Benjamin Netanyahu convinced Israelis that the country only needed to improve its messaging to the world, not itself. The horrific response by some Westerners to Hamas’ slaughter of Israelis shows the folly of that concept
About 18 months ago, after returning from a reporting trip to Ukraine, an Israeli general asked me what I thought the main lessons were from that war. I answered that I’m sure he didn’t need any lectures from me on the proper usage of tanks in combined arms warfare, but that if there was anything Israel should learn from it, it’s the power of videos made on the battlefield to influence the international narrative of a war.
“For the first weeks of the war in Ukraine,” I told him, “very few journalists, if any, had access to the battlefield in Ukraine and most of the reporting was being done from the cities. We knew of course that both sides were taking heavy casualties, but very few visuals came out. What did emerge were well-produced videos of Ukrainian missile teams ambushing and destroying Russian tanks. It doesn’t matter that this was only a small part of what was happening: it was the image of those early stages of the war.”
In a future war in which Israel is involved, I warned the general, the tanks will be Israeli Merkavas and even if the enemy side manages to hit just a tiny handful of them, the videos will be online almost immediately and Israelis back home will suddenly be seeing their sons dead and wounded besides the tanks. The Israel Defense Forces has to think how it handles that.
Today, it turns out I was only half-right. When Israel’s next war began on October 7, there were plenty of videos from the battlefield around Gaza of Israeli tanks being hit by missiles, but these were not the ones shocking the Israeli public. At least, they weren’t the main ones.
By now, many of us have seen so many of them: An unending sequence of horror unfolding on our phone screens of young people cowering under fire, bloodied captives being dragged into Gaza, the wounded and the dead. Shocking for any viewer, and unimaginable for those seeing their loved ones in those last terrifying moments.
The shock came first. Then the scramble for every piece of footage, as gruesome as it may be, for signs of life and perhaps something about possible whereabouts. And then came the hasbara (the Israeli term for public diplomacy).
Last week, I watched a compilation of these videos, the worst of the worst of footage from Hamas body cameras, kibbutz security cameras, and social media posts of both the victims and perpetrators, prepared by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. A slightly updated version with added horrors was screened to larger groups of journalists this week. You can read the details of what was on the screen elsewhere. At this point, I’m more interested in what the IDF was hoping to achieve.
In recent years, the spokesperson’s unit has carried out multiple exercises planning the IDF’s media response at time of war, but nothing prepared it for this. There was no scenario in which the worst footage would be that coming from the Israeli side, of Israeli civilian casualties. And in the first days of the war, they were totally unsure what to do with it. It was a novel situation and the decision to screen it to journalists wasn’t obvious.
At first, few thought of doing so. Surely there would be no need to show such snuff. Why should there be? What happened on October 7 should have been clear enough without having to go into such graphic detail.
Israel’s case really should not have needed to be made at that moment. It was self-evident to any decent human being with eyes in their head. On October 7, Israeli communities were attacked by an organization that since its inception has had an openly and proudly genocidal charter with the stated aim of killing every Jew in the land.
In accordance with that charter, the members of that organization went about methodically slaughtering every Jewish family they could find, before they were beaten back first by civilian defenders and then the IDF. Those who had a bit of time indulged in mutilating the bodies of their victims. And those who managed to get back to Gaza carried with them captive infants, bloodied young women and bewildered elderly ladies. Over 220 Israeli hostages, in addition to the 2 million Palestinian hostages Hamas already holds in Gaza.
The destruction of Hamas in Gaza is the only morally acceptable outcome of this. The question of how this should be done and how best to guarantee the safety of civilians in Gaza is hugely important. But it doesn’t change Israel’s moral obligation. Nor does the broader context of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
So why screen the footage of mutilated and burned bodies of women and children?
Because, as the officers of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit – and a few lonely media experts on the Netanyahu government’s hollowed-out civilian side – began to realize at the end of the first week of this awful war, Israel’s case was not actually so easy to make.
It should be painfully obvious, but it wasn’t. Wide swaths of Western public opinion – particularly on the left, especially among the well-educated younger generation and the news organizations serving them – were far from convinced that the Israelis were the victims. The scenes had failed to convince them otherwise. They remained conditioned to see Israelis, even dead children, as the oppressors.
That’s the reason why, after much soul-searching, the decision was made to try to shock and awe the reporters who had flocked to Israel to cover the war with the B-roll from hell. They shouldn’t have needed it. But they felt they did. That is because on October 7, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy of dividing the Palestinians through allowing Hamas to strengthen itself in Gaza wasn’t his only concept that failed. Another Netanyahu concept that failed was the centrality of hasbara to Israel’s security.
Netanyahu has spent the past 50 years – since his days as a hasbarist beginner, working part-time for the Israeli consulate in Boston – convincing the rest of us that all Israel needed was to explain its case better, more forcefully and with an arsenal of factoids and sound bites, and then the world would be won over. He certainly won over Israelis who, on the sole basis of his rhetorical prowess from the United Nations podium and in the CNN studios, elected him as Israel’s youngest and least-experienced prime minister at 46.
Look closer at all his years in politics and that’s basically what he has had to sell. Hasbara. A deep belief that Israel doesn’t have to improve itself; it is perfect as it is. All it needs is to explain itself better.
He sold that to Israelis, to many Diaspora Jews and to a whole cohort of wanna-Bibis, who believe it is their duty to wage hasbara war on Israel’s behalf rather than fight to make Israel a better place. And guess what? The world didn’t buy it, and then parts of the world got so tired of it that when Israel had an unassailable moral case, they still refused to believe their own eyes.
The conceptual failure of hasbara doesn’t excuse those who refuse to see Hamas for what it is – a mortal threat to Israelis and Palestinians – or their moral blindness and in some cases latent Jew-hatred. It doesn’t mean that Israel, like any other country at war, doesn’t need to be presenting its case with facts and confidence.
It does mean, though, that those who have bought into Netanyahu’s concept that Israel is fine if you explain it well enough, have discredited Israel and those who try to defend it.
The real defenders of Israel have never been those who presented a false picture like the hasbarists, but those who have told the truth while seeking to make it a better place. Once this awful war is over, it will be time to get rid of that failed concept as well.