Hasbara gone wrong

Whenever I hear Israel's supporters defending the war in Gaza I wonder what they are hoping to achieve. Who do they think they are going to persuade? 

Something has gone seriously wrong with Israel's once-reliable hasbara. Far from shifting opinion in Israel's favour, it is now having the opposite effect. The horrific turn of events has presented Israel's propagandists with a near-impossible task where almost anything they say is liable to make matters worse.

Boaz Modai, Israel's ambassador to Ireland, once won an award for his hasbara skills, so he might be expected to know what he is doing in that area. But the publicity for Israel generated by his embassy's Twitter feed has been overwhelmingly negative. A laughable attempt to persuade the Irish that Dublin will be Hamas's next target fell on deaf ears but triggered debate about Modai amid accusations of racism.

Israeli spokespersons appearing on the BBC often give the impression of coming from another planet. Ignoring the interviewer's questions, they rattle off their pre-ordained talking points in a Dr Strangelove kind of way until the interviewer says "Thank you, that's all we have time for."

Questioning the use of language is a well-established hasbara technique but in the current situation it can appear nit-picking or diversionary at best, and heartless at worst. A few days ago, there were some on Twitter disputing whether Gaza can be accurately described as "densely populated". (It can, but perhaps not for much longer.)

Here's another one, claiming that Israel's military action is not disproportionate:

"Almost everyone, it seems, is more or less upset that Israel seeks to defend itself against indiscriminate Hamas rocket attacks. Those who speak self-righteously in the name of some mythical 'international community' – including the UN secretary general – are generally candid about their irritation. It is not really Israeli self-defense that they oppose, or even Operation Protective Edge in particular, but rather the alleged 'disproportionality' of Israel’s military operations in Gaza.

"From the standpoint of pertinent international law, these criticisms are sorely mistaken. The legal standard of proportionality in the law of armed conflict has nothing to do with equal levels of suffering. If it did, virtually all major allied military operations during World War II would have been flagrantly 'disproportionate'."

Regardless of the legal niceties, articles of this kind don't really persuade anyone. They sound callous and raise people's hackles. By any commonsense view, Israel's military offensive is disproportionate, and putting the word in inverted commas or inserting the word "alleged" in front of it or arguing the toss about definitions won't change opinions.

(The writer of that article, incidentally, is Louis René Beres, described in a biographical note as professor of political science and international law at Purdue University. Look him up in Wikipedia and you'll find he is also chair of Project Daniel, a group advising Israel's prime minister on nuclear policy.)

Israelis don't seem to realise how far public opinion has turned against them. Many still assume that anyone who criticises the Netanyahu government is an ultra-leftist or an anti-Semite. But look at this week's YouGov poll in Britain which asked people who they think is guilty of war crimes:

Top war criminals
Assad 69%
Putin 66%
Hamas 65%
Israel 62%

A substantial majority in Britain believe Israel is guilty of war crimes, regardless of whether they support Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, or UKIP, and regardless of gender, age, social class or the region where they live.

No newspaper more closely represents the voice of conservative Middle England than the Daily Mail, but it too has turned against Netanyahu. It's editorial today begins:

"This newspaper has long admired Israel and its beleaguered and resourceful people, who have suffered appalling provocation from enemies intent on wiping their country from the map.

"Indeed, before anyone condemns them for acting against Hamas, we should consider how outraged we would be if our government stood by while neighbours rained rockets on our towns and villages.

"But it is precisely because we have such high regard for Israel that we are so profoundly troubled by the scale of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bombardment of Gaza ..."

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 31 July 2014