Remember Jerry Seinfeld’s advice when George miscalculated and recklessly quit his job because he was denied access to the executive restroom? “Go back,” Jerry said, “pretend like it never happened.” George is enthralled by the boldness of the move, goes back to the staff meeting as if nothing happened. His boss doesn’t buy it and goes on to humiliate him before his former colleagues.
In Israel this week, the newly appointed propaganda minister (the official English title is Public Diplomacy Minister) Galit Distel Atbaryan made a similar move by announcing that her first PR campaign will be an outreach effort to convince the world that there is no occupation.
Interviewed by Israel Radio Monday, Atbaryan plainly said: “We did not occupy.” She was echoing a statement by Benjamin Netanyahu, who reacted to a December 31st UN General Assembly resolution by stating: “The Jewish nation is not an occupier in its own land and its own eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
Good luck with this talking point.
First, because Israel’s rule of the West Bank is recognized not only by the international community but also by Israel itself as an occupation. The legal term, according to international law, is Belligerent Occupation. Israel has accepted this definition. It is officially recognized by the Israel Defense Force (IDF), which is considered the temporary sovereign in the area, and has been the grounds for Israel’s management of the West Bank.
Sure, Israel has reservations about the way in which articles of international law apply to its rule of the West Bank, but the Belligerent Occupation status is indisputable. Even if you believe the West Bank “liberated” in 1967, even if you think Israel has biblical, historic, or other rights to it, it is an undeniable fact that the West Bank is occupied and that the Palestinians who reside there live under Israeli occupation.
Now comes another matter. Israel’s government, like some Israeli citizens, believes that Israel has a right to the West Bank, the land of the Bible. Many people around the world concur. Likewise, many agree that Palestinians have a right to parts (or all) of what is now sovereign Israel. The question of who has historical rights is important if you are trying to establish a national narrative. It is utterly destructive if you are trying to attain a peaceful compromise and build a better future. The national Israeli and Palestinian narratives are mutually exclusive. They are zero-sum. A practical territorial compromise, on the other hand, is a win-win. Having rights does not mean that you must exercise them in a manner that excludes the other. The world calls on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians, not suppress them and their aspirations for independence and freedom. Which is why working to convince the world that Israel cannot be an occupier in its own land is futile and yes, foolish. Even if people buy this hollow talking point, they won’t see it as justification for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
The Hebrew euphemism for propaganda is hasbara (literally, explanation). Many Israelis (and perhaps even more American Jews) believe that the world does not understand Israel. If you only explain effectively, the ignorant world will leave Israel alone. That logic has never worked, and has no chance of working when real time video clips on social media show the world precisely what is happening on the ground. The world sees the occupation and its evils. Trying to “explain” that it does not exist is as absurd as going to work a day after you quit and slammed the door behind you.
When George Costanza tries to pretend that his explosive resignation never happened, his former boss tells him he’s a loser and orders him to leave. Israel has no reason to expect a better result when its elected officials insist that the occupation never happened. It’s a losing strategy. And the losers, tragically, are Israelis and Palestinians who continue to pay the price of the ongoing occupation and the conflict it perpetuates.