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Is Israel Finally Winning the ‘Hasbara’ Battle?

Clear goals and a ruthless enemy mean public opinion is with Israel—for now

Andrew Silow-Carroll
July 21, 2014
The trail of a rocket launched by Palestinian militants into Israel is seen from an area East of Gaza City on July 21, 2014. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
The trail of a rocket launched by Palestinian militants into Israel is seen from an area East of Gaza City on July 21, 2014. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

Is this the war in which Israel finally won the ‘hasbara,’ or public perception, battle?

Although it’s not hard to find the usual criticism of Israeli “disproportionality,” and public opinion can change on a dime, what seems to make this Gaza incursion different from the many that have come before it is a notable lack of condemnation from the usual quarters.

American Jews especially are sensitive to the notion that “the world” gives the Palestinians a pass, and that “the media” want Israel to turn the other cheek. But in the current conflict’s first two weeks, Congress and the White House have been fully and loudly on board with Israel’s right to defend itself; the U.N. is quiescent; and even dependable European capitals have been slow to criticize. (British Prime Minister David Cameron, for one, expressed support for Israel today, saying, “This crisis was triggered by Hamas raining hundreds of rockets on Israeli cities, indiscriminately targeting civilians in contravention of all humanitarian law and norms.”) College campuses are on recess, and, perhaps most significantly, the Muslim world has either been distracted or—pinch me—critical of Hamas for jeopardizing innocent lives in Gaza.

Many Muslim leaders took their lead from Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who criticized Hamas on Palestinian television for provoking “unnecessary deaths” and “trading in Palestinian blood” by firing rockets at Israel. The PA’s representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva called the missiles launched by Hamas “a crime against humanity.”

“It’s remarkable,” Palestinian analyst Diana Buttu told the New York Times on Sunday. “In all the other invasions and assaults on Gaza, there was at least some government that would come out and talk about how what Israel was doing was illegal and show some support. This time around, there’s been nothing. The silence is deafening.”

Still, those who complain that the world just doesn’t get it point to the Times’ editorial page, leftist reliables like The Guardian, and a particularly incoherent bit by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last week. But if Israel lost Jon Stewart, they gained Bill Maher, and The Onion, which last week ran an item with the headline, “Palestinians Starting To Have Mixed Feelings About Being Used As Human Shields.” The parodic article that follows seems to accept Israel’s charge that Hamas militants “strategically store their missile batteries” in and around private homes and that “Hamas is actually okay” with civilians dying “as long as it fuels both resentment toward Israel and support for the party.”

As for the Times, even some of its usual critics of Israel don’t quite seem to have their heart in it this time around. Thomas Friedman has barely written on the conflict. And his introductory sentence for Sunday’s column on the “shared economy” was telling: “From Ukraine to the Middle East, some bad actors — Hamas, Vladimir Putin and Israeli settlers to name but a few — are trying to bury the future with the past and divide people.”

Nicholas Kristof was similarly even-handed in his Sunday column, but if pro-Israel readers bristled at his description of Gaza as an “open-air prison,” they might have cheered at his defense of Israel’s right “not to to be hit with rockets by Hamas, not to be kidnapped, not to be subjected to terrorist bombings.”

So to what does Israel owe all this relative good will? You can thank Hamas, for refusing to still the rocket fire and for rejecting the early Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to accept the ceasefire, over the objections of his right wing, did more to make Israel’s case than a dozen interviews on CNN could have. Timing also helps. Just as the war heated up, the Malaysian airliner was shot down over Ukraine, diverting front pages and the cable networks from what would have otherwise been nonstop coverage of the Gaza war.

So why do so many in the pro-Israel camp stick to the narrative that “the whole world is against us”? In part, it’s reflex—they’ve become accustomed to having to justify even the most basic right of Israel to defend itself, and have been conditioned to expect one-sided or incompetent reports on Israel. Part of it is self-justification: The images on television of mourning Palestinians and mangled children are tragic and horrifying, and defenders of Israel are desperate to counter any perception that Israel has ceded the moral high ground.

You can also blame social media, which amplifies the extreme voices on all sides. When was the last time someone shared an article with the recommendation, “Take a look at a sober and balanced article about the Middle East situation that respectively and accurately depicts the complex positions on both sides!!”

I am under no illusion that Israel will continue to win the hasbara war—there are already predictions that the weekend’s expanded operation on the heavily populated Gaza City neighborhood of Shejaiya will change the narrative from restraint and self-defense to disproportionality and overreach.

Until then, Israel and its supporters are being shown a fairly clear example of what does and doesn’t work in the court of public opinion: transparent goals, a distinct and ruthless enemy, and, unfortunately, an unmistakable dose of Jewish suffering.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief and CEO of theNew Jersey Jewish News, an award-winning weekly newspaper published in four editions and on the web. He was previously the managing editor of the Forward. He blogs here.