Hearts and minds

Israel’s been winning the PR war over Gaza, but can that last?

Hearts and minds

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak is regarded as tough, humourless and cranky—certainly not the type to make fun of himself on national television. Yet there he was on Eretz Nehederet (“A Wonderful Country”), Israel’s answer to Saturday Night Live, poking fun at himself and his US$11-million condominium for the benefit of the show’s one million weekly viewers. His Dec. 23 appearance was more McCain than Obama; Barak badly trailed fellow prime ministerial candidates Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni in the polls running up to next month’s parliamentary election, and his performance had all the hallmarks of a desperate man trawling for votes.

Four days later, Barak orchestrated Mivtza Oferet Yetzuka—Operation Cast Lead—a devastating military retort to Hamas’s rocket attacks on southern Israel from the group’s stronghold in Gaza. And while the air assault and subsequent ground invasion of Gaza by Israeli troops on Jan. 3 wasn’t pure electioneering—the mission itself was reportedly in the works well before the election was called, and was approved by Israel’s coalition government—Operation Cast Lead has effectively done what Barak’s Eretz appearance couldn’t: it’s turned him from a dour, unloved spendthrift into a decisive military leader in the eyes of the voting public.

Barak’s jump in the polls also speaks to Israel’s relative public relations success during the current operation, compared to its attack on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in 2006. “Selling” a war to the world at large may be the height of cynicism, particularly with more than 630 dead as of Jan. 6 and more than 3,000 wounded in 11 days of fighting. Nevertheless, it seems to have worked—at least for the moment. Israel expanded its support beyond its traditional allies in the Harper and Bush governments, securing the tacit approval of its Gaza campaign from the European Union, whose president deemed it a “defensive, not offensive, action.” It is a markedly different reaction from 2006, when the EU issued a blistering condemnation of Israel within days of its assault on Lebanon.

While it has criticized the campaign’s many casualties, the Arab League remains deeply divided over how to proceed. The reaction of key members such as Jordan has been remarkably muted; Saudi Arabia, no friend of Israel, effectively blamed Hamas for precipitating the crisis by not renewing its six-month truce with Israel when it expired on Dec. 19. Egypt, meanwhile, took Palestinians as a whole to task for failing to unite behind one government. (Hamas, which grew out of Egypt’s formally outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, won an overwhelming victory in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. The next year, it took control of Gaza, while Fatah, now under the leadership of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, retained control of the West Bank.)

When Israel attacked Hezbollah in 2006, “I don’t think we were perceived as people who had exhausted everything else,” says Uri Dromi, a former government press agent. “To the contrary. In terms of PR, we were perceived as overreacting and trigger-happy.” Part of this, Dromi suggests, was because Israel was seen as attacking Lebanon as well as Hezbollah; he considers the Israeli government’s identifying of Hamas as a malignant entity separate from the Palestinian people a highlight of his country’s propaganda war.

Israel’s PR initiative began well before the first bombs dropped on Gaza. For over a year, the government has organized tours to southern Israel for foreign journalists to see the results of rocket attacks from Hamas-controlled Gaza. In July, according to an Israeli official, the government’s talking points were adopted by Barack Obama, when the then-presidential hopeful said he understood why Israel might retaliate against such attacks. “In many ways, the story sold itself,” says government spokesperson Mark Regev.

Israel has also targeted Arab media—in more ways that one. One of the few interviews granted by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert prior to the invasion aired on Al Arabiya, the pan-Arabic news channel. Israeli warplanes, meanwhile, bombed Al-Aqsa, the Hamas television station, on the second day of the military campaign. The station, which has broadcast news, children’s cartoons and invective-laden calls for jihad since 2006, was taken over by Israeli forces, and showed a looped graphic of Hamas leaders with bullet holes in their heads. “Time is running out,” says a disjointed voice, speaking in Arabic.

The goal of Operation Cast Lead has become clearer within the last few days. While several cabinet ministers wanted to “topple Hamas,” in the words of hawkish Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon, officials say Israel wishes only to take away Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into southern Israel. “It’s another PR issue,” says Dromi. “We call them terrorists, but everyone in Israel understands that Hamas is a popular movement. They have strong support [in Gaza]. They have a lot of social welfare activities, and they’re the administration.” (This might be true, but it will be difficult for Gazans to believe as much while innocent civilians are dying from Israeli bombs.)

But a propaganda offensive can only go so far. The images flowing out of Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, are bloody and disturbing. Gaza’s hospitals cannot cope with the dead and wounded showing up at their doors. One UN relief agency official called the situation in Gaza “inhuman.” And all the PR in the world won’t quell the outrage if an Israeli bomb hits a hospital or school—as almost happened on Tuesday when Israeli shells landed outside a UN-run school being used as a shelter, killing at least 30 people, including children.

And then there is the question of winning this war. Despite continued air and ground assaults, Hamas has continued to fire rockets at Israel. This remains one of Barak’s biggest conundrums. History hasn’t been kind to defence ministers who have failed in the eyes of the Israeli public. The invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 have all spelled the end of the tenures of their Israeli masterminds. Even if its regime and infrastructure are severely damaged, Hamas will likely claim victory should its government remain intact and fire off but one rocket after the Israelis leave.

There is also danger in pummelling Hamas too much. As fearsome as its reputation may be, the group is democratically elected. It rose to power not on the basis of its virulent anti-Zionism, but as a repudiation of Fatah’s legacy of corruption and fraud, especially in Gaza. “They were elected to clean up the place,” says Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Relations, an American policy institute. A weakened Hamas, some say, will open the door to far more radical Islamist factions.

“Sadly, global jihadists, al-Qaeda type people, have begun to emerge on the edges of Hamas,” says Ahmad Khalidi, a Palestinian academic at St. Antony’s College at Oxford and former negotiator with the Palestinian Authority. “They have taken some root in Gaza, still on a very limited scale.” He says recent attacks on Internet cafés and a Christian bookstore—Gaza is home to roughly 3,000 Christians—are the signs of a more caustic Islamist element in the area. “The paradox is, a rational sensible assessment would lead you to the conclusion that the best bulwark against these guys is in fact Hamas itself,” Khalidi says. Hamas has not recognized the right of Israel to exist, and its leaders say they remain committed in their fight against a Jewish state. But, Khalidi says, “as much as you might be revolted by what Hamas says, the truth is that it is a pragmatic movement. It has political goals, and they are open to negotiation.”

Who might conduct any such longer-term negotiations is of course unclear. Barak officially suspended his election campaign on the day he ordered airplanes to bomb Gaza. Regardless of the military outcome, though, he will have formidable opponents in Foreign Minister Livni and particularly Netanyahu, the former prime minister whose hawkish stance has made him very popular in Israel as of late. “I don’t think he can win the election,” says Uri Dromi, who knows Barak personally. “I think he wants to secure for himself the position of defence minister.”

Either way, Operation Cast Lead looms heavily over Barak’s political career. Israeli public opinion is notoriously fickle and easily influenced by Israeli military casualties, which as of Jan. 6 stood at seven but will likely increase the longer the battle rages. Furthermore, massive street protests around the world were ramping up pressure on world leaders to push for a ceasefire. And there already seems to be a “best before” date on Barak’s popularity. In the week following his appearance, Eretz Nehederet aired a typically jaundiced skit of the military campaign raging not 75 km away from its studios. In it, Barak is portrayed (by an actor this time) as a blustery, lisping dunderhead outlining the various phases of Operation Cast Lead. It begins with him touting Israel’s military might and ends with his resignation after the mission failed to halt Hamas rockets. Barak can only hope that reality, brutal as it is, won’t be as brutal as the satire mocking it.