The August beheading of American journalist James Foley shocked Washington’s policy elite, sparking concern over how the U.S. should respond to the emerging threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In retrospect, the gruesome murder was a kind of tipping point for the Obama administration, which had been scrambling to shape a response to both ISIS and the growing perception that its foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, was hopelessly adrift.
At the same time that Foley’s videotaped execution was spurring a series of high-level State Department, Pentagon and White House meetings over the crisis in Iraq and Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was calculating how he might use Foley’s death to explain why his country had killed over 2,100 Palestinians in Gaza over the previous eight weeks.
On the day following the release of a videotape showing the beheading, Netanyahu referred to the Foley murder during an evening press conference in Jerusalem, comparing the extremist group that murdered Foley with Hamas. “Hamas is like ISIS. ISIS is like Hamas,” he said. “They’re branches of the same tree.” The next day, in a message circulated on the Israeli prime minister’s twitter account, he reiterated the claim. “RT THIS,” Netanyahu wrote. “Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas. They’re enemies of Peace. They’re enemies of civilized countries.” The tweet had the snazzy look of a logo, along with scenes from the beheading video, which were deleted the next day after being widely criticized as inappropriate.
Despite the misstep, Netanyahu’s press statement and the twitter message had their intended effect. Over the next days and weeks, Israel’s congressional supporters flocked to support Netanyahu’s comparison, which was then repeated in a series of high-profile congressional visits to Israel. The Israeli prime minister’s message was intended to show that Hamas was an ISIS-like barbaric movement, that Israel and the U.S. were therefore involved in the same struggle and that Israel stood with the U.S. in its hour of need. In this sense, the message was a success. Or was it?
According to a well-placed senior State Department official, Netanyahu’s “Hamas Is ISIS” statement was greeted with “quiet disdain on the part of the seventh floor,” where the Secretary of State has his offices. “I swear, Netanyahu acts like he’s tone deaf. It sounded as if he was celebrating,” this official told me. “He wasn’t just playing off an individual tragedy for his own ends, he seemed to be saying that every time an American is killed by a Muslim that’s good for Israel. It’s one of the most offensive things I’ve heard.” What should have Netanyahu said? “An expression of sorrow to the family and solidarity with America would have been more appropriate,” this official said, “but that apparently never occurred to Bibi.”
The official State Department response, predictably, was bland, if pointed. “I think by definition they are two different groups,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told the press in the immediate aftermath of the Netanyahu comparison. “They have different leaderships, and I’m not going to compare them in that way . . . I’ll let him [Prime Minister Netanyahu] speak for himself, but I’m not going to use that comparison.”
The Israeli prime minister’s tweet was emblematic of Israel’s surprisingly inept public attempt to defend its actions during its Gaza offensive—a claim that is itself controversial, particularly among Israel’s defenders. But there’s no question that Israel’s public strategy has come in for widespread scrutiny, both during and after Operation Protective Edge, and that those criticisms have been pointed and even, at times, scathing.
“This is the ‘war about the war,’” Middle East analyst Geoffrey Aronson told me, “and it’s an important part of understanding and charting the pulse of U.S.-Israel relations. Israel’s war on Gaza was aimed first and foremost at weakening, rather than defeating, Hamas. But Israel also fought the war with one eye on Washington, mindful of the need to position itself in the U.S. and to defend and promote its political goals.”
So, how did Israel do?
Ten days after the beginning of Israel’s Gaza War, New York magazine writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells reported that Israel was losing its public relations war over the Gaza war in the U.S., attributing its poor public showing to the mainstream media’s increased attention to the Palestinian side of the story. The conflict’s earliest events, including the beating of a 15-year-old Palestinian-American from Tampa and the killings of four Palestinian children on a Gaza beach, meant that the human story of the conflict “stayed, unusually, on the Palestinian side,” he wrote.
But these two incidents were only a part of Israel’s problem. The other was Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, whose unrehearsed statements struck many Americans as cold, or even perverse. After the Gaza beach incident, Wallace-Wells wrote, Israel was “so clearly losing the public-relations war” that Netanyahu had complained that Hamas uses “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.” Writing in a magazine and for an audience that can hardly be described as pro-Palestinian, Wallace-Wells gave Netanyahu an unusually personal public slap: “If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television,” he wrote, “then he should stop killing so many of them.”
The Wallace-Wells column let loose a torrent of reflections on how poorly Israel was managing its public messaging. Even media critics who normally focus on America’s nightly prime time television shows weighed in—taking up where Wallace-Wells left off.
Writing in the Baltimore Sun on July 25, David Zurawik, author of The Jews of Prime Time, argued, “Israel is losing the public relations war over its action in Gaza in a way I cannot remember seeing in any of its recent military actions.”
The next day, writing in the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg built on the Wallace-Wells and Zurawik theme, while carefully repeating the substance of Netanyahu’s “telegenically dead” Palestinians claim. In an article entitled “Why Is Israel Losing The War It’s Winning,” Goldberg argued that “Hamas’s strategy is to bait Israel into killing Palestinian civilians,” but trenchantly pointed out that while it’s “impossible to convince a Judeophobe that Israel can do anything good . . . there are millions of people of good will across the world who look at the decision-making of Israel’s government and ask themselves if this is a country doing all it can do to bring about peace and tranquility to the region.” It was a damning indictment.
Israel’s public outreach wasn’t helped by a media that, at key moments during the Gaza war, appeared as “tone deaf” as Netanyahu. NBC News’ decision to replace reporter Ayman Mohyeldin at the height of the conflict raised questions about the network’s objectivity; ABC’s Diane Sawyer had toapologize for misrepresenting Palestinian victims of Israeli bombings as Israelis and CNN was forced to rethink naming Michael Oren, a former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., as their on-air Middle East analyst.
Television media weren’t the only ones to come in for criticism. On September 1, Fair and Accuracy in Media’s Peter Hart castigated print journalism’s failings in a column circulated widely among print reporters and the editors of major U.S. newspapers. Under the headline “Israel, Gaza and False Balance,” Hart accused the media of miscasting “the devastating violence of Israel’s attacks on Gaza” and argued that it purposely “obscured the lopsided nature of the death toll” in the war.
The drumbeat of criticism leveled at Israel’s handling of the Gaza war (and how America’s mainstream media chose to cover it) peaked during the Gaza war’s most violent period, from mid-July to the first week of August. After Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire, the criticisms continued to mount.
On September 1, the New Yorker published a well-timed treatment of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee’s continuing influence in Congress, focusing on the lobby’s efforts to build bi-partisan support for Israel’s Gaza offensive. The article, by journalist Connie Bruck, implied that while AIPAC retained much of its influence in Congress, it faced a growing schism in the Jewish community between older and younger Jews, as well as between liberals and conservatives. This schism, Bruck wrote, had been exacerbated by Israel’s actions in Gaza. While the Gaza war had broad support within Israel, the war “has created tense disagreement, dividing left from right, young and old” in the U.S.
But the most pointed and potent core of Bruck’s narrative quoted Representative John Yarmuth, a Kentucky Democrat, who told Bruck that he believes there is “a growing sense among members that things are done just to placate AIPAC, and that AIPAC is not really working to advance what is in the interests of the United States. We all took an oath of office. And AIPAC, in many instances, is asking us to ignore it.” Yarmuth’s message seemed unmistakable: he was calling into question whether the most powerful core group of American Jewish supporters of Israel were being as loyal to U.S. foreign policy goals as they were to Israel’s. This theme that was particularly prominent among Israel’s critics during Operation Protective Edge.
“This isn’t just the third rail of American politics, it’s the real third rail of American politics,” veteran U.S. military and intelligence analyst David Isenberg told me in the wake of Bruck’s exposé. “It’s one thing for the U.S. and Israel to disagree on foreign policy when the two countries are focused on the same goal, but that wasn’t at all clear in the case of Israel’s Gaza operation.” The problem with much of Israel’s public outreach during Operation Protective Edge, Isenberg and a number of other analysts suggest, was the result of “ill-considered and unreflective statements” on the part of the Netanyahu government. Isenberg ticked off several of them – that the Israeli army is “the most moral army in the world,” that Hamas “uses human shields,” that Netanyahu’s claim that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s reconciliation agreement with Hamas showed “there was no difference between him and the terrorists” and that Hamas is ISIS.
“It’s almost as if Israel’s leaders haven’t read Clausewitz,” Isenberg noted, referring to Prussian General Claus Von Clausewitz’s classic On War. Citing Clausewitz, Isenberg noted that Israel “consistently failed to match its political goals with its military capabilities” during the Gaza conflict—and so undermined them both. The result, Isenberg argued, was that “Israel appears to have been as indiscriminate in their public statements as they were in their use of force.”
A cadre of senior U.S. military officers, monitoring the Gaza conflict from their perches inside the Pentagon, agrees with Isenberg’s assessment. “One minute Israel said they wanted to disarm Hamas, then they said they wanted to demilitarize Gaza, then they said Hamas was ISIS and couldn’t be negotiated with – then they negotiated with them.” All of these messages, this senior military officer noted, “were overlaid with this nonsense about how the Israeli army was ‘the most moral army in the world,’ when the whole point of creating a military is not to make it moral, but effective.” The conclusion among this cadre of senior officers was that “Israel really didn’t know what it wanted, which is not a very good reason to wage a war.”
These viewpoints point were underscored by an article written by Assaf Sharon for the most recent edition of the New York Review of Books. Sharon, a professor of Philosophy at Tel Aviv University and the head of a progressive Israeli think tank, provided a point-by-point critique of Israel’s “ill-conceived operation,” its “false assumptions, miscalculations, and obsolete conceptions” and Netanyahu’s “boasting.” Sharon’s conclusion was that “lacking clear aims, Israel was dragged, by its own actions, into a confrontation it did not seek and did not control.”
The impact of these serial critiques cannot be underestimated. The triumvirate of New York magazine, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books is among the most influential intellectual voices of the nation. The publications are the bellwethers of American intellectual thought, their narratives slipping into everyday conversations from Los Angeles to Washington, DC. That said, Middle East analysts both in the U.S. and Israel issue a cautionary note—a dose of political skepticism on the significance of just how deeply the perceived shift in elite sentiment might actually effect public policy.
Amatzia Baram, professor emeritus at the Department of History of the Middle East at the University of Haifa, dismisses any long-term impact the Gaza war may have on Israeli-U.S. relations. In a pointed and lengthy email communication with me earlier this month, Baram, a sometime advisor to members of the Israeli cabinet, suggested that the U.S. critique of Israel’s conduct of the Gaza conflict was rooted in the animus of Barack Obama towards Prime Minister Netanyahu. In one email to me, he contended that “the U.S. administration’s disbelief when it comes to Israeli reports about Hamas and the war” is rooted in this intense dislike.
“The most knowledgeable critiques of Israel are significant, to be sure,” Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Washington-based Palestine Center told me. “But I doubt that there will be a real shift in state-to-state relations anytime soon. The truth is that so far there hasn’t been. There are cracks here and there in the foundation of the relationship, yes, but the Congress remains strongly pro-Israel and the administration’s critique has been predictably weak. Then too, we’ve seen this before. Israel and its prime ministers have made public messaging mistakes before, and in time they are simply forgotten.”
Both Baram and Munayyer are almost certainly right in saying that the U.S.-Israeli relationship is likely to survive the controversy over the Gaza war. But unlike its two previous military operations, Cast Lead (2008-2009) and Pillar of Defense (2012), Operation Protective Edge has driven a wedge not only between Israel and American policymakers; it has raised questions about Zionism’s national project among the core of Israel’s U.S. supporters. And, as the “war about the war” makes clear, it will take much more than a change of leadership in Israel to reverse that.
Mark Perry is the author of nine books, most recently The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur. From 1989 to 2004, he served as an informal advisor to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. On Twitter: @markperrydc.