This is the refrain of pro-Israel pundits like Max Boot who are critical (excessively so in my view) of Israel’s most recent effort to protect itself against the shipment of weapons into Gaza. The scenario posited by this refrain is a conceivable one. However, it’s also possible, and I would submit more likely, that Israel’s enemies can win every PR battle and still neither (a) destroy the Israeli state nor (b) see the establishment of a Palestinian one in their lifetimes.
To what extent, then, should Israel factor PR concerns — which these days necessarily amount mostly to the desire to avoid condemnation — into its strategic decisions? The historical record strongly suggests that Israel should largely ignore PR when deciding how to protect itself.
For example, Israel became less safe when it pulled out of Gaza — a move that was popular with the Bush administration. It subsequently became more safe when, in a move that brought the same kind of harsh condemnation on display now, it invaded Gaza and waged a successful war there. Afterwards, the dogs barked for a little while longer, but the caravan moved on.
Israel became less safe following its offer in 2000 to permit the creation of a Palestinian state on a very substantial portion of the West Bank. The Clinton adminisration was pleased by the offer. However, it was followed by, and arguably helped precipitate, a bloody intifada. Israel subsequently became more safe when it launched a widely-condemned military action (Jenin and all that) in the West Bank that helped break the back of the intifada. The end of terrorism inside Israel was well worth the short-term PR hit.
Israel’s enemies tout PR wins not because they are valuable, but because they are usually the only victories attainable. Israel seems to understand this, even if its friendly critics don’t.
To hold its own in the PR wars, Israel must adopt, at least to some extent, the narrative of those from whom it seeks decent publicity. But that narrative casts Palestinians as victims of Israel, or at least of Israel’s creation. To allow a narrative that casts Israel in the role of the villain to affect Israeli security policy would be a step on the road to national suicide.
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