Avoiding the spin

Propaganda is key in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both parties are very dependent on external factors, and therefore expend a great deal of effort in trying to swing support to their side, subsequently exerting pressure on their opponent. Adding to the stakes, the international community views the Middle East as a region of crucial importance. This is Europe’s backyard, it is where most of the world’s petrol is produced, it is central to the world’s monotheistic faiths and also forms a bridge between the geographic east and west.

For these reasons, Israelis and Palestinians respectively have devoted a great deal of effort to trying to convince the outside world that their cause is deserving of support, with the fault lying with the other side. Israel relies on external assistance, especially from the United States, to guarantee its security through arms and financing. Israel is also dependent on the support of the Jewish community in the diaspora, particularly that of Jews in the United States and Europe. It is crucial, therefore, that Israel be able to convince those parties that it must have their backing, and with this in mind, Israel often presents itself as a victim that needs protection, as well as the standard bearer for American and western values.

But sometimes, reality gets in the way. When the state of Israel came into being, a great injustice was inflicted upon another people. Now, in order for Israel to survive under the terms it has established for itself, Israelis must illegally occupy that same people and their land. This occupation is maintained through all sorts of violations of human rights and international law–just the sort of actions that Israel would like to avoid in view of its target audience. To explain this disparity between reality and the ideal, Israel maintains a sophisticated public relations machine whose job is to offset the negative propaganda that results from Israeli actions. Sometimes, this means hiding the truth, twisting reality, or just plain lying, if necessary.

There is no doubt that Israel has the equipment to succeed at this task. Israeli officials have very high expectations in this regard and they invest tremendously in producing results. At the same time, Israel benefits from an understanding of its American-western audience, because in some ways, Israelis are part of it. The interplay between Israeli propaganda efforts and the western audience is illustrated vividly through the obvious differences of opinion generally found between foreign media representatives stationed in Israel, and their editors "back home." Because the correspondents in the field are more attached to reality and relatively less influenced by propaganda and games of interest, their views are often more textured, fair and less subject to manipulation that those to be found in western capitals near the halls of power and influence.

On the other hand, for so long, Palestinians thought that the justness of their cause was so obvious as to need no explication. Particularly in the first two or three decades of the conflict, Palestinians were completely ignorant of the importance of media and public relations, first because of a lack of expertise, and second because of a lack of contact with the western world and a resulting naivetè about what westerners held to be true. But starting in the 80s, particularly with the first intifada of nonviolent public demonstrations that attracted world attention and brought Palestinians in contact with the western world, Palestinian eyes were opened. They saw that Israel was viewed as the victim, despite that it was the region’s most powerful military, and the only regional nuclear power. Since then, Palestinians have recognized the need to compete at public relations, but are still light years away from succeeding in the field.

Examples of Palestinian PR failures are not hard to find. It is my view, for example, that the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians that have characterized the latter part of this intifada are not only morally wrong, but a terrible public relations error, particularly in light of the international hypersensitivity to attacks on civilians following September 11. Palestinians have suffered from negative stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims, and these stereotypes are now enjoying resurgence. Israel uses those images to obscure and justify its occupation, and Palestinians have been unable as yet to convey the essence of their struggle–a quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

In another devastating miscalculation, after the failed Camp David talks, Palestinians did not explain to the world that these talks were only the beginning, that they had not included concrete and comprehensive proposals, that significant progress had been achieved and more discussion was necessary, but instead, they remained silent. Meanwhile, Israeli and American representatives repeated over and over that Palestinians had refused the gracious Israeli offer and therefore brought the talks to a skidding halt.

So much of the tragedy of the last three years rests on that public relations coup. As soon as the parties went back to talks at Taba weeks later, Israel did improve upon the positions it presented at Camp David, thus proving the Palestinians correct in their Camp David stance. But it was too late. The Israeli government led by Ehud Barak had already poisoned Palestinian-Israeli relations by stopping implementation of the Oslo accords and further troop withdrawals, thus leaving the parties with no arrangement for governing their relations. Violence commenced, and the world blamed the Palestinians because the Israeli narrative ruled.

One can only conclude that since the international community is so influential in this conflict and its progression, superpowers like the United States and Europe bear a great deal of responsibility in avoiding propaganda, and instead using international legitimacy as their ruler for judging the parties’ actions. This is the only way to neutralize the effect of the mutual vitriol and allow for an effective third-party role to intervene and end the suffering of both Palestinians and Israelis.