By James Zogby
As in past Mideast conflicts, both the media story line and political commentary in the US have closely followed Israel’s talking points on the war. This has been an essential component in Israel’s early success and in its ability to prolong fighting without US pushback. Because it recognises the importance of the propaganda war, Israel fights on this front as vigorously and disproportionately as it engages on the battlefield.
Here’s how they have done it.
Define the terms of debate, and you win the debate. Early on, the Israelis work to define the context, the starting point, and the story line that will shape understanding of the war. In this instance, for example, they succeeded by constant repetition, in establishing the notion that the starting point of the conflict was 19 December, the end of the six-month ceasefire (which Israel described as "unilaterally ended by Hamas"). In doing so, they ignored, of course, their own early November violations, and their failure to honour their commitment in the ceasefire to open Gaza’s borders. They also ignored their having reduced Gaza into a dependency, a process that began long before and continued after their withdrawal in 2005. Because they know that most Americans do not closely follow the conflict and are inclined to believe, as the line goes, "what they hear over and over again", this tactic of preemptive definition and repetition succeeds.
Recognise that stereotypes work. Because, for generations, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict has been defined with positive cultural images of Israel and negative stereotypes of Palestinians, Israel’s propagandists have an advantage here that is easy to exploit. Because the story has long been seen as "Israeli humanity confronting the Palestinian problem", media coverage of any conflict begins with how "the problem" is affecting the Israeli people. As Golda Meir once put it, "we can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for making us kill their children." And so, it was not surprising that, despite the disproportionate suffering of the Palestinians, media coverage attempted to "balance" the story, giving extensive treatment, with photos, to anguished and fearful Israelis and the impact the war was having on them. Early on, when media treatment mattered most, Palestinians were reduced, as always, to mere numbers, or objectified as "collateral damage".
Anticipate and count on your opponent’s blunders. Hamas’s stupidity played into Israel’s strategy. From the outset, Israel could count on the fact that Hamas would launch rockets and issue the kind of threats that Israel could then parley into sympathy in the West. Knowing that these would most certainly come, and could be exploited, was an advantage in their propaganda war.
Be everywhere, and say the same thing, and make sure your opponents remain as invisible as possible. Israel begins each war with a host of English-speaking spokespersons (many born in the West) available at any time for every media outlet (it’s no accident, for example, that Israel has an "Arab" consul-general in Atlanta — that’s where CNN is). The work of their propaganda operation, which spreads multiple spokespersons in venues across the United States with consistent talking points, guarantees success. At the same time, they are able to deny media access to Gaza, only allowing Western reporters to operate near the war zone under occupation forces supervision, guaranteeing Israel the opportunity to shape every aspect of the story while removing the possibility of independent verification of the horror unfolding in Gaza.
Give no ground. Since half of the story will be determined by what political leaders say and do, the political apparatus in Washington is also pressed into service, ensuring that White House and Congressional leadership will "toe the line". Statements issued by Congress, therefore, reflect the talking points; together, the Israeli spokespersons, the political commentators, and the Congressional statements serve as echoes of one another.
Deny, deny, deny. When events and reality break through, contradicting the established narrative, creating stories that run counter to the imposed storyline, the Israeli propaganda machine works overtime to deny, deny, deny (saying quite boldly, "Who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?") and/or concoct a counter-narrative that shifts the blame ("We didn’t do it, they made us"). In this instance, that means asserting that the death of Palestinian civilians is always the fault of someone else, or that reporters or their opponents are staging the grief (as if to say, "Arabs don’t really grieve like we do").
The last refuge of a scoundrel: When all else fails, blame criticism on anti-Semitism. It stings, and may be overused, but it can silence or put critics on the defensive.
– James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute. (Originally published in Al Ahram Weekly – www.weekly.ahram.org.eg – on January 15-21; Issue No. 930)