When I was reporting on the Palestine-Israel issue in the early 2000s, it was taken as fact that Israel had the media battle all sown up. Palestinian officials routinely sighed in frustration and awe at the ability of the Israeli government's media machine to get its version of events out fast and dominate the global conversation; whether that was about about specific military operations or the ongoing occupation.
For a while now, it has seemed to me that Israel no longer enjoys that same level of dominance. Palestinian officials used to say "we need to get better at talking to the media", but I don't think its an increase in Palestinian communications capabilities that has challenged Israel's formerly unassailable position amongst Western audiences.
Al Jazeera's Marwan Bishara (@marwanbishara) published a piece a couple of days ago on Israel's communications strategy (link here). What struck me is that from what Marwan is saying the plan, drawn up in 2009, a year after a previous Israeli attack on Gaza, came about because Israeli leaders and sympathisers felt they were in trouble.
The links don't take you to the original plan, so I am having to go on Marwan's take on this, but if the plan is - as Marwan says - based on research and testing, it tells you a lot about where Israel's supporters in the West feel the weak points in their narratives lie. These are the main points:
- settlements aren't popular with American or European audiences
- Israel's supporters can sound patronising. To sophisticated Western audiences, Israelis are the aggressor
- religious arguments alienate secular audiences (and religious US audiences are already supporters)
- it's important to be seen to be striving for peace. US voters are unlikely to support Israel in an unending "family feud"
- one of the more assertive points refers to Israel's evacuation of Gaza.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Israel has a communications plan. I suspect this one is just for foreign supporters rather than the government itself. Israel is doing exactly what you would expect. While on the other side, Palestinian officials, I suspect have no such plan. I doubt they have even spent much time thinking about how to advise supporters in London, Washington and Paris on what to say.
So, how did this happen? I suspect that as opposed to the early 2000s, social media now allows people motivated enough to follow an event or issue to also coordinate their messages. They might not be sitting around writing concept papers, and holding focus groups, but the result of sharing coverage, reading others' thoughts and then responding online or at a demo has much the same effect.
Organic, networked responses leading to spontaneous message coordination might be all well as good, the difference is what lies in the centre. Israel has a government that is largely seen as a legitimate representative of those on one side of the argument. This means one side is seen as having the capacity to take steps to solve the crisis; in other words Israel can create the idea that it actively works for a solution.
Those supporting the Palestinian cause on may find the narratives of blame favouring them, but without a credible, representative body, Palestinians cannot take an assertive role in promoting a solution they favour. Without credible representation, they are the passive actor with an argument framed solely around blame.