Comment: How gratifying to see the Israelis wake up to their greatest weakness.
Dec. 11, 2013 update: Sarit Catz makes an excellent point today in "Where's the Coverage? Netanyahu Not the Only Leader Absent from Mandela Memorial," where she notes the "grossly over-played" fact that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, thereby implying Netanyahu's isolation. Further, so focused was the press on this factoid that it nowhere mentioned that Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was also absent, sending Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay in his place.
Comment: The mainstream media does deserve lambasting for this inconsistency. But there's also a deeper point here: Israel and Israelis are an outsized topic in the media, a pattern that goes back to its very creation. Jews are news, as they say. This should no longer surprise anyone any more. It has its negative implications, as in the Mandela memorial instance, but it also has positive ones (e.g., Netanyahu very effectively got out his message about the Geneva deal, turning around opinion in the United States). Israelis should always act with this knowledge in mind, exploit it, and avoid the negatives. That they keep being surprised by it, as in this case, points to their unending lack of awareness about the political warfare that is as important as military warfare.
Related Topics: Media, Public opinion polls, US policy
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