x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Is Israel losing its PR war?

A poll by Gallup last week found that 51 per cent of young Americans between 18 and 29 years of age thought Israel’s actions in the latest crisis were 'unjustified'.

An Israeli soldier keeps his position near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 29, 2014. The Israeli offensive, which began on July 8 to end Hamas rocket attacks on the Jewish state, has killed nearly 1,200 Palestinians, dealing a blow to Israel's public relations campaign. Jack Guez/AFP Photo
An Israeli soldier keeps his position near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 29, 2014. The Israeli offensive, which began on July 8 to end Hamas rocket attacks on the Jewish state, has killed nearly 1,200 Palestinians, dealing a blow to Israel's public relations campaign. Jack Guez/AFP Photo

NEW YORK // The latest Gaza war has brought into focus — and perhaps accelerated — a new trend in recent years: growing criticism in the United States of Israel’s policies and increasing sympathy for the plight of Palestinian civilians.

There are no signs, however, that this small but significant shift in public opinion is being felt in Washington, where support for Israel was underlined this week in Congress.

Over the past decade, consecutive Israeli governments have invested in establishing a massive public relations machine that works to promote a positive image as the unavoidable realities of settlement building, occupation and repression make Tel Aviv’s positions increasingly harder to defend.

A messaging strategy guidebook created by US Republican pollster Frank Luntz for the Israel Project after the 2008-9 Gaza invasion is considered a framework document that sheds light on Israel’s PR approach for “leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel”.

The guide urges these leaders to “show sympathy” for civilian deaths, while squarely placing blame on Hamas and framing Israeli violence as an act of self defence while constantly reminding people that Israel only wants peace.

This strategy was used successfully in 2012, but in the latest round of fighting was badly dented by the rise in social media, which has given Americans an unfiltered view of Palestinian suffering.

Even Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged to CBS News on Sunday that Israel was losing the PR war, but stuck to the script, adding that Hamas is responsible for “[piling] up more and more dead bodies of Palestinian civilians”.

“We’ve been on this trajectory since before the war with more and more Americans becoming … willing to discuss and debate [Israeli policies],” said Brent Sasley, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington who studies Israel. “The war is exacerbating these problems [for Israel].”

It has been not just pro-Palestinian activists, but also journalists with major outlets who have told stories from a Palestinian perspective to an unprecedented degree. Many used social media to publish images and first-hand accounts of the violence in real time and painted a picture different than what Americans have come to expect from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While the rise of social media as a news source for a number of Americans is not the sole factor, “there is a correlation”, Mr Sasley said.

A poll by Gallup last week found that 51% of young Americans between 18 and 29 years of age thought Israel’s actions in the latest crisis were “unjustified”. But support for Israel continues to be overwhelming. A Pew poll this week found that Americans overall were twice as likely to blame Hamas for the fighting.

Yet, on Capitol Hill, members of Congress from both parties are scrambling to demonstrate their unfaltering support for Israel. Many have condemned the White House for its efforts to broker a ceasefire and urged the US president to not put any pressure on Israel to end the war, while pledging to help bolster Israel’s military.

“At times like this, people try to isolate Israel,” House Speaker John Boehner said on Monday. “We are here to stand with Israel, not just as a broker or observer but as a strong partner and a trusted ally.”

Obama administration officials have voiced anger at their Israeli counterparts, who have blamed secretary of state John Kerry for trying to broker a ceasefire that they claim provided too many concessions to Hamas.

“It’s simply not the way partners and allies treat each other,” said state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

tkhan@thenational.ae