As Benjamin Netanyahu warns that Israel must “rebrand” itself to avoid pariah status, ordinary Israelis are being conscripted into an army of spin doctors in a campaign termed “hasbara” – Hebrew for “public diplomacy”. In the latest offensive, the education ministry has launched a compulsory hasbara course for students travelling abroad so that they can learn how to justify Israel’s policies in the occupied territories to outsiders and challenge those who “seek to delegitimise Israel”. It is yet more evidence that hasbara has become a national obsession in Israel.
Israelis have been revelling in the prospect of an Oscar night triumph next week, with two Israeli-financed films in the running for Best Documentary. But the Israeli government is reported to be quietly fuming that the films, both of which portray Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories in a critical light, have garnered so much attention following their nominations. Guy Davidi, the Israeli co-director of 5 Broken Cameras, said industry insiders had warned him that pressure was being exerted on the Academy to stop the films winning the award.
It was an Arab legislator who made the most telling comment to the Israeli parliament last week as it passed the boycott law, which outlaws calls to boycott Israel or its settlements in the occupied territories. Ahmed Tibi asked: “What is a peace activist or Palestinian allowed to do to oppose the occupation? Is there anything you agree to?” The boycott law is the latest in a series of ever-more draconian laws being introduced by the far-right.
Israel needs to maintain its credibility in the U.S. because that is the source of its strength. It depends on billions of dollars in aid and military hardware, almost blanket political support from Congress, the White House’s veto of critical resolutions at the United Nations, and Washington’s role as a dishonest broker in the peace process. For that reason Israel makes significant efforts to put pressure on journalists. It also targets their news editors “back home” because they make appointments to the region, set the tone of the coverage, approve or veto story ideas, and edit and package the reports coming in from the field.
A new government campaign to train Israelis in how to use propaganda in order to improve their country’s image when they are abroad has been condemned for advancing a right-wing agenda. The public relations drive, which includes giving travellers tips on how to champion the country’s illegal settlements, is the government’s latest attempt to shore up support abroad. According to a recent government survey, 91 per cent of Israeli Jews believe foreigners have a strongly negative view of Israel.
A recent assignment of mine covering Israel’s presumed links to the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh provoked some more thoughts about the New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner. He is the Jerusalem bureau chief who has been at the centre of a controversy since it was revealed last month that his son is serving in the Israeli army. Despite mounting pressure to replace Bronner, the NYT’s editors have so far refused to consider that he might be facing a conflict of interest or that it would be wiser to post him elsewhere.
The hyperventilating by Israel’s leaders over a story published in a Swedish newspaper last month suggesting that the Israeli army assisted in organ theft from Palestinians has distracted attention from the disturbing allegations made by Palestinian families that were the basis of the article’s central claim. The families’ fears that relatives had body parts removed during unauthorized autopsies performed in Israel have been overshadowed by accusations of a “blood libel” directed against the reporter, Donald Bostrom, and the Aftonbladet newspaper.
The passionate support for Israel expressed on talkback sections of websites, internet chat forums, blogs, Twitters and Facebook may not be all that it seems. Israel’s foreign ministry is reported to be establishing a special undercover team of paid workers whose job it will be to surf the internet 24 hours a day spreading positive news about Israel. Internet-savvy Israeli youngsters, mainly recent graduates and demobilised soldiers with language skills, are being recruited to pose as ordinary surfers while they provide the government’s line on the Middle East conflict.
Pope Benedict XVI upset the schedule on his first day in Israel by leaving an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem early on Monday night after a leading Muslim cleric called on him to condemn the “slaughter” of women and children in the recent assault on Gaza. The pontiff walked out, a spokesman noted, because Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi’s speech was a “direct negation” of dialogue and damaged the Pope’s efforts at “promoting peace”.
The thermal imaging footage shot from an Israeli drone hovering over Gaza shows eight Palestinian militants loading rockets on to a lorry. Within seconds, the drone’s sights are locked on to the vehicle and it and the ghostlike figures nearby are incinerated in a missile blast. Or so tens of thousands of visitors to YouTube have been led to believe. The clip was one of several uploaded by the Israeli army last week. A subsequent investigation, however, suggests the rockets were in fact gas canisters and that the supposed militants were civilians moving welding equipment.
The Human Rights Association with its 20-year record of exposing Israeli policies that discriminate against the country’s 1.2 million Arab citizens is facing imminent closure as major funders withdraw money in what some observers believe may be a co-ordinated policy to silence Israel’s harshest “critics from within”. The association, one of the most prominent of several leading Arab rights organisations, is attracting the opposition of international charitable foundations concerned with promoting democracy in Israel, according to the HRA’s director.
It is an honour of a kind, I suppose, to briefly have the most active thread on the CiF site. But not much of one when 95 per cent of the posts rarely rose above the level of vitriolic name-calling. The posters probably know that by now I am immune to playground taunts of “scum” and “Nazi”, but the abuse, I suspect, is meant more as a warning to others who might criticise Israel. Keep quiet — or else.
I note with dismay the correspondence provoked by my commentary last week (“Nonviolent protest offers little hope for Palestinians”). My critics fall into two camps. The first accuses me of excusing or justifying violent Palestinian attacks on Israelis. This is a gross misrepresentation. I simply explained why Arun Gandhi’s message of nonviolence is likely to fall on stony ground in the occupied territories. Sadly, the suicide bombing in Beersheba on the day my commentary was published appears to confirm my point.