Natalie Menaged

Israel’s new approach to hasbara

The government's swift reaction to the flytilla and the Shalom Eisner affair show that it has begun to internalize the lessons of the past

Supporters of Israel were dismayed to see a YouTube video emerge on Sunday in which an IDF officer was seen striking an anti-Israel activist with a rifle butt during an altercation. The incident was part of an hours-long confrontation involving hundreds of anti-Israel activists, and there were reports of physical and verbal assault by the activists, but the apparent conduct of the soldier in this particular moment is shocking nonetheless.

The Israeli government and the IDF have moved quickly to deal with the situation. After a brief initial assessment, the army suspended the officer, pending a more detailed investigation. It also unequivocally condemned the behavior, while cautioning that the video did not represent a full picture of events.

The prime minister stated that “Such behavior is not characteristic of the IDF soldiers and commanders, and has no place in the IDF and Israel.” The president echoed his sentiments.

This swift Israeli reaction, compounded with the wry letter prompting hundreds of anti-Israel “flytilla” activists to focus their energies on solving “the real problems of the [Middle East],” like persecution by Syria, Iran and Hamas, seems to indicate that Israel has been embarking on what appears to be a two-pronged strategy.

First, there is the understanding that the battle for hearts and minds is as important as the physical battle for peace and security. This is a quick-moving battle that does not wait for the facts; the winner and the loser are often decided within hours. While a thorough investigation of the incident will hopefully lead to a more contextualized version of events, Israel should be commended for moving swiftly in the court of public opinion to communicate its values and accountability.

Second, there appears to be a move to proactively frame the conversation, instead of remaining on the defensive. The flytila activists sought to accuse Israel of excessive force and discrimination vis-à-vis the Palestinians. But Israel was not interested in responding to these untrue accusations in a manner that would only further an unproductive argument. Instead, Israel made two simple points – the real culprits of instability and inequality in the Middle East are the brutal regimes in Iran, Syria, Gaza and elsewhere; and Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East, where women, religious minorities, and dissenters are protected.

Some have criticized the government for acting so quickly to condemn the actions of the IDF officer, but I think this marks a bold shift in Israeli PR, which will hopefully have a powerful effect. Too often we have waited for the facts to emerge, or for the tide of history to turn our way. Examples include the battle in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield  in 2002, where the IDF acted with the utmost ethicality while rooting out terrorists, as was later confirmed even by a United Nations fact finding mission.

The letter to flytilla activists, as tweeted by Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman, Ophir Gendelman
The letter to flytilla activists, as tweeted by Benjamin Netanyahu's spokesman, Ophir Gendelman

But while Israel waited for evidence of its morality to emerge, the PA and Israel’s detractors seized the opportunity to accuse Israel of a massacre, a horrific and sympathetically received lie even today.

Similarly, Israel and its supporters felt vindicated when Richard Goldstone, author of the eponymous UN report condemning Israeli actions during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008, later admitted that Israel should have been exonerated, and that the UN was biased against Israel. Unfortunately, however, the damage to Israel’s image was already extensive.

Those of us who often take on the responsibility of communicating the true face of Israel to the world must carefully weigh when anti-Israel propaganda is worth responding to.

(And make no mistake, while the action of the IDF officer was wrong, the provocative mission and history of the International Solidarity Movement protesters, and the way the YouTube video was edited, leave no doubt that the goal of those who posted the film was to delegitimize Israel. This is certainly anti-Israel propaganda, regardless of whether an individual soldier acted wrongly.)

Engage the undecided

We must ask the following in these situations: Are the propagandists reaching an undecided audience?

In between the supporters and demonizers of Israel are a wide gulf of people who know and care little about the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that the protesters laid in wait to film the IDF’s actions, combined with the quick editing and uploading of the video, demonstrate that the goal was clearly to create a provocative clip that would engage an apathetic crowd.

The second element to be considered is whether responding to anti-Israel propaganda will give it more attention than it would otherwise earn. The video received over 100,000 hits within 24 hours of being posted. With such a reception, one can reasonably assume that the allegation is gaining enough visibility that it must be addressed. From a strategic perspective, the size and likely demographics of the audience were reason enough for the Israeli government to respond quickly.

Supporters of Israel on campus or in their local communities should also consider these principles when deciding what anti-Israel propaganda is worth responding to. Still, Israel’s strong and highly public response may very well bring more mainstream global media attention to the incident than it otherwise would have merited. Nonetheless, Israel made an additional calculation.

The message sent by a single action of a single IDF officer had the unfortunate potential to misrepresent Israel to a profound degree. So instead of waiting for the details to emerge – details which will hopefully contextualize the soldier’s actions – Israel chose to go on the offensive and communicate an even bigger truth. Hopefully the truth about Israel – the ethicality of its army, the accountability of its citizens, and the pursuit of justice by its leadership – will resonate far wider than a YouTube clip designed to simplify and demonize.

About the Author
Natalie Menaged is the Assistant Director at Israel XP, the gap year program of Bar Ilan University. She lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel.