White House

Why Benjamin Netanyahu Should Be Very, Very Worried

Israel’s defense is vulnerable to more than missiles as demographic and social changes threaten its global story.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks to the podium during a joint press conference with British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond on July 24, 2014 at the Knesset in Jerusalem. Speaking on his first official visit to the region since taking over as Britain's top diplomat, Hammond said Britain is 'gravely concerned' by the high number of civilian casualties resulting from Israel's military operation in Gaza while Netanyahu said Israel was doing everything it could to minimise casualties, pinning the blame on Hamas for using civilians as 'human shields'. 
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Ron Fournier
July 28, 2014, 6:13 a.m.

Chris Wal­lace of Fox News Sunday asked Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu wheth­er he was wor­ried about “a third in­ti­fada.” The Is­raeli prime min­is­ter replied that Hamas “wants to pile up” Ga­zan cas­u­al­ties in hope of in­stig­at­ing an up­ris­ing. In oth­er words, he ducked the heart of the ques­tion.

Net­an­yahu should be wor­ried. The Is­raeli pub­lic should be wor­ried. All sup­port­ers of the Jew­ish state should be wor­ried — not only about the pro­spect of cur­rent events spiral­ing out of con­trol, but also about a con­flu­ence of demo­graph­ic and so­cial trends that threaten Is­rael’s abil­ity to man­age the war of per­cep­tions.

Every na­tion has a story. Is­rael’s is that Ar­abs have long been un­will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with the Jew­ish state, and that ter­ror­ists among the Palestini­ans want to des­troy it. For dec­ades, three sig­ni­fic­ant factors helped make this the dom­in­ant Middle East nar­rat­ive. First, it’s cor­rect, at least when ap­plied to the dan­ger­ous minor­ity of Palestini­ans. Second, elite opin­ion-makers, in­clud­ing journ­al­ists and politi­cians in the West, em­braced and amp­li­fied the Is­raeli case. Fi­nally, pub­lic opin­ion in the West, and par­tic­u­larly in the United States, firmly sup­por­ted Is­rael.   

The first factor still holds. The United States would not hes­it­ate to re­spond fiercely to at­tacks like those of Hamas. No coun­try would. Is­rael has the ab­so­lute right to de­fend it­self, and Net­an­yahu stood on firm ground as he de­scribed to Wal­lace the motives and tac­tics of Hamas.

The danger lies with the last two factors, start­ing with the near-mono­poly Is­rael once en­joyed over the mind share of pub­lic-opin­ion elites. Is­rael must learn to act in a world of demo­crat­ized me­dia, where tweets and posts and pic­tures about Ga­zan cas­u­al­ties reach the glob­al com­munity in­stant­an­eously and without fil­ter.

The newly in­ter­con­nec­ted world in­cludes main­stream journ­al­ists, whose cov­er­age of a dec­ades-old story now in­cludes an ex­pan­ded ar­ray of sources who don’t work for a gov­ern­ment, a lobby, or an act­iv­ist group. The past few weeks have ex­posed a subtle but sig­ni­fic­ant shift in cov­er­age — a more em­path­ic view of the plight of Ga­zans, and a great­er fo­cus on the con­sequences of Is­rael’s ac­tions.

Con­sider these three stor­ies and a ques­tion raised by each:

  • NBC pulled for­eign cor­res­pond­ent Ay­man Mo­hyeld­in out of the Ga­za Strip, rais­ing ques­tions about wheth­er his em­path­et­ic cov­er­age of Palestini­ans led to his re­mov­al. Bri­an Stel­ter, who cov­ers the me­dia for CNN, said his re­port­ing “strongly sug­gests that this was a situ­ation caused by net­work news in­fight­ing and bur­eau­cracy.” Pub­lic back­lash played a role in Mo­hyeld­in’s re­turn to Ga­za, Stel­ter said. Ques­tion: A dec­ade or so ago, would a news or­gan­iz­a­tion re­ceive this much pres­sure for a staff­ing de­cision?
  • A Palestini­an-Amer­ic­an teen­ager ac­cused Is­raeli au­thor­it­ies of beat­ing him. Upon his re­turn to Tampa Fla., 15-year-old Tariq Abu Kh­deir said, “No child, wheth­er they are Palestini­an or Is­raeli, de­serves to die.” Ques­tion: A dec­ade or so ago, would the beat­ing be covered at all? As much?
  • CNN cor­res­pond­ent Di­ana Mag­nay tweeted that the Is­rael­is cheer­ing bombs hit­ting Ga­za, and who had al­legedly threatened her, were “scum.” The net­work pulled her off the story. Ques­tion: A dec­ade or so ago, would a net­work cor­res­pond­ent broad­cast her bluntly neg­at­ive opin­ion about Is­raeli sol­diers? (What are the chances a net­work re­port­er would even think to call Is­rael­is scum?)

Fi­nally, a gen­er­a­tion of glob­al cit­izens is rising to power without the Is­raeli nar­rat­ive em­bed­ded so firmly in its con­scious­ness. The so-called Ar­ab Spring and the United States’ di­min­ished in­flu­ence abroad has cre­ated a new set of fil­ters through which young people will con­sider the Is­raeli-Palestini­an con­flict, a view­point that might be less in­clined to fa­vor the Jew­ish state.

In the United States, young­er Amer­ic­ans are far less likely to say Is­rael’s ac­tions in the Ga­za Strip are jus­ti­fied. Ac­cord­ing to Gal­lup, these are the per­cent­ages of Amer­ic­ans who sup­port the Is­raeli po­s­i­tion, grouped by age: 55 per­cent of those over 65; 53 per­cent of those between 50 and 64; 36 per­cent of those 30-49; and just 25 per­cent of those 18-29.

Again, none of this is in­ten­ded to sug­gest that Is­rael should bow to Hamas’s de­mands. Is­rael­is must de­fend them­selves. Neither is this a case for or against Is­rael com­plet­ing its cur­rent mis­sion to shut­ter ter­ror­ists’ tun­nels and si­lence the rock­ets. Rather, it’s a warn­ing that Is­rael’s dec­ades-old pub­lic re­la­tions and polit­ic­al dom­in­ance is com­ing to an end un­less the na­tion’s lead­ers change the nar­rat­ive and re­set their stra­tegic po­s­i­tion with mod­er­ate Palestini­ans.

Dav­id Gross­man, an Is­raeli au­thor and noted peace act­iv­ist, writes in The New York Times today that Is­rael­is and Palestini­ans are yoked to the same grind­stone. He asks why.

Since I can­not ask Hamas, nor do I pur­port to un­der­stand its way of think­ing, I ask the lead­ers of my own coun­try, Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Net­an­yahu and his pre­de­cessors: How could you have wasted the years since the last con­flict without ini­ti­at­ing dia­logue, without even mak­ing the slight­est ges­ture to­ward dia­logue with Hamas, without at­tempt­ing to change our ex­plos­ive real­ity? Why, for these past few years, has Is­rael avoided ju­di­cious ne­go­ti­ations with the mod­er­ate and more con­vers­able sec­tors of the Palestini­an people — an act that could also have served to pres­sure Hamas? Why have you ig­nored, for 12 years, the Ar­ab League ini­ti­at­ive that could have en­lis­ted mod­er­ate Ar­ab states with the power to im­pose, per­haps, a com­prom­ise on Hamas? In oth­er words: Why is it that Is­raeli gov­ern­ments have been in­cap­able, for dec­ades, of think­ing out­side the bubble?

He said pun­dits on the left are re­cog­niz­ing the depths of hatred to­ward Is­rael, which he col­or­fully calls “the Is­lam­ic fun­da­ment­al­ist vol­cano that threatens the coun­try.” Pun­dits on the right, he said, must real­ize that nobody will win this war.

There is no mil­it­ary solu­tion to the real an­guish of the Palestini­an people, and as long as the suf­foc­a­tion felt in Ga­za is not al­le­vi­ated, we in Is­rael will not be able to breathe freely either.

Is­rael­is have known this for dec­ades, and for dec­ades we have re­fused to truly com­pre­hend it.

To me, on Sunday, the talk­ing points Net­an­yahu de­ployed against Wal­lace were sim­ul­tan­eously ac­cur­ate and ar­cha­ic. Yes, the ter­ror­ists want to des­troy Is­rael and are will­ing to kill their own people to do so. But why doesn’t he seem wor­ried about the con­sequences of his ap­proach — one tailored for a world that is rap­idly ceas­ing to ex­ist?


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