August 3, 2001
The negative global reaction to Tuesday's IDF operation against Hamas headquarters in Nablus highlights the serious problem Israel has in making its case to the world. Though most diplomats and governments, and many editorial pages, understand that the Palestinians are the aggressors in the current conflict, the conflict is not being treated by the world as a fight against terrorism.
There are a number of levels to our case-making problem, known in Hebrew as hasbara. The first, most obvious level is mechanical. As this newspaper reported yesterday, an IDF statement released to explain the Nablus operation was not even in coherent English, and the IDF later admitted that it should never have been released. It took hours for official government statements to emerge about the operation, a long time when television footage and commentary is already in full bloom across the globe.
It is clear that the level of planning and professionalism invested in military actions is not being invested on the diplomatic front. The missiles that can pinpoint a single window on the third floor of a building may be "smart," but the information campaign that should accompany such an operation has been clumsy by comparison.
Getting the message out efficiently and professionally is the first task, but deciding on a message is no less important. Part of the discussion in yesterday's cabinet meeting highlights our message problem. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres reportedly pointed out the inconsistency of Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz calling the Palestinian Authority a terrorist entity, while opposing a general military campaign to crush that entity.
Peres has put his finger on the basic contradiction that hamstrings Israel's information efforts. On the one hand, Israel has accepted the Mitchell Report in full, meaning that once PA Chairman Yasser Arafat fully abides by the Tenet cease-fire framework, Israel is committed to returning to the negotiating table with him. On the other hand, Arafat is making a mockery of the Tenet plan by openly refusing to stop attacks against Israelis in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip, and refusing to arrest suicide bombers and their masters. Even the shootings from Beit Jala (which is in Area A) into Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood have resumed. So for now, Israel is a military conflict with its supposed future peace partner.
According to Peres, Israel should not say things that make it harder to treat Arafat as a partner in the future - calling him a terrorist, for example. Peres vigorously defended his own recent meetings with Arafat in Lisbon and Cairo, claiming they do not undermine Israel's effort to keep Arafat out of the White House. It is one thing, however, for Peres to oppose name-calling, and to head off those who advocate eliminating the PA; it is another to avoid telling the full truth in a way that hobbles Israel's ability to defend its own actions.
Israel must unstintingly tell the truth about who is responsible for terrorism against Israelis, and state as accurately as possible Arafat's direct and indirect responsibility for such attacks. Hard, accurate, and timely information about attacks should be disseminated daily, not just by the Defense Ministry, but by the Foreign Ministry. And Peres himself should explain more clearly how Arafat, from the beginning and in principle, has violated the central requirements of the Tenet plan. Israel's central diplomatic goal should be to convince the world of what should be obvious - that Israel's former negotiating partner is now sponsoring and abetting an escalating wave of terrorism. This cannot be done if Israeli leaders are constantly worrying about preserving Arafat's legitimacy for some future negotiation.
Peres, for example, has repeatedly pointed out that Arafat is the Palestinians' elected leader, and it would be ridiculous for Israel to pretend that it can choose who leads the Palestinian side. There is some truth to both these points, but Peres is conveniently ignoring more important truths: that Arafat's rule is far from democratic, and that Israel has to remain open to the possibility that agreements with the Palestinians may have to wait until they are led by different leaders.
Israel should not be in the business of defending Arafat's legitimacy; on the contrary, the greatest diplomatic deterrent against terrorism would be if Arafat's personal legitimacy were to be stripped away. Being prepared to negotiate with Arafat if he ends terrorism is only one side of the coin. The other, which must be emphasized at the moment, is that Israel and the world may have to wait for different Palestinian leadership if he is not.
©2001 - Jerusalem Post