Why Israel Is Losing the 'War of Words'
"I have never seen such a depth of anguish as I've seen over this Gaza issue."
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To some, the “war of words” is just more noise in our already-noisy world.
But in our 24/7 news cycle and constantly connected, social media-driven reality, the “war of words” is as important as the battle itself, for it has the power to shape political policy, and it already is.
A few weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was asked at a press conference why the country is attacking Iranian proxies and not Iran, to which Netanyahu snapped back, saying: “Who told you we’re not hitting Iran?” The very next day, Israel started assassinating Iranian militants in Syria and Lebanon, and has continued doing so since.
In the United States, many Muslim and Arab Americans have vowed on social media not to vote for U.S. President Joe Biden’s Democrats in this November’s presidential election because he has “Palestinian blood on his hands.”
Last week, perhaps in a bid to win back Muslim and Arab American voters, Biden signed an “executive order” to slap sanctions on Israeli extremists, a sort of twisted moral equivalency between Hamas, the world’s fifth-most active terror group, and sporadic, unorganized Jewish attacks. Canada has said it will follow suit.
Of course, Biden issued this executive order just hours before his trip to the state of Michigan, home to America’s largest Muslim population, and an important “swing state” that could be a game-changer in the upcoming election.
But the “war of words” between Israel and the Palestinians did not start on October 7th, 2023, when Palestinian terrorists dealt the worst single-day attack to the Jewish state. The “war of words” dates back to the very outset of the State of Israel, and it has had significant consequences on the bloody, perilous conflict.
After Israel fended off five Arab armies upon declaring its independence in 1948, many people from all political leanings sympathized with Zionism, but that changed substantially after the 1967 Six-Day War and Israel’s subsequent takeover of the West Bank (from Jordan) and Gaza (from Egypt).
In some people’s eyes, Israel was an incarnation of Western imperial power, or for one-time colonial struggles (even though Zionism is the single-greatest decolonization project on planet Earth).
Meanwhile, in the 1960s, the Soviets started supporting the Palestinians because they were on the front lines of fighting the only democracy (Israel) in the Middle East. The Soviets encouraged Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to abandon his open desire to annihilate the Jews in Israel, in favor of “liberating the Palestinian People” in Israel.
By focusing on political liberation for a small group of Arabs, it ignored the fact that Israel is a small state whose existence is threatened by the surrounding Arab states, and rebranded the Jews from victims to oppressors — a much more effective communications strategy, and the first step in reframing the conflict between the Arabs and the Jews from religious jihad to secular nationalism, in a quest for political self-determination, a posture far less offensive to the West, especially in the wake of overwhelming guilt following the Holocaust.
Since then, the Palestinians seem to be playing a strategic long game of disinformation and chaos to entrench themselves in an easy-to-sell forever-state of victimhood. You can make the case that they have adopted a Putin-esque strategy of “dramaturgia” — the staging of deliberate provocations to destabilize Israel and other countries’ relationships with it, including the United States.
During Barack Obama’s two presidential terms from 2009 to 2016, many Democrats became increasingly anti-Israel. Biden’s support for Israel in the war against Hamas quickly went from unconditional to very conditional based on various demands, which have actually prolonged the Israel-Hamas war and thus caused more suffering on all sides. But, of course, many Democrats are blaming Israel.
“The base is really pissed — and it’s not just the leftists,” said one Democratic congressman. “I have never seen such a depth of anguish as I’ve seen over this Gaza issue.”1
It is unbelievable how people, in their right mind, could be so in contempt of Israel after it suffered one of the worst terror attacks in modern history, much more devastating than 9/11 based on per capita stats. But such are the effects of the “war of words” whereby Palestinian leaders have been able to break out of their doomed cycle of internal conflicts to internationalize the “Palestinian plight” and make “Palestine” everyone’s favorite cause.
To embrace the Palestinian plight is to never acknowledge any Palestinian wrongdoings and be intoxicated by a mystic force which convinces believers that history is irrelevant (or just written by “the bad guys”), reality is reality only when it aligns with pro-Palestinian viewpoints, and evidence-based truth is some conspiracy carried about by elitist White men whose forefathers most definitely owned dark-skinned slaves and stole indigenous peoples’ lands.
Thus, the Palestinian plight pits “the people” against both a particular elite and a scapegoated and often foreign but always dangerous Other (“the Zionists”) which countries like the United States, Germany, and the UK are accused of coddling. This model of populism, then, configures “reality” to constantly conform to “non-facts.”
Israel, on the other hand, has never had a great “PR strategy” — in Hebrew what is called hasbarah, which is derived from the Hebrew word lehasbeer, to explain.
Surely, though, it is challenging to explain to the average casual onlooker that, before the founding of the State of Israel, Jews were told to go back to Palestine, yet after its founding, Jews have been told to get out of Palestine. Just like, now, the same people who were already saying that Gaza was occupied by Israel, are now afraid that Gaza will be occupied by Israel.
To we Jews, this double standard is an obvious case of antisemitism, but antisemitism, especially nowadays, is a weird phenomenon because it comes from both the political Left and Right, and Jews are one of the only true minority groups who seized their victimhood to, on the whole, rise above it and achieve great collective success.
The State of Israel, with one of the greatest economies, militaries, and societies in the world, despite all of its persistent internal and externals threats, is a microcosm of this success, but Israel has generally done a poor job of communicating it to much of the world.
In 2002, an Israeli foreign diplomat named Ido Aharoni convened the Brand Israel Group, an independent body of marketing and branding specialists who laid the foundation for what later became the Brand Israel Project — designed to improve Israel’s positioning in the world by highlighting its relative advantages and increasing its relevance.
As Aharoni said, “No place, no person, no organization, wishes to be solely defined by its problems. Every place has a DNA, a personality, just like a human being.”
Aharoni could not have been more spot-on, and what came out of his genius was a sexy, shiny brand moniker that Israel started to adopt — Start-Up Nation — which became the focus of a book in 2009, written by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, using the same name and premise:
“Start-Up Nation addresses the trillion dollar question: How is it that Israel — a country of 7.1 million, only 60 years old, surrounded by enemies, in a constant state of war since its founding, with no natural resources — produces more start-up companies than large, peaceful, and stable nations like Japan, China, India, Korea, Canada and the UK?”
Israeli cities, universities, and non-profits leveraged some version of the “Start-Up Nation” brand within their own brands. It seemed to be working like a charm, as foreign investment, tourism, and other key performance indicators consistently increased year-over-year.
But in 2014, when Israel found itself entangled in another conflict with Hamas, the worldwide masses did not care about Israel as this so-called Start-Up Nation, nor do they today. Some 3,000 business opinion-makers in 10 locations around the world were asked the question: “What does Israel do best, and what is your first association with Israel?” It turned out that only one percent of the 3,000 people said start-ups.2
“Start-Up Nation served Israel extremely well to promote its business offering and technological prowess, and today perhaps it still does,” said Joanna Landau, the founder of Vibe Israel. “But looking down the line, within a few years, because of the pandemic changing how the world’s economies are working, it’s not enough to use the same messaging we used 10 years ago. We have to adapt ourselves to the new reality.”3
This is precisely the problem with the present-day “Start-Up Nation” brand. It only speaks to a certain — and tiny — group of people who are genuinely interested in technology and innovation as a core part of who they are and how they define themselves. We are effectively telling the world: If you are not interested in technology and innovation, you probably will not be interested in Israel.
Naturally, this does not bode well for Israel, especially when the country finds itself in a military conflict that gets blown out of proportion on the world stage, i.e. the current Israel-Hamas war, because technology and innovation do not create empathy or motivate people to separate their views on Israel’s political disputes from those on Israeli culture, lifestyle, and society.
Don’t get me wrong; if Israel’s only brand attribute revolved around technology and innovation, that would be one thing. But Israel is one of the few countries that actually has something interesting to offer for virtually every type of person: foodies, fashionistas, music lovers, history buffs, outdoor enthusiasts, patrons of the arts, nightlife owls, businesspeople, and so on.
Why limit ourselves to one aspect of Israeli culture and society when we have so many other exceptional attributes that can capture the hearts and minds of so many other groups of people?
“Forget No Labels. Biden’s Third-Party Peril is on the Left.” Politico.
“UAE branding is “a source of economic strength and national pride.” CTech.
“Reimagining Israel.” Israel Media Group.