Will this week’s damaging split-screen images have a lasting effect?
For a while it seemed like every time Israel was mentioned in the foreign press it was good news for the Jewish state.
It started with the Giro d’Italia bike race that showed off the country to the world. Then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts finalized an agreement to build a gas pipeline to Europe that could bring Israel a huge windfall.
Hours later, US President Donald Trump took Netanyahu’s advice to cancel the Iran deal that a consensus of Israelis strongly opposed and gave Israeli intelligence credit for the decision.
Iran attacked Israel, and none of the 20 missiles fired landed in Israel. Israel retaliated by hitting 50 Iranian military targets in Syria successfully, setting back the Islamic Republic significantly.
And then, the crowning achievement: Netta Barzilai won the Eurovision song contest early Sunday morning Israel time, proving that a proud Israeli can win the support of the European people with a positive message and a few clucks. She brought next year’s contest to Jerusalem by winning on Jerusalem Day.
The biggest news was supposed to take place the following day, when the American embassy formally moved to the former US consulate in Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood. Coming less than a year and a half after the previous US administration facilitated the passage of an anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations, the importance of the American decision cannot be understated.
But it could be overshadowed. And just like any time you get too much of a good thing, what goes up must come down.
It came way down. During the American ceremony, TV networks around the world aired a split screen of Israeli and American smiles in Jerusalem and bodies carried on stretchers in Gaza. Since then, the perception of Israeli callousness and brutality has continued. The easily-proven-to-be-false message that the deaths in rioting came as the result of the embassy opening was accepted as fact by the international mainstream media, even though the Hamas March of Return had started weeks earlier with numerous clashes with IDF troops and dozens of Palestinian casualties.
The Hamas admission that 50 of the 62 dead from Monday’s border attack were affiliated with the terrorist organization and Hamas’s printed orders to those approaching the fence to try to kidnap Israelis could have made Israel look somewhat better had they been more widely reported. But the “Israel kills 60 Palestinians” headlines, like the one splashed across the front page of The New York Times, are the only ones etched into the minds of the readers around the world.
Israel’s rapid fall from commended to condemned, its backward pedaling, and the Jewish state once again being treated like the world’s toy raised key questions.
What direction is the country going in? By being too close to Trump, is Israel turning off much of the world and US Jews? Could and should Israel solve the Gaza problem? Was it smart to hold the US Embassy ceremony amid the Hamas threats? Was it insensitive to be so festive as people were dying nearby in Gaza? How should Israel have handled that split screen?
Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai said the events of the past week indicated once again that Israel’s public diplomacy system is inherently flawed. In his book Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion, Shai recommended forming a national public diplomacy authority that would synchronize the efforts of all relevant bodies in Israel and its installations around the world.
“There are lessons from the two Intifadas and two operations in Gaza that have yet to be learned,” he lamented. “We continue to find that we do not know how to deal with bad pictures. Even now when we know that everything is related to public diplomacy, we still don’t know how to handle it – not in mainstream media or social media.”
Shai said it was important to take an interdisciplinary approach to public diplomacy that takes into account its diplomatic, legal and economic ramifications, as well as its impact on such non-life-or-death matters as culture and sports. In this case, he said he would have operated a 24-hour emergency public diplomacy headquarters accompanying the press and getting out Israel’s side of the story.
“Our narrative of defending our people from terror was either not drafted or not presented the way it needed to be,” he said. “Something got lost. We had so many recent diplomatic achievements, yet we fell from the highest peak to the lowest valley.”
Shai rejected the arguments of Israel advocates that the split screen on foreign TV networks was inappropriate because the events in Gaza and Jerusalem were unconnected. He said Israel should have braced for an inevitably tough time in its public diplomacy effort.
“The split screen proves that diplomacy and security happen together and are intertwined, whether we like it or not,” he said. “The embassy opening and the Gaza protests were very connected, because our diplomatic achievement was a slap in the face to the Arabs. In a fight between two-dollar kites and missiles that cost $50,000, and 60 dead versus none wounded, we should expect criticism. With two million people without enough water and food, it’s clear where sympathies will lie.”
But Shai praised the IDF for handling the situation on the Gaza fence carefully and responsibly, trying to avoid loss of life. He said the only solution in Gaza is a diplomatic deal with a united Palestinian leadership, because there is no military solution.
He said Israel must work to strengthen ties with young, progressive American Jews and Democrats in general, but says closeness to Trump is good for Israel and that matters most.
“Certain American Jews might not like it, but we won’t apologize for having good relations with the US president,” he said. “Trump wanted to symbolically hold the ceremony on the day David Ben-Gurion declared Israel a state. I wouldn’t say we should wait a day when we are finally getting an American embassy in Jerusalem.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) went further. She said Israel got bad press in Gaza before Trump and would continue to get bad press due to the world’s hypocrisy, so there was no reason to consider postponing the embassy ceremony.
“Not letting our best friend recognize our capital on such a historic day would have been wrong and would have been surrendering to terrorists,” she said.
Hotovely, who strongly opposed the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, said the world lied about Israel benefiting from withdrawing completely to an internationally recognized border. She said the international community has continued holding Israel responsible for Gaza despite disengaging, and the United Nations Goldstone Report proved it nine years ago.
“The world must do some soul searching, because we left Gaza, yet they still don’t recognize our border,” she said. “We won’t pay twice by withdrawing and remaining the patron for Gaza that has a hostile terror regime. The world must understand that forcing the disengagement on us was a big mistake that led to Hamas taking power of Gaza. They created the Gaza problem, so it is up to them to solve it.”
Hotovely defected criticism of Israel’s public diplomacy during Monday’s skirmishes on the Gaza border. She said she briefed ambassadors and sent out key messages about the cynicism of Hamas sending the masses into harm’s way, using civilians as human shields, and the goal of the campaign that began in March being Israel’s destruction. She also told them about the leaflets Israel dropped warning Gazans in advance, which proved that Israel did prepare for a public diplomacy challenge.
“The world is hypocritical, because they respond more forcefully than us to security threats,” she said. “Innocents die at the hands of the US and Europe, too. It’s unrealistic to expect zero deaths in war. We did prepare our public diplomacy. Those who wanted to understand understood.”
A WOUNDED Palestinian is evacuated during Monday’s border attack in Gaza. Right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife, Sara Netanyahu, and senior White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump applaud during the dedication ceremony of the US Embassy in Jerusalem. ‘We continue to find that we do not know how to deal with bad pictures.’