Commentary Magazine


The Problem with Playing Defense

Given past performances, I’d say that Israel and its supporters are doing a better-than-average job of quickly beating back the international lynch mob that loves nothing more than propagating lies about Israel. The key weapon in this fight for truth has been this particular video of the IDF commandos descending onto the deck of the Mavi Marmara and into a hornet’s nest of murderous “peace activists.”

This kind of after-the-fact truth-telling is good as far as it goes, but it actually doesn’t go very far: it is restricted to responding to lies, exaggerations, and accusations. Israel is on the receiving end of a viciously negative political campaign, and as any campaign strategist knows, you don’t respond to a negative campaign by expending all your energy trying to explain why the lies aren’t true — you go negative and play offense in return.

What would it look like if the Israeli government played offense? First and foremost, this would require some serious criticism of the Islamist government of Turkey, which masterfully created this crisis and is now denouncing Israel for it. Turkey’s thuggish prime minister certainly understands the benefits of being on offense. He says that Israel committed a “massacre” and is guilty of “state terrorism,” “piracy,” has struck “a blow to world peace and against international law,” threatens that “if Israel does not immediately free all the detainees and wounded, the rift in relations with it will widen,” and thunders that “Israel will not be able to show itself in the world until it apologizes for what happened and undergoes self-criticism.”

Quite a performance! Wouldn’t it be remarkable if the Israelis had gotten ahead of the story by making their own accusations and demands? Here are a few ideas of the kind of concrete action the Israelis could take — if they had the stones to really take a stand.

1. Expel the Turkish ambassador and declare his return contingent on a full, credible, and public Turkish investigation of the terrorist organization that planned and funded the “aid flotilla.”

2. Publicly demand reparations from Turkey for the costs of the operation, including the medical bills of the thugs and Jew-haters who have been given such lovely medical care in Israeli hospitals.

3. Demand a UN investigation of why Turkey is funding terrorist organizations that are involved in attacks on Israel.

4. Fund a Kurdish human-rights NGO in Israel — there are lots of Kurdish Jews who I’m sure would be happy to help — that raises awareness of the plight of Kurds in Turkey. (Short answer: they are treated horribly.) This organization must publicize the apartheid conditions of Kurdish life in Turkey and churn out op-eds, studies, videos, and press releases denouncing Turkey’s brutal and racist treatment of its own minorities.

5. Fund a Turkish-language documentary on the Armenian genocide, upload it to YouTube, and promote it heavily in Turkey. If Erdogan wants to call Israel a criminal and a murderer, there’s no reason why Israel shouldn’t return the favor on this most sensitive of issues.

The model of hasbara, or public diplomacy, that Israel has employed for decades is premised on the persuasiveness of reason, evidence, context, truth, fairness, and apology. Anyone who has been following events in Israel over the past few years understands how profoundly this strategy has failed. For obvious historic reasons, many Jews have internalized the dangerous belief that the best way to respond to condemnation and lies is to show how unthreatening and willing to criticize and investigate themselves they are. The problem is that not only doesn’t this work; it actually invites further attack by rewarding those who defame and incite against the Jewish state.

Israel’s hasbara strategy must shift to one that is based on power, self-confidence, and an eagerness to vigorously condemn its defamers. This is the difference between driving the debate and reacting to it, refuting lies and validating them, offense and defense, setting the agenda versus being on the agenda. If the Israelis wish to see a good model for how to set the terms of a controversy, they need only look at the Turkish prime minister’s brilliant performance this week.

About the Author

Noah Pollak is assistant editor of the Middle East Quarterly.




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