Israel’s high seas drama in halting the “humanitarian aid” flotilla of ships bound for Gaza last week drew worldwide condemnation -- criticism that bears striking resemblance to the international uproar against U.S. detention operations at Guantanamo.
Both Israel and the U.S. have been under siege from a widespread propaganda campaign waged by a union of international leftists and anti-Western figures in the Islamic world for decades. From the loose alliance of European communist and Palestinian terrorist groups in the 1970s, to the holocaust denials of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reprehensible comments last week by then-White House press corps dean Helen Thomas, the information war has been pervasive.
Like the U.S. a decade ago, Israel does not seem to grasp the enormity of the battle of ideas being fought against it, particularly in European and Muslim countries. Often one-sided press reports (e.g.: U.K.-based Reuters which conveniently cropped out a large knife in a photo taken of flotilla activists standing above a bloodied Israeli soldier lying on the ship’s deck), harsh rhetoric from political and religious leaders, incendiary entertainment programs, frequently violent demonstrations culminating in U.S.-Israeli flag burnings, all have synergistic effects in creating such a negative image.
Such propaganda has helped to spur terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamic radicals to include hostage taking, bombings and aircraft hijackings -- from Tehran to Munich, Beirut to London, Bali to Entebbe, and Tel Aviv to New York. While speaking out for human rights, some organizations cynically support terrorists bent on mass killing of civilians.
Israel and the U.S. have responded to physical attacks by exercising their right of self-defense. In their efforts to protect security at all costs however, they have at times not done enough to win the battle of ideas to accompany success in combat.
In Israel’s case, the blockade of Gaza – which, under the control of Hamas, refuses to accept Israel’s right to exist while launching periodic rocket attacks -- is a perfectly legitimate security move. Keeping out “humanitarian aid” like cement in the region is critical, as it can be used for bunkers and modern tunnels to launch attacks, not to mention actual rockets should the blockade be broken.
Unfortunately for Israel, the seizure of ships with commandos, despite the prospect that some of the 700 pro-Palestinian activists aboard might seek martyrdom, led to 9 deaths and further eroded Israel’s international standing. This incident will surely make the embargo more difficult to sustain.
Britain, France, Russia and China are all seeking an end to the blockade, while the Obama administration has labeled it unsustainable. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) sent a letter to President Obama, urging him to help end the seige of Gaza.
Ms. Thomas went further by calling for Jews to “get the hell out of Palestine,” and “go home” to Poland, Germany, America and “everywhere else.”
In defending itself, Israel should explore solutions that more effectively consider worldwide public opinion, while doing more to get their message out.
Instead of allowing itself to be cast as the villain by the U.N., it should insist that Turkey be held accountable for sponsoring the ill-fated expedition in support of terrorists. Instead of commando raids on flotillas, it could disable the ships – taking measures short of sinking them, yet avoiding situations where Israelis are put into combat with possibly suicidal activists.
In the case of Guantanamo, the U.S. also acted with security as the top priority. As former Vice President Dick Cheney noted, the weeks after 9/11 were a difficult time in which the Bush administration made tough choices that kept the country safe.
Such choices led to policies in which suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants were detained indefinitely at Guantanamo under the law of war context similar to prisoners of war – though without the same legal rights. Due largely to the absence meaningful transparency and public education efforts, this became untenable in the courts, leading to three Supreme Court losses for the Bush administration over habeas rights.
Meanwhile, critics – including notable officials now in the Obama administration, compounded the problem by grossly overstating accounts of detainee abuse, continually repeating inaccurate characterizations of detention and interrogations, while falsely portraying most detainees as innocent men sold for bounties, thereby fostering a mythical concept of Guantanamo.
As the Israelis should be coming to understand -- in the battle of ideas being waged in today’s 24/7 news environment combined with near universal access to radio, television and the Internet, coupled with the rise of social media – information campaigns have become increasingly influential.
While the experience of Guantanamo has taught the U.S. some lessons in considering public opinion while in pursuit of security objectives, Israel has been slow to apply those lessons.
Gaza and Guantanamo both demonstrate that governments must be mindful of how their actions factor into public information campaigns -- both for and against them. While governments have a solemn obligation to protect their nations from dangerous terrorists, they must ensure that comprehensive public outreach efforts are not simply afterthoughts.
J.D. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy, A retired Navy Commander, he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09 as the Pentagon spokesman for the Western Hemisphere.
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J.D. Gordon is a retired Navy Commander who served as a Pentagon spokesman in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2005-09. He serves as senior adviser to several Washington-based think tanks.