International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan (center) announced arrest warrant requests for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday, May 20, 2024

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Israel Doesn’t Need Better ‘Hasbara’

It needs better friends

Richard Hanania
May 21, 2024
International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan (center) announced arrest warrant requests for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Monday, May 20, 2024

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Among supporters of Israel, a narrative has developed around the narrative of the war. Last month, an article for Jewish Insider argued that the government needed to do a better job of making its case in the international media. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu himself seems to believe this, admitting that his government has dropped the ball in terms of public diplomacy—or what Israelis call hasbara. The article rings with clichés about the need to stick to talking points, exercise message discipline, and have government officials reading off the same page. The tone is about what one would expect if you were giving advice to the owner of a hardware store, not the government of a nation involved in a conflict that has grabbed the attention of the world for three-quarters of a century.

Sniping about shortcomings in messaging can be constructive, but more often it distracts from the underlying forces that have made the conflict in Gaza the focus of international politics and created so much pressure on Israel to not fight the war in the way that would be necessary to win. To see global hostility toward Israel as primarily a problem of optics rather than something deeper is to miss the entire essence of the conflict, and why the world cares so much about it in the first place.

On Monday, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court sought arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. These two leaders are now in the same club as figures like Vladimir Putin and Omar al-Bashir, but interestingly not Kim Jung Un, Bashar al-Assad, or Xi Jinping. With the international community turning more and more against Israel and the war effort, answering the question of what is at the root of this hostility is more urgent than ever.

If one believes that Israel’s optics problems in the current war are the result of flawed public relations, consider how the nation was treated before it began. The U.N. General Assembly adopted 140 resolutions on Israel between 2015 and 2022, about twice as many as on the rest of the world combined. Since 2006, the U.N. Human Rights Council has likewise adopted more resolutions on Israel than on Syria, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela put together. Media coverage shows the same disproportionate focus as the activities of international institutions. A 2014 article in Tablet by a former AP reporter describes its obsessive coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict relative to every other geopolitical issue.

This obsession creates an impossible situation. In presidential politics, there is a general consensus that campaign and third-party spending doesn’t matter all that much, because people already have strongly formed opinions about the candidates and their issues and are paying a great deal of attention to the news anyway. When it comes to primaries and other lower profile races, however, money can make more of a difference.

Similarly, if you want to win the global media or the international community over to one side of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it makes sense to get a public relations firm and buy some ads, as most of the world shrugs when Africans kill each other, and any propaganda that reaches individuals can have a large impact because they otherwise get so little information on the topic. But this won’t work on Israel-Gaza, since wall-to-wall media coverage is both a symptom and a cause of activist and bureaucratic elites across the world already having strong opinions on the subject.

Information is filtered, moreover, through various ideologies, assumptions about the way international politics works, and in many cases a worldview that centers Jews, or white people with Jews as proxies, as a fundamental cause of many of the problems humanity is facing.

To most governments and activists that focus on the issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is there to be fit into a preexisting narrative. Middle East experts in the United States believe, absurdly, that the Palestinian issue is the key to solving the problems of the region. They still stick to this view, despite Donald Trump being perhaps the most pro-Israel president in American history and nonetheless achieving multiple peace deals across the Middle East, uniting Israel and the moderate Sunni states against Iran.

Left-wing academics, of course, consider Israel a settler-colonial outpost, as part of a larger narrative that centers an oppressed-oppressor framework for understanding practically all social and political issues. Religious conservatives in the Muslim world see Jews as their ancient enemies, while even secular ideologies like Nasserism and Baathism have found it psychologically and politically convenient to blame Israel for the backwardness of the Arab world and its inability to adapt to modernity. Similarly, demagogues across poor nations have always found it useful to scapegoat the West for their problems, and the history of antisemitism gives them a prepackaged narrative about one particular group having a uniquely pernicious influence on world history.

Those who think that the problems Israel is facing result from a flawed diplomatic approach should spend some time thinking about how Hamas presents itself and its ultimate aims. One reason that the atrocities of Oct. 7 are undeniable is that Hamas fighters wore GoPros as they slaughtered innocent women and children. Spokesmen for the organization have justified the entirety of its rule by pointing to the “success” of that day and admit that its ultimate goal remains the elimination of Israel. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that Hamas’ hatred for Israel is intractable, and in this posture it has the support of most Palestinians. This means that Israel finds itself picking from a menu of tragic choices, yet all this is ignored because it does not fit into the anti-Western, Third Worldist, or antisemitic narratives most of the international community is committed to for one reason or another.

These are forces beyond the ability of any spokesman of the IDF to control or, I’d argue, significantly influence. The idea that Israel just needs better PR is adjacent to the argument that what matters is not so much spin but objective Israeli behavior. Here again, one must consider international opinion over the last several decades. Before this current war, Israel had killed fewer Palestinians in a half century of periodic hostilities than the number of civilians the United States and its allies killed during the war on ISIS alone. The number of deaths in the Syrian civil war has of course been several orders of magnitude higher than that. It would be superfluous to continue providing examples of a double standard at work, as anyone with the most basic historical understanding could go on for a very long time listing post-World War II atrocities the U.N. and the global community have all but ignored as they have sanctioned and lectured Israel.

All this leads to the question of what allies of Israel should be doing instead of demanding better public relations. The bad news is that most of the world is going to hate Israel no matter what. At the same time, the fact that opposition to Israel is so clearly a corollary of wokeness, cultural Marxism, or whatever we want to call the dominant leftist narrative should make it relatively easy to sell the pro-Israel position to conservatives in the West, particularly the United States. And as we’ve discovered during this conflict, the United States is really the only country outside the region that matters. The Europeans, almost universally hostile to Israel and not all that powerful anyway, have completely disappeared as factors in the Middle East.

Ideally, the U.S.-Israel relationship would be bipartisan and remain strong no matter the results of any particular election. In reality, we are likely witnessing the beginnings of a tidal wave of anti-Israel sentiment that is going to sweep over the Democratic Party in the coming decades. It is not a coincidence that across the West, it is university campuses that are most supportive of the Palestinian cause. In places where individuals are most likely to endorse the oppressor-oppressed framework for understanding the world more generally, Hamas finds its most dedicated supporters. And as we have seen on issue after issue, fringe movements that start out on college campuses have a way of becoming mainstream within the Democratic Party. On Israel, the process is well under way. When asked whether they sympathize more with the Israelis or Palestinians, a recent Pew poll showed that Democrats and Democrat-leaners over 65 favor Israelis by 8 percentage points, while those 18-29 favor Palestinians by 40 points. While Hillary Clinton may denounce young people who know nothing about the region and President Biden took more than half a year to begin publicly threatening to cut off aid, even the latter’s moderately pro-Israel position belongs to a dying breed of Democrat.

The job of allies of Israel will be to make clear to conservatives that support for the Palestinians is simply the foreign policy version of everything they hate at home.

On the Republican side, although sympathy slips as voters get younger, even 18- to 29-year-olds support Israel by over a 2-1 margin. A slew of expensive pro-Israel PR campaigns have been underway since Oct. 7, all targeting progressive-aligned voters, influencers, and politicians, but we should expect at most a limited effect. One is likely to have more of an impact appealing to those already receptive to the underlying message. Practically nothing unifies the American right like opposition to wokeness and political correctness, and the job of allies of Israel in the coming years will be to make clear to conservatives that support for the Palestinians is simply the foreign policy version of everything they hate and want to stand against at home. The eruption of protests this spring, which have been dominated by images of signifiers of the enemy—face masks, blue hair, hypochondria—has helped in this regard. Antisemitism has been increasing on the online right in recent years, and few things are more important for friends of Israel than making sure this faction continues to have no political power.

None of this is to suggest that pro-Israel Democrats should all jump ship and become Republicans. If an individual finds himself on the political left for whatever reason, he can be a good ally by pushing the Israeli cause within the Democratic Party. Figures like John Fetterman, Ritchie Torres, and Eric Adams have been important allies throughout this conflict. Democrats like these will always be facing somewhat of an uphill battle going forward given the basic moral and intellectual commitments of the modern left. But political parties generally aren’t known for always being logically consistent across all issue areas, so to the extent that a pro-Israel left can still exist, we should hope that it does.

All of this is to say that the best thing individuals can do to shape public opinion in Israel’s favor is to be more confident and assertive allies.

This involves not granting the premise of moral equivalency between Israelis and the Palestinians. A nation defending itself and inflicting collateral damage is not the same as a movement with exterminationist goals, which seeks to slaughter innocent people as an end in itself. And it is fine to say, based on everything else we know, that the Israeli government is more credible than Hamas when the truth about an incident or aspect of the war, like whether Israel is targeting innocent journalists, is in dispute.

From a broader perspective, friends of Israel must push back on any ideology that emphasizes Western wickedness and identity politics, of which hostility to the world’s only Jewish state must be a byproduct, made all the more powerful in international forums due to the way it resonates with the Third World. Join the struggles against DEI bureaucracies, fake academic fields based on an oppression-centered view of the world, and a far-left takeover of the Democratic Party. These larger battles will, more than any hasbara operation narrowly focused on Gaza, ultimately determine whether Israel can in the coming years continue to count on the United States as an ally.

The war in Gaza has captured the attention of the world because Israel, due to the kinds of tragic choices it must make, has emerged as the main avatar of Western civilization. This is one thing that the campus left gets correct. Throughout human history, most peoples have accomplished nothing most of the time, sulking in poverty, stagnation, tyranny, and sloth. Just as the United States forged a new civilization out of a wilderness, 75 years ago a people that had been stateless for over two millennia took over a small strip of land that had practically no natural resources, all the while being surrounded and outnumbered by hostile neighbors. Yes, in both stories, atrocities and injustices were committed along the way. But this is fundamentally less important than what these nations have accomplished and the necessity of making sure they continue to survive and prosper. As recent campus protests have made clear, the left sees these connections and knows what the stakes are. Israel and its allies must similarly understand that the real public relations battle is a struggle over the metanarrative of Western civilization.

Richard Hanania is a writer living in California.