Gaza Isn’t Mexico: The Hasbara Dilemma

Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

I confess to great uncertainty about Israel’s current offensive in Gaza.  That Israeli’ leaders were justified in taking strong action against relentless rocket attacks is not an issue for me. Whether the current massive operation is the best option is something I don’t feel qualified to judge.

Frustrating as it is to armchair analysts watching from the safety of America, only time will tell.  If Israel succeeds in quelling the rocket fire, easing tensions along the border and increasing the likelihood of some future peace process, the operation will prove to be wise; if rockets continue to fall, Hamas emerges stronger and Iran’s influence in the region expands, it will be remembered as a strategic blunder. If political infighting in Jerusalem compromises the military action, it could turn into a disaster.

More than a week into the operation, all outcomes are possible, despite the relentlessly positive spin of Israeli spokesmen and the dire predictions of critics of Israeli policy.

But on one thing I’m pretty certain: simplistic analogies to U.S. relations with Texas or Canada  are inaccurate and misleading, and  may undercut the credibility of the people making them. And that points to the great difficulty of doing effective hasbara in a confusing, emotionally charged climate like that produced by the Gaza conflict.

You’ve heard it million times: how would the United States react if groups in Canada or Mexico were terrorizing American citizens near the borders with endless rocket or mortar attacks?

Of course the United States would respond with its great military might, the argument goes; its leaders would be negligent, not to mention unemployed,  if they showed too much forbearance.  So how can Israel be faulted for responding?

The problem is, the analogy is a false one. Israel, by its own account,  has been engaged in a long, grim struggle with Hamas , while, last time I noticed,  America has had  pretty friendly relations with Canada and Mexico for more than 150 years.

Israel has been blockading Gaza since Hamas wrested control from a hapless Fatah in 2007.   If you’re an Israeli, that blockade probably looks like one of precious few options for undermining Hamas (although there are plenty of Israelis who say squeezing Gaza too hard only creates sympathy for Hamas and strengthens  its hold on Gaza).   If you’re a Gazan, it probably looks a lot like collective punishment.

I’m not judging the Israeli blockade.  I’m not saying the plight of Sderot and other Israeli border towns that have been living under siege for years is the fault of Israeli policy, as critics at the UN seem to believe. On the contrary: it’s the fault of a terrorist group that rejects Israel’s right to exist, which isn’t exactly a good starting point for peace negotiations.

But it is naïve to suggest that the rocket attacks are entirely unrelated to the  clearly stated Israeli policy of squeezing Hamas until it ceases its terrorism and making clear to the Palestinian people the costs of their decision to elevate the terrorist group to political power.

Isn’t it counterproductive for Jewish groups that believe they are protecting Israel against a hostile world to use  black-and-white arguments that suggest  Israel is an innocent bystander to Hamas aggression and silly analogies that just undercut their credibility in the important business of supporting Israel against a biased world?

That points to the fact  that hasbara in this complex environment isn’t easy.

Faced with outrageous propaganda from anti-Israel forces (you know: the Palestinians are weak, therefore good, the Israelis are strong, therefore bad; Israel is a colonial power; this is “genocide),  pro-Israel groups too often respond in kind, reducing an incredibly complex situation to trite and sometimes inaccurate slogans and analogies.

The anti-Israel rhetoric may  play well in the Third World and in Europe, but there’s no indication it packs much of a punch in America, where support for Israel now runs pretty deep and where there’s a pretty good understanding that it’s Hamas who are the bad guys here.

Similarly, flimsy comparisons to Mexican and Canadian rocket attacks aren’t likely to do much with American audiences – except perhaps to undercut the credibility of the people making them.

The dilemma here: nuance is difficult and risky in a highly charged situation like the Gaza war. But  hasbara that sounds a lot like propaganda is unlikely to win over Israel’s opponents – and runs the risk of leading Americans in the middle to dismiss pro-Israel arguments as functionally the same as outrageous Palestinian propaganda.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.