Mike the Mad Biologist

The Gaza War: Answering the Wrong Question

Gideon Lichfield has an excellent op-ed which gets at the core of why Israel doesn’t seem to be winning the PR war–Israel hasbara* is answering the wrong question (italics mine):

But the deeper reason is this: Israeli hasbara is perpetually trying to answer the wrong question: “Why is this justified?” Of course, it’s natural for either side in a conflict to try to explain why it, and not the other side, has the moral high ground. But, especially in a conflict where both sides have been claiming the moral high ground for decades, nobody in the outside world is all that interested. From a foreign correspondent’s point of view, it makes for boring journalism: “The Israelis said this, but the Palestinians said that.” And since we’re all studiously trying to be “neutral,” we’ll always balance your view against theirs; so the fact that you make more of an effort to explain than they do doesn’t really matter.

The question the foreign media really wants answered is invariably not “who’s in the right?” but “how will this round of fighting improve the overall situation?” And on that point, Israel never has a convincing argument. Given the country’s long history of engaging in wars that kill many more of its enemies than its own citizens but only buy a few months or years of calm, it’s a tough call to explain how this latest escapade will change the strategic balance, bring peace and prevent the need for another such bloodbath further down the line. Often that’s because there is in fact no good reason: Wars are fought for short-term gains. And it doesn’t help that with the constant competition for power within Israeli coalitions, it’s easy to interpret this war, like many others, as a political imperative, not a strategic one.

And so when the question the world is asking is not “who’s right?” but “what works?” the consistent impression Israel leaves is that it kills people because, at best, it simply doesn’t have any better ideas, and at worst, because some Israeli leader is trying to get the upper hand on one of his or her rivals. And no amount of hasbara can make that look good.

Implicit in all of this is that this is not a good long-term strategy, and that Israel, while often tactically brilliant, is strategically idiotic.

*It literally means explanation, but perhaps best could be translated as ‘outreach.’

Comments

  1. #2 DDeden
    January 12, 2009
  2. #3 Matt Springer
    January 13, 2009

    The goals of the two sides are fundamentally incompatible. Hamas wants Israel gone from the Levant, Israel doesn’t want to go. Those are fundamentally incompatible goals, therefore it’s not going to end unless one side wipes out the other. Hamas can’t, Israel won’t. Therefore it’s going to continue into the foreseeable future.

    I don’t like it any more than anyone else, but so far as I can tell that’s the facts.

  3. #4 Sigmund
    January 13, 2009

    Palestine is a terrible reminder what can happen if permanent war becomes a fact of life for a country. You can see now why the neo-cons in the US loved 9-11 so much. In just three weeks over 400 women and children have been killed and thousands maimed – every one of them ‘collateral damage’ and therefore a price worth paying. Stand still, this is going to hurt you a lot more than its going to hurt me.
    I can only see one logical long term aim in the current strategy.
    That is to shift the Overton window on the Palestinian question such that the final moderate answer is to say the solution to the middle east question is allow for a moderate unarmed Palestinian state entirely contained within Gaza. It’s as if the entire middle east problem is the rocket firing. End that and its “OK, that’s the middle east solved, now for Zimbabwe, Darfur, Tibet and Burma.”

  4. #5 Coriolis
    January 13, 2009

    This really should be the obvious question for everyone on this issue. Too bad it isn’t, but maybe eventually they’ll come around. The desire for justifications as opposed to results is just getting stupid after all these years.

    And Matt, Hamas does not speak for all Palestinians, anymore than bush is speaking for all Americans. By all reports, their hard-line views, incompetence and lack of any appreciable results was weakening their political position both with palestinians and with the relevant neighboring arab countries.

    Of course now that a bunch of civilians and kids were killed by Israelis, Hamas can use the outrage to build political support.

    That’s why they provoked Israel, and the Israelis gave them what they wanted.

  5. #6 oyun
    January 13, 2009

    Those are fundamentally incompatible goals, therefore it’s not going to end unless one side wipes out the other.

  6. #7 R
    January 13, 2009

    This talk of “them or us”, that one or the other must be wiped out is false. Hamas and the Palestinians who don’t believe in Israel want instead one state inhabited by the people who live there now. Any demands for deportations have ended long ago. I know that Hamas wants an Islamic state of some kind, though the other ‘rejectionist’ secular groups want a one-state that has equal rights for all citizens from whatever background, with elections and the like.

    What Israel’s plan for the Palestinians is, however, is the worst Hell. To wall off the Palestinians in disconnected enclave and call it a state, a state functioning as a slave with a pain-giving device implanted.

    If the glorified mayor who calls himself president does not whip his prisoners into line, the pain device is activated. Obedience must be conditioned. Israel would maintain sovereignty over the airspace and even under the ground, control the borders, would have the so-called Palestinian state in its security perimeter. The Palestinian state would be demilitarised with no means of defence.

    What the arrangement effectively would be is to have Palestinians “disappear” behind walls to be ruled indirectly by Israel without any power whatsoever to influence the policies of the government that is their master.

    In short, they are to be inmates in an Israeli prison complex with a Palestinian Judenrat enforcing Israeli orders. A vision of Hell.

    Thankfully, the Palestinians continue to resist this vision that was made abundantly clear in the early 1990s… not that Israel did not signal its intentions as early as the 1970s along these lines. Hamas is fighting the good fight against a monstrous and sadistic opponent. If there is a God of justice in this world, it will prevail.

  7. #8 abb3w
    January 16, 2009

    the consistent impression Israel leaves is that it kills people because, at best, it simply doesn’t have any better ideas

    Of course, the reason most people have a problem with that is because they implicitly assume that there are “better” ideas. This, however, does not appear to be the case.

    I don’t see anyone who raises serious objections to Israel’s killing of Hamas combatants. So, it’s not so much “killing people” as “killing civilians” that there are objections to.

    My opinion:

    Israel (as a society and sovereign state) considers insufficiently effective the measures taken by the (somewhat) sovereign government of Palestine to restrain the attacks by its citizens and others within Palestine’s (somewhat) sovereign territory against Israel’s citizens.

    As a result, there currently is at least a de facto state of war between Israel and Palestine.

    The combatants against Israel elect to conceal themselves in the general population. The Palestinians do not take measures effective in preventing such. Israel does not perceive any “better” tactic for dealing with such combatants than the present than the one in use.

    The civilians are aware of this (or are “too stupid to live”). What happens to such civilians who stay in a de facto war zone after that reflects the limitations of Israel’s ability to achieve agreement by diplomatic means as to a mutually satisfactory solution, the limitations of other societies to facilitate such agreement, but most of all the inability of Palestinian society to discover means to limit the scope of the war.

    It also does not reflect well on Palestinian society that the their society does not take action about the elements within it who regularly present staged scenes as news footage for propaganda purposes.

    Of course, in condemnation of Israel, they have failed to keep commitments of their own, such as (as noted by Mike on Wednesday’s post) ending the embargo at least for the duration of the ceasefire.