Theater of War
Israel beats its enemies on the battlefield, but it loses the more important fight, for PR supremacy, to savvier operators like Hezbollah
Whatever hopes some had to the contrary, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it fairly clear in the days before the end of the West Bank building freeze last month that he intended to let building resume. He had no intention of heeding American calls for an extension, nor did he pay mind to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ threat to withdraw from peace negotiations. Yet Netanyahu also called on West Bank settlers to mute their celebrations as the expiration moment approached. Given the evident intention to build and continue building, what could it possibly matter if settlers wanted to exult?
Because, as Netanyahu must know, while dancing and singing might not make much of a difference to anyone but the celebrants themselves, images of a celebration could matter a great deal if they spread in the regional media. Because facts on the ground can be recorded, manipulated, reproduced, and distributed globally within minutes. And because, once they are let loose, these images have the potential to sway world opinion and reshape government agendas and options. An austere and relatively unremarked end to the building freeze would be less antagonizing to already hostile audiences than what did appear in regional news outlets the next day: thousands of Israelis triumphantly celebrating in a scene made festive by balloons in Israel’s national colors, blue and white, and Israeli and American flags. Such galling images could only serve to make it more difficult for a Palestinian delegation to accept Netanyahu’s reasoning that settlement building has never before stopped peace negotiations from taking place.
The settlers’ disregard for their leadership’s plea also highlighted the increasingly circumscribed ability of any government to control the messages not only of outside groups but of their own citizens. For governments, which once held nearly absolute power over a limited number of centralized media outlets—a few newspapers, one or two television stations—this loss of control is a hard pill to swallow. In moments of crisis, governments must now race against both professional and citizen journalists to win early control of the unfolding story, and they must win it not only on television, radio, and in other traditional news outlets but across a widening range of social media, from YouTube to Facebook to the “blogosphere,” and now to the “microblogosphere” of Twitter.
Israel seems to be having an especially difficult time accommodating to the evolving media environment. Take its summer 2006 war with Hezbollah. Although experts waffled for months over the military consequences of the war, there was universal consensus that the Lebanese Shiite group was its true victor, primarily because of its commanding media exploitation. Hezbollah showed itself to be skilled in the foundational craft of information warfare: Later scrutiny of the war’s events indicated an advanced ability to intercept Israeli signals and sustain its own communication networks even while under attack. The Israeli military looked clumsy and old-fashioned in comparison to Hezbollah, which adeptly wove words, images, and song to create a globally resonant narrative of both triumph and victimhood.
Indeed, images of the conflict may have been more powerful, the further they were from their source, and from the local political dynamics that surrounded the conflict. It worked to Hezbollah’s benefit to have their own war with Israel framed in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has become global shorthand for an asymmetrical battle between a heartless bully and a courageous and long-suffering victim. This framework overwhelms the specifics; pro-Israeli responses to widespread charges in the United States and Europe of the “disproportionate use of force” against Gaza in 2008 missed a larger point that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is viewed a priori as disproportional.
The simplicity and appeal of this narrative does not fully explain the vitriolic protests that the 2008 war with Hamas inspired all over the world, in places as far afield as Argentina and Thailand, Norway and Tunisia. Pro-Israel commentators claimed that the protests reflected anti-Semitism; pro-Palestinian observers argued they confirmed the justice of the Palestinian cause. Both claims have truth, of course, but the protests also drew demonstrators who do not care deeply about either Jews or Palestinians in their everyday lives. If anything, the flare-ups were reminiscent of riots responding to caricatures of Muhammad in a Swedish newspaper the year before. These epidemic flash mobs are a new kind of protest, in which globally transmitted events and powerful symbols collide to channel an overdetermined assortment of discontents. Israel-Palestine, the Holocaust, and Nazism are such symbols. Until these become a part of normal history, they are likely to continue to be a touchstone for the angry and dispossessed everywhere.
To address some of its communication shortfalls, Israel created a National Information Directorate in 2008. The agency is attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, and it serves to coordinate the country’s public diplomacy, or hasbara (literally, explanation, in Hebrew). The new Information Directorate garnered praise from media watchers and international Jewish groups for its ability to conduct this complex coordination in the short war with Hamas in December 2008. Having centralized its communication activities in one office, Israel could communicate its objectives and defend its actions with one unified voice. Over the course of the conflict, the civilian agency and the Israeli Defense Forces worked to generate similar or complementary messages, and did so using a wide variety of new media tools, such as text messaging and YouTube.
Yet, even swift message coordination and wide technological reach cannot make up for the challenges posed by the new media environment. Many analysts have concluded that the new media conditions are tilted in favor of non-state actors, such as insurgent militias or terrorist groups. There is a universal expectation that governments and traditional media should function transparently and permit information to flow freely. Once upon a time, a government seeking to control the flow of information during wartime could destroy physical infrastructure or impose media blackouts or other forms of censorship. While these are still options, it is increasingly apparent that the reputational cost of heavy-handed government or military actions can outweigh the benefits. When information is restricted, the remaining void is quickly filled with conspiracy theories and distorted facts. These theories balloon and proliferate with startling speed, because it is so cheap and easy for most of us to access the means of digital communication. This phenomenon occurred in 2002, when Israel’s decision to prevent journalists from reporting directly from Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada generated claims that a civilian massacre was being kept from public view. Although reports later absolved the IDF of any acts of large-scale murder, the reputational damage was done.
The Sept. 11 attacks generated intense scrutiny of the communications capacities of al-Qaida, Hezbollah, and other non-state militant groups, much of it carried out in the same spirit of bewildered shock and awe that led Richard Holbrooke to ask, “How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world’s leading communications society?” In his 2001 Washington Post editorial, Holbrooke explained the United States’ own tone-deaf communications as a function of outmoded technology and counterproductive bureaucracy. These are much the same terms in which Israel’s failure in 2006 would later be examined. As many analyses have since documented, non-state groups face neither of these hindrances. Having never had access to mainstream media, or control of the official means of communication in the first place, they have always relied on alternative technologies. Hamas and Hezbollah were both early adopters of new technologies. Hezbollah has had an impressively well-orchestrated and highly controlled communication structure since at least the 1980s, with bureaus directing regional communications, external relations, military communications, and artistic production.
There is also a more deeply rooted issue that hinders states like Israel and the United States from more effective communications. In the United States, information warfare developed almost exclusively as a technological discipline, propelled by the country’s abiding faith in science as the solution to our human problems. This scientific worldview extends to the military view of information as a kind of digital switch: Information is either true or false, informative or dis-informative. As a result of this legacy, today’s information strategists have found themselves grappling not only with the new technological realities but also with the dawning recognition that information is not simply a realm of truth or lies but the place where humans collect to make, refute, and reframe the meaning of our experiences. It has not been easy for U.S. military to gain footing, let alone dominance, on this shifting ground of history, memory, culture, and language.
Having no present territory, the insurgent often has nothing left beyond language and memory. The power of ephemera to unify and motivate may be especially true for non-state groups opposing the State of Israel, which holds a uniquely supercharged semiotic status in the annals of modern conflict.
It is no wonder, then, that Israeli communications compare badly to those of Hezbollah. As researcher Olfa Lamloum has observed, the group orchestrates its politics as a form of dramatic pageant, a practice it learned from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s example in the Iranian Revolution. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s Al Quds Day address last month offered a display of just such political dramaturgy. Al Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, established in 1979 by Khomeini, serves annually as a touchstone linking the Palestinian plight to current events. For the audience, sitting in the early September sun, Nasrallah’s comments transformed their experience from commemoration of the past to active participation in an ongoing historical drama.
In his speech, Nasrallah suggested that he is speaking of just one short chapter in a longer dramatic encounter between Islam and the Arabs and the United States and Israel. Peering into the news of the day, he predicted Arab triumph and Western failure signaled by the partial U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Why, Nasrallah asked his audience, did the neoconservatives’ plan to remake the Middle East fail?
Because of the staying power of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza; the staying power of the resistance in Lebanon and especially in the July  war; and the staying power of political and national desire in Lebanon, and the lack of submission to Western American dictates. Because of the staying power of Syria, and Iran, and the Iraqi people and their popular resistance.
Nasrallah’s answer has the pithy rhythm of a slogan, but it is much deeper in its effect. Key terms of his discourse have gathered their own symbolic power over many years of association with Palestinian resistance, and his teleological stringing of events suggests the natural course of action is simply to continue on the same unwavering path.
In contrast to his characterization of living, ongoing history of the Arabs, Nasrallah portrayed the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as “stillborn.” They were pre-rejected by the Palestinians, and by the Muslims and Arabs, dead before they have even lived. Ultimately, Nasrallah advised, all that is needed to triumph is time, more staying power, the ability to outlast the Israelis and the Americans. It is difficult to imagine any slogan, no matter how carefully targeted, that could effectively combat the historical narrative offered by Hezbollah. Suppressing its most powerful channels will only have temporary effect; bombing will not kill it, and is likely to confirm the themes of victimhood, martyrdom, and triumph through endurance.
In the long run, Israel and its allies will be far better served by efforts to grasp Hezbollah’s legitimacy and meaning to its listeners, and to find ways to engage it. Cultural narratives can and do change over time. Most communities that endure successfully, like the resolute Palestinians, like the Jewish people, and like the experiment in conglomerate identity that is American democracy, will point to the consistency of their self-narration as the source of their success. Paradoxically, the real source of a people’s endurance is its ability to transform to accommodate changing conditions. The religious vision that Hezbollah and other groups use to underwrite their political legitimacy is an invention of the last 30 years, not an ancient artifact of the region.
The real task, therefore, is to use various instruments of policy-making to transform the conditions that enable the Hezbollah narrative. Nasrallah’s Jerusalem Day speech hinges on the garbled logic that the “endurance” of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites precipitated the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. This is an impoverished and narcissistic vision, but it is in present conditions a persuasive one. Smart strategists seeking to use information to influence events will do well to understand the mechanics of Nasrallah’s logic: It is a freely available form of predictive intelligence that can help them understand how he is likely to frame future events.
In the longer term, non-violent coexistence in the region will necessitate a dialogue between different historical visions. In this effort, it is time to go beyond the exhausted stalemate of comparative suffering between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, and look more practically at what works today and what doesn’t. Enlightened Palestinians and those in solidarity with them in the region will hopefully conclude that sweeping conspiracy theories waste much-needed energy more than they empower. Enlightened Israeli Jews and those in solidarity with them will, we can hope, begin to find ways to express Jewish identity and continuity to reflect current conditions: the miracle of not merely surviving, but thriving, and the vanishing need to rely on an identity governed solely by victimhood and existential threat.
Amy Zalman is an independent consultant to senior policymakers on the function of culture and narrative in U.S. strategic communication.