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Theater of War

Israel beats its enemies on the battlefield, but it loses the more important fight, for PR supremacy, to savvier operators like Hezbollah

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Hezbollah supporters watch Hassan Nasrallah deliver an address, 2008. (Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images)
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Mind Games

A brief history of information warfare

Whatever hopes some had to the contrary, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it fairly clear in the days before the end of the West Bank building freeze last month that he intended to let building resume. He had no intention of heeding American calls for an extension, nor did he pay mind to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ threat to withdraw from peace negotiations. Yet Netanyahu also called on West Bank settlers to mute their celebrations as the expiration moment approached. Given the evident intention to build and continue building, what could it possibly matter if settlers wanted to exult?

Because, as Netanyahu must know, while dancing and singing might not make much of a difference to anyone but the celebrants themselves, images of a celebration could matter a great deal if they spread in the regional media. Because facts on the ground can be recorded, manipulated, reproduced, and distributed globally within minutes. And because, once they are let loose, these images have the potential to sway world opinion and reshape government agendas and options. An austere and relatively unremarked end to the building freeze would be less antagonizing to already hostile audiences than what did appear in regional news outlets the next day: thousands of Israelis triumphantly celebrating in a scene made festive by balloons in Israel’s national colors, blue and white, and Israeli and American flags. Such galling images could only serve to make it more difficult for a Palestinian delegation to accept Netanyahu’s reasoning that settlement building has never before stopped peace negotiations from taking place.

The settlers’ disregard for their leadership’s plea also highlighted the increasingly circumscribed ability of any government to control the messages not only of outside groups but of their own citizens. For governments, which once held nearly absolute power over a limited number of centralized media outlets—a few newspapers, one or two television stations—this loss of control is a hard pill to swallow. In moments of crisis, governments must now race against both professional and citizen journalists to win early control of the unfolding story, and they must win it not only on television, radio, and in other traditional news outlets but across a widening range of social media, from YouTube to Facebook to the “blogosphere,” and now to the “microblogosphere” of Twitter.

Israel seems to be having an especially difficult time accommodating to the evolving media environment. Take its summer 2006 war with Hezbollah. Although experts waffled for months over the military consequences of the war, there was universal consensus that the Lebanese Shiite group was its true victor, primarily because of its commanding media exploitation. Hezbollah showed itself to be skilled in the foundational craft of information warfare: Later scrutiny of the war’s events indicated an advanced ability to intercept Israeli signals and sustain its own communication networks even while under attack. The Israeli military looked clumsy and old-fashioned in comparison to Hezbollah, which adeptly wove words, images, and song to create a globally resonant narrative of both triumph and victimhood.

Indeed, images of the conflict may have been more powerful, the further they were from their source, and from the local political dynamics that surrounded the conflict. It worked to Hezbollah’s benefit to have their own war with Israel framed in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has become global shorthand for an asymmetrical battle between a heartless bully and a courageous and long-suffering victim. This framework overwhelms the specifics; pro-Israeli responses to widespread charges in the United States and Europe of the “disproportionate use of force” against Gaza in 2008 missed a larger point that the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians is viewed a priori as disproportional.

The simplicity and appeal of this narrative does not fully explain the vitriolic protests that the 2008 war with Hamas inspired all over the world, in places as far afield as Argentina and Thailand, Norway and Tunisia. Pro-Israel commentators claimed that the protests reflected anti-Semitism; pro-Palestinian observers argued they confirmed the justice of the Palestinian cause. Both claims have truth, of course, but the protests also drew demonstrators who do not care deeply about either Jews or Palestinians in their everyday lives. If anything, the flare-ups were reminiscent of riots responding to caricatures of Muhammad in a Swedish newspaper the year before. These epidemic flash mobs are a new kind of protest, in which globally transmitted events and powerful symbols collide to channel an overdetermined assortment of discontents. Israel-Palestine, the Holocaust, and Nazism are such symbols. Until these become a part of normal history, they are likely to continue to be a touchstone for the angry and dispossessed everywhere.

To address some of its communication shortfalls, Israel created a National Information Directorate in 2008. The agency is attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, and it serves to coordinate the country’s public diplomacy, or hasbara (literally, explanation, in Hebrew). The new Information Directorate garnered praise from media watchers and international Jewish groups for its ability to conduct this complex coordination in the short war with Hamas in December 2008. Having centralized its communication activities in one office, Israel could communicate its objectives and defend its actions with one unified voice. Over the course of the conflict, the civilian agency and the Israeli Defense Forces worked to generate similar or complementary messages, and did so using a wide variety of new media tools, such as text messaging and YouTube.

Yet, even swift message coordination and wide technological reach cannot make up for the challenges posed by the new media environment. Many analysts have concluded that the new media conditions are tilted in favor of non-state actors, such as insurgent militias or terrorist groups. There is a universal expectation that governments and traditional media should function transparently and permit information to flow freely. Once upon a time, a government seeking to control the flow of information during wartime could destroy physical infrastructure or impose media blackouts or other forms of censorship. While these are still options, it is increasingly apparent that the reputational cost of heavy-handed government or military actions can outweigh the benefits. When information is restricted, the remaining void is quickly filled with conspiracy theories and distorted facts. These theories balloon and proliferate with startling speed, because it is so cheap and easy for most of us to access the means of digital communication. This phenomenon occurred in 2002, when Israel’s decision to prevent journalists from reporting directly from Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada generated claims that a civilian massacre was being kept from public view. Although reports later absolved the IDF of any acts of large-scale murder, the reputational damage was done.


The Sept. 11 attacks generated intense scrutiny of the communications capacities of al-Qaida, Hezbollah, and other non-state militant groups, much of it carried out in the same spirit of bewildered shock and awe that led Richard Holbrooke to ask, “How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world’s leading communications society?” In his 2001 Washington Post editorial, Holbrooke explained the United States’ own tone-deaf communications as a function of outmoded technology and counterproductive bureaucracy. These are much the same terms in which Israel’s failure in 2006 would later be examined. As many analyses have since documented, non-state groups face neither of these hindrances. Having never had access to mainstream media, or control of the official means of communication in the first place, they have always relied on alternative technologies. Hamas and Hezbollah were both early adopters of new technologies. Hezbollah has had an impressively well-orchestrated and highly controlled communication structure since at least the 1980s, with bureaus directing regional communications, external relations, military communications, and artistic production.

There is also a more deeply rooted issue that hinders states like Israel and the United States from more effective communications. In the United States, information warfare developed almost exclusively as a technological discipline, propelled by the country’s abiding faith in science as the solution to our human problems. This scientific worldview extends to the military view of information as a kind of digital switch: Information is either true or false, informative or dis-informative. As a result of this legacy, today’s information strategists have found themselves grappling not only with the new technological realities but also with the dawning recognition that information is not simply a realm of truth or lies but the place where humans collect to make, refute, and reframe the meaning of our experiences. It has not been easy for U.S. military to gain footing, let alone dominance, on this shifting ground of history, memory, culture, and language.

Having no present territory, the insurgent often has nothing left beyond language and memory. The power of ephemera to unify and motivate may be especially true for non-state groups opposing the State of Israel, which holds a uniquely supercharged semiotic status in the annals of modern conflict.


It is no wonder, then, that Israeli communications compare badly to those of Hezbollah. As researcher Olfa Lamloum has observed, the group orchestrates its politics as a form of dramatic pageant, a practice it learned from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s example in the Iranian Revolution. Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s Al Quds Day address last month offered a display of just such political dramaturgy. Al Quds Day, or Jerusalem Day, established in 1979 by Khomeini, serves annually as a touchstone linking the Palestinian plight to current events. For the audience, sitting in the early September sun, Nasrallah’s comments transformed their experience from commemoration of the past to active participation in an ongoing historical drama.

In his speech, Nasrallah suggested that he is speaking of just one short chapter in a longer dramatic encounter between Islam and the Arabs and the United States and Israel. Peering into the news of the day, he predicted Arab triumph and Western failure signaled by the partial U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Why, Nasrallah asked his audience, did the neoconservatives’ plan to remake the Middle East fail?

Because of the staying power of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza; the staying power of the resistance in Lebanon and especially in the July [2006] war; and the staying power of political and national desire in Lebanon, and the lack of submission to Western American dictates. Because of the staying power of Syria, and Iran, and the Iraqi people and their popular resistance.

Nasrallah’s answer has the pithy rhythm of a slogan, but it is much deeper in its effect. Key terms of his discourse have gathered their own symbolic power over many years of association with Palestinian resistance, and his teleological stringing of events suggests the natural course of action is simply to continue on the same unwavering path.

In contrast to his characterization of living, ongoing history of the Arabs, Nasrallah portrayed the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as “stillborn.” They were pre-rejected by the Palestinians, and by the Muslims and Arabs, dead before they have even lived. Ultimately, Nasrallah advised, all that is needed to triumph is time, more staying power, the ability to outlast the Israelis and the Americans. It is difficult to imagine any slogan, no matter how carefully targeted, that could effectively combat the historical narrative offered by Hezbollah. Suppressing its most powerful channels will only have temporary effect; bombing will not kill it, and is likely to confirm the themes of victimhood, martyrdom, and triumph through endurance.

In the long run, Israel and its allies will be far better served by efforts to grasp Hezbollah’s legitimacy and meaning to its listeners, and to find ways to engage it. Cultural narratives can and do change over time. Most communities that endure successfully, like the resolute Palestinians, like the Jewish people, and like the experiment in conglomerate identity that is American democracy, will point to the consistency of their self-narration as the source of their success. Paradoxically, the real source of a people’s endurance is its ability to transform to accommodate changing conditions. The religious vision that Hezbollah and other groups use to underwrite their political legitimacy is an invention of the last 30 years, not an ancient artifact of the region.

The real task, therefore, is to use various instruments of policy-making to transform the conditions that enable the Hezbollah narrative. Nasrallah’s Jerusalem Day speech hinges on the garbled logic that the “endurance” of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites precipitated the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. This is an impoverished and narcissistic vision, but it is in present conditions a persuasive one. Smart strategists seeking to use information to influence events will do well to understand the mechanics of Nasrallah’s logic: It is a freely available form of predictive intelligence that can help them understand how he is likely to frame future events.

In the longer term, non-violent coexistence in the region will necessitate a dialogue between different historical visions. In this effort, it is time to go beyond the exhausted stalemate of comparative suffering between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians, and look more practically at what works today and what doesn’t. Enlightened Palestinians and those in solidarity with them in the region will hopefully conclude that sweeping conspiracy theories waste much-needed energy more than they empower. Enlightened Israeli Jews and those in solidarity with them will, we can hope, begin to find ways to express Jewish identity and continuity to reflect current conditions: the miracle of not merely surviving, but thriving, and the vanishing need to rely on an identity governed solely by victimhood and existential threat.

Amy Zalman is an independent consultant to senior policymakers on the function of culture and narrative in U.S. strategic communication.

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Gerry Weiss says:

In the modern era of instant communication via messaging, video, e-mail and the like by anyone with a smartphone, the power of the press (“belongs to those who own one”) is in the purview of the possessor of that personal technology. Consider that news outlets such as CNN and CBS News invite ordinary people to be “reporters,” contributing on-the-spot photo and video reports of events they are witnessing (or participating in or orchestrating). The power of such instant communications by individuals, as opposed to media outlets or governments played a tremendous role in wake of the recent election protests in Iran. Add to this immediacy the prevalence of the so-called “social networks” such as Facebook and Twitter (and others) where information spreads among one’s friends or contacts and theirs, and message-control becomes a near impossibility. More outrageous rumors circulate on these social networks than could ever be corralled, let alone managed, spinned or vetted. Nevertheless, or perhaps everthemore, and in spite of the undeniable fact that people perceive prejudicially, Israel, the US, and other Johnny-Come-Latelies to the realization that the message is now the medium need to work faster, better and smarter to catch up to and counteract the darker forces of evil who seem to have attained insight and mastery of this vital new art of image making and branding. The slogan is the message, and the sound bite and site bite rule the hearts first, then, eventually, by virtue of consistent and constant repetition, the minds as well.

Earl Ganz says:


I’m with you auntil the end. I love you standing MacLuhan on his head.
The message is the medium. Yes.

But when you get to your hortatory sentence about what needs to be done, you
became the evil messenger. Didn’t Amy Zalman get to you in any way?

Unfortunately while Israel does have major media issues, the problem is not always the presenter, but if people want to listen to them. Israel could do any number of things mentioned in this article but it still wouldn’t get the left inclined media to present it in a positive light. In fact in the case of the Turkish flotilla when the true facts came out, the media didn’t report it, it just stopped reporting on the story. Israel no doubt should do what it can to work the media appropriately and successfully but the media has to want to play along…think about it. It’s like the research that proved the the IDF was the most moral army on the planet, with the least reported rapes of any army in the world. How did the media spin that? By saying the reason there were less rapes was because Israelis were too racist to rape an Arab. How in the name is Israel supposed to win when it faces that insipid media mentality?

Dorothy Wachsstock says:

How can Israel get honest coverage from the media if they are Jewish and it is trendy for the liberals to be against Israel?

The Arabs will never accept Jews living in that part of the world no matter how much they promise. There are many Jews in the United States that could stand up for Israel but do not and that is the answer why anti-semitsm continues to grow. The weaker we seem, the more the anti-semites and anti-Isaelis win. Former Pres. Jimmy Carter taught the Palestiians well as he has done to Pres. Obama.

Arabs and the Palestinians have all these organizations within and outside of the media and academia…even our Jewish children now march with the Palestians against Israel.

It will happen again but will Jews ever learn? Israel could win with the assistants of Jews who are supposed to be so influential but they walk with their eyes closed until it will be too late. When there is no Israel, God help will be too late.

I’m sorry but you’re wrong. It’s true that Israel could do a better job, but the media has already decided how things will be presented and that’s how it works. The best example is Gaza vs Afghanistan. After several years and 8000 missiles fired at civilian targets in Israel, Israel finally responds and is roundly condemned from all sides. Meanwhile the US has traveled halfway around the world to kill 50-100 innocent Afghan and Pakistani civilians and we barely hear about it. Also how much media coverage do we get of the constant anti-Israel propaganda from the PA and Hamas. How about coverage of the 1 million Jewish refugees from Arab countries?
People like Jews when they are weak intellectuals. When we try to defend ourselves like any other nation we turn into the bad guys.

This present attack on Israel by the liberal media is similar to the blood libel accusations of the past: then Jews could present any proof that their religion prohibits consumption of blood even from the animals, let alone humans – no logic or facts could save them from being burnt at stakes. Sure, in our times of civilized norms and concerns over people’s rights the old barbarian customs had to give way to the more sophisticated methods of public indoctrination – from using our own clueless individuals like self-absorbed Dick Goldstone to the purposely doctoring photographs and staging “documentaries” at Israeli checkpoints. But while the methods had changed over the time the reason for the anti-Semitic propaganda and brainwashing remains the same – it is the same old medieval ignorance and unsubstantiated belief in his or her own righteousnesses. Either this comes from David Duke, Jimmy Carter or our own “Tikkun” magazine.

zalel says:

Sorry Elise, Dorothy, Carl, et al, these message ellisions and distortions don’t only get perpetrated by the so-called lefty press. When the old Russkies, an easy-to-hate adversary if there ever was one, were whacking Grosny and killing 95,000 Chechnyans, hardly anyone was aware of it. I know plenty of people who were stalwart commmie-haters at the end of Cold War. They get their news from outlets that a good conservative would approve of, yet they are no more cognizant of the Russian atrocities than anybody who thinks that Israel and the US are the only two bad governments in the world. There’s plenty of ignorance in all political quarters.

Rachmiel says:

Just beacuse they say something doesn’t mean it’s: a. true, b. being heard by anyone who has the freedom to hear anything else other than the propaganda, (in which case there’s nothing anything or anyone could do to make a difference any how) c. can’t be proven incorrect or d. who cares? It appears the Israeli media takes it more serious than most of the rest of the non-Islamic world. The type of people who would believe that Israel is at fault for everything from aardvarks to zebras dosen’t need Islamic “news” (and I use that term very unrespectfully) to tell tham that Jews are bad, it’s in their “jeans” to hate Jews.

LazerBeam says:

No one can argue that there is not a media double-standard regarding the parameters of moral behavior imposed on Israel versus the rest of the world. The question is not whether but why this is the case. Israel is a victim of the freedoms that come from strict adherence to Democratic principles. That includes freedom of the press and free access of the press, friendly and hostile, to every aspect of Israeli economy, society, and polity. There is no equivalent in the Arab world. Instead, Saudi Arabia and its Islamist fellow-travelers have engaged in a systematic disinformation campaign to deflect and redirect 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-world media attention away from Arab intolerance, repression, and torture, while focusing media attention on Israel’s occasional unavoidable moral indiscretions in self-defense to undermine and discredit Israel’s right to exist.

What Israel needs to do now is the equivalent of disinformation Jiu Jitzu in a well-organized and sustained way by using the opponent’s disinformation momentum and media leverage to turn the attack back on itself. One way to do this is for Israel’s supporters to sponsor websites and blogs all over the world that expose the repressive and intolerant nature of these enemies of Israel, who cannot claim the moral highground in denouncing Israel without denouncing themselves ten times over. At the same time, the authors and funding sources for websites and blogs devoted to the destruction of Israel and/or the Jews need to be systematically exposed. Finally, recognizing that we are at war with the forces of evil, it would appear appropriate to infect these heinous websites and blogs with self-replicating programs that replace the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel screeds with love and respect for Jews and Israel, while anyone attempting access will be redirected to alternate websites and blogs exposing the moral hypocrisy of these Arab governments and societies and the media double-standard in covering them. The worm turns.

The most vivid example of the Israeli PR failure is the case of Palestinian boy by the name Al-Durah. Does anybody remember this incident? Does anyone remember who said what in the immediate aftermath? Media was looking for the answer: who killed the boy? “Israelis” – said all Arabs, Jewish anti-Semite Enderlin and French TV, without any prove, evidence or investigation. “We don’t know” – said Israelis – “It could be us. We need to conduct investigation”. But for the leftist media the truth is the last item on their list of priorities. When this investigation will end? What? We need the answer now; we need to blame somebody now. We cannot blame Arabs – they are denying they did it, but we can blame Israelis since they do not. Here: “vicious Israelis killed the innocent Palestinian child.”
Who cares today what the investigation actually found?
There is one story in Talmud. Two men found a piece of fabric and each one claimed ownership on it. So, they presented their case to the judge. The whole piece should be mine – said the first man – because I found it. Why should we argue? – said the second man – let make it fair, let divide this piece in half, half to me and half to my opponent. The judge thought: OK, they don’t argue about the first half of that piece; they both agree that it should belong to the first person. The question is only about the second half. So, let divide it in half.
At the end the first man got three quarters and the second – only one quarter.
In other words, the problem with the Jewish establishment is that it became too secular and doesn’t want to learn from the Talmud. Otherwise they would know that although it is OK to be honest and consciences but such good intentions should not prevent you from being smart also. Because.. See, in a war not the righteousness establishes the winner but the winner establishes the righteousness. This always was the case and always will be.

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Theater of War

Israel beats its enemies on the battlefield, but it loses the more important fight, for PR supremacy, to savvier operators like Hezbollah

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