An endless peace process is Israel’s best propaganda weapon
Myth and fantasy have played a role in the genesis of most national movements. But few continue to rely as completely on fantasy and propaganda as does Zionism, or Jewish nationalism in Palestine.
For decades the myths of a barren desert made to flower, of military might and indomitability, of liberal democracy; and of “chosenness” have contributed to the maintenance of Israel as a Jewish-majority state governed by Jews.
But now as never before Israel’s myths are being undermined – a necessary development in the struggle for justice for Palestinians. In Israel, mythmaking and government propaganda are called “hasbara”, literally Hebrew for “explanation”.
But hasbara is much more than that: it is a public-relations campaign, a one-time ploy, a lifelong undertaking energised by genuine conviction and zeal – and it can be all of those things at once.
Yet today the effort to obfuscate the truth in service of apartheid and occupation is failing as never before. The European Union’s decision to publish guidelines on the terms of any future cooperation with Israel – and to condition that cooperation on Israel’s explicit recognition of its occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights – marks a nadir for that country’s propaganda efforts.
But while this single development serves to mark the dimunition of hasbara’s effectiveness, the Israelis do continue to retain one effective propaganda tool: the “negotiations process” with the Palestinians.
Indeed, Oslo was the most massive hasbara bludgeon to have ever been wielded against the Palestinians, and it’s one whose use continues to be marshaled by successive Israeli governments. The mere perception that talks are continuing serves to distract from the reality of apartheid much more effectively than any celebrity concert could.
The facts of Israel’s beginnings have never been a secret. But for decades they were deliberately obscured or selectively narrated by members of the Jewish colonial leadership. When early Jewish settlers aimed to claim Palestine as a colonial territory from the Ottomans and the British they wove a fantastical tale of an unpeopled, fallow land awaiting its long-absent owners.
When confronted by the fact that Palestinians already inhabited the country, early Zionists altered the line: the “Arabs” were impermanent, nomadic and had only recently arrived from the Arabian Peninsula. And besides, ran the argument, the westernised Jews would develop the country and thus aid the primitive Arabs who lived there. Eventually, the Arabs would welcome the Jews for all the benefits their superior western technology would confer. That Palestinians had a coherent society, a developing economy and a couple of millennia of rootedness in their cities and towns was somehow never mentioned.
Later in the 1940s, after Jewish militias ethnically cleansed Palestine, government propaganda was instrumental in deflecting international criticism and avoiding sanctions.
Misdirection and misrepresentation helped obscure the fact that Israel expelled more than 750,000 non-Jews from Palestine – and that it would not permit them to return.
Speaking before the UN General Assembly in 1958, Israeli ambassador Abba Eban claimed that the Arab countries were responsible for dislocating the Palestinians from their homeland: “This refugee problem has been artificially maintained for political motives. Recent years have seen great expansion of Middle East economies, but the Arab governments have so far stopped the refugees from sharing this. The vast Arab world could find home for a million refugees.”
No mention was made of Jewish majorities, of Plan Dalet – the programme for purging Palestine of the Palestinians – or the ethnic-purist logic undergirding Zionism.
Israel’s fantastical national narrative of redemption, of exile and return, was broadcast widely among western publics in the 1950s and 1960s by a diverse set of hasbarists.
A number of cultural and political icons in America and Europe genuinely believed in the Zionist colonial mission; they proved to be some of Israel’s most effective envoys.
So while Abba Eban dissembled at the United Nations, Paul Newman played Ari Ben Canaan in the Hollywood adaptation of the best-selling Zionist novel Exodus.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that Palestinians began to succeed in disrupting the neat, self-contained Israeli narration of events. When it became clear that a significant portion of humanity regarded their claims and grievances as legitimate – mainly people in the de-colonialising world – the Israelis adapted their arguments and manufactured new facts. The Palestinians, they claimed, were terrorists. Moreover, their national identity was a fraudulent one; a poor facsimile and nothing else.
It is in this context – one of active denial and marginalisation – that Golda Meir’s infamous claim that the Palestinians “do not exist” is best understood.
Over the course of the next two decades the Palestinians asserted their national identity, their history and their just cause more forcefully and prominently. Hasbara continued to adapt, but frantically and hysterically. The effort to silence and dehumanise the Palestinians was a monumental one and it became harder to maintain over time.
War after war had battered the original Zionist myth; years of occupation exposed its vacuity. The effect was that the benefits of hasbara were steadily diminishing even as the corps of zealous hasbarist volunteers and confederates was shrinking. But the core of the effort remained resilient. Israeli leaders crafted new slogans and new facts to frame them; thus, Ehud Barak’s valiant effort at Camp David in 2000 failed only because he had “no partner for peace”.
The end of the 20th century marked more than just the end of the peace partnership – it marked the beginning of hasbara’s terminal phase. The transformation of the information landscape enabled the emergence of a vast, decentralised network of citizen journalists and activists, all of whom interact directly with one another in real time.
The claims of the Israeli foreign ministry would no sooner be issued than they were debunked – through video footage, archival research or documentary evidence. This is a fact that the Israeli leadership has been attuned to for some time, but its efforts at meeting the challenge have been clumsy and manipulative.
Consider the recent buffoonish campaign to distract from apartheid with the claim that Israel is a haven for gay individuals. Last year, the Israeli army published a photo of two men holding hands. The army encouraged Zionists to share the photo on social media – until it emerged that the picture had been staged; the men were not in fact a couple.
The hasbara was consequently the subject of widespread mockery – and indeed did little to wipe the memories of recent onslaughts and massacres from the minds of publics around the world.
A parallel hasbara campaign – Start-up Israel, aimed at promoting Israeli business – also recently faltered after a company at the heart of the campaign filed for bankruptcy. Activists have also succeeded in highlighting the fact that much of Israel’s technological innovation emerges through the development of arms designed to pacify or intimidate the Palestinians.
Despite its foundering public propaganda efforts, the government of Israel continues to successfully deepen and widen its apartheid in Palestine. And it does so even as growing numbers of people around the world are alerted to its human-rights abuses and fundamental opposition to equality.
The paradox is explained mainly through a single factor: the so-called peace process. In reality, the face-to-face discussions that occur through the exercise of American power act mainly to insulate the Jewish-privilege state from the consequences of its repression.
For so long as the Israelis can claim to pursue a resolution to the apartheid regime, the Europeans can claim to believe them and thereby avoid the costs of contending with yet another rogue state in the Middle East.
Thus, Israeli propaganda’s most useful, effective and devastating weapon is the one that requires the degrading and treacherous participation of some Palestinians at least. It is the one that requires a staggering degree of wilful self-deception on the part of the Europeans and Americans. And because of that, it is the one that will prove hardest to overcome.
Ahmed Moor, a Palestinian-American writer born in the Gaza Strip, is co-editor of After Zionism
Follow us: @TheNationalUAE on Twitter | thenational.ae on Facebook