Hoadley: Israel is winning militarily but losing the political war

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Dr Stephen Hoadley is a veteran academic, media commentator and public speaker recently retired from the University of Auckland. He is an honorary captain in the Royal New Zealand Navy.

OPINION: Until recently, leaders and publics around the world, including those in New Zealand, were ambivalent on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This is because they were offered two parallel but contrasting political narratives.

A narrative is a simplified and selective presentation designed to show the presenter in the best light among the target audience. It is not a lie, is simpler than an ideology, and is less blatant than propaganda, but it is not “the whole truth”. It is a deliberately crafted product that aims to attract consumers.

Even-handedness is New Zealand’s long-standing official policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. New Zealand political leaders routinely visit Ramallah as well as Jerusalem when touring the Holy Land, even though our diplomatic, economic and cultural links, and shared values, with the Palestinians are minor compared with those with Israel.

We favour the “two-state solution”, giving the Palestinians sovereign equality to Israel.

In the latter half of the 20th century the Israeli narrative prevailed in New Zealand and in the West generally. Israel’s plucky defence against giant Arab attackers, and its democratic politics, hi-tech economics and merit-based society appealed to Western publics.

The elements of the Israeli narrative are as follows.

  • The Zionists and Jews are descendants of the ancient Hebrews and thus are indigenous to the lands between Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt.
  • Jews persecuted in Europe deserve a homeland for protection.
  • Zionist lands acquired in the Palestine Mandate, and acquired by Israelis more recently, were purchased legitimately or were empty desert lands.
  • The State of Israel is democratic and progressive so deserves to prosper and prevail, and enjoys the right of self-defence.
  • Palestinians comprise 20% of Israel’s population and enjoy political rights and privileges, so Israelis can coexist with the Palestinian people.
  • For 30 years Israel has mentored Palestinian authorities in West Bank and Gaza. But the leaders of Fatah and Hamas have proved hostile, authoritarian, and corrupt, and occasionally murderous.
  • Security barriers, checkpoints and IDF incursions into Palestinian areas are aimed only to curb criminality, arms smuggling and terrorism; legitimate commerce and movement are permitted.
  • Artillery and air strikes in Gaza and West Bank are aimed at terrorists and military targets; precautions are taken to minimize civilian casualties while dismantling Hamas.
  • If Palestinians accept Israel’s existence and renounce terrorism, a political settlement and Palestinian statehood can be negotiated.

In the 21st century the Palestinian narrative has gained traction. The BDS (boycott, disvestment, sanctions) movement against Israel has expanded. Criticism of Israeli “occupations” and Palestinian uprisings against them are celebrated in the streets of capitals across the globe, not least in New Zealand, and given sympathetic media attention.

Elements of the Palestinian narrative are as follows.

  • All lands between Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt belong exclusively to the Palestinians.
  • Zionists, Jews and Israelis are foreign colonists imposed by Western imperialism.
  • The state of Israel (“the Zionist entity”) is illegitimate and should be extinguished.
  • Israel, by deliberately displacing, expelling, and disrespecting Palestinians and privileging Judaism from 1948 to the present, is a racist state.
  • Israel desecrates the Al Aqsa Mosque to disrespect Islam.
  • Israel sponsors illegal settlements in the West Bank in order to extinguish the viability of a Palestinian state.
  • Israel blockades West Bank and Gaza to intimidate and starve the inhabitants.
  • By killing Palestinians indiscriminately, Israel is conducting ethnic cleansing and genocide.

It is evident that the two narratives are contradictory, indeed mutually incompatible. Finding common ground on which to base a negotiation process has proved nearly impossible.

Regarding media coverage of the current Israel-Hamas conflict, a systemic and compelling bias is tilting the debate and thus the political convictions of publics and leaders.

The photo coverage of the conflict tends to give greater emphasis to the suffering of Palestinians than to the grievances of Israelis. A recent review of three issues of New Zealand’s leading newspaper, for example, revealed 340 column centimetres depicting scenes of destruction in Gaza but only 119 column centimetres showing the Hamas murders and abductions of Israelis and their aftermath.

It is understandable that real-time explosions, collapsed buildings, and injured or displaced Palestinians will attract photo-journalists, audience interest, and media coverage, resulting in sympathy for pummelled Gazans.

In contrast, the deliberate murder or kidnapping, one by one, of over 1000 Israelis by Hamas gunmen offers fewer media opportunities. Whereas Palestinians parade victims in the streets, Israelis tend to grieve more privately, Whereas Palestinians offer drama, Israelis offer sobriety, and the foreign media understandably gravitate to the former.

In summary, some of the sources of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel biases may be summarised as follows.

  • Unconscious historic antisemitism and envy of Jewish achievements
  • Underdog bias (forgetting that Jews were once the underdogs)
  • Photogenic explosions and building collapses caused by the Israel military…
  • Deliberate display before media of Palestinian dead and injured.
  • Branding of Israel as a tool of American and Western imperialism against the Global South.
  • Circulation of Russian, Chinese, and Iranian disinformation aiming to divide and discredit the Middle East policies of the West.

These biases have consequences. Inflamed publics are demonstrating against Israel in capitals around the world. Their leaders may be informed and balanced, and have interests in continuing the Abraham Accords’ diplomatic normalisation process with Israel, but now may be obliged to bow to popular passions in favour of the Palestinians.

The Palestinian narrative will gain credibility against the Israeli narrative to the extent that civilian casualties in Gaza and West Bank mount and are reported by world media. Israel may lose the international political contest even if it succeeds militarily in Gaza.

Awareness of these narratives and biases will help media, analysts, and officials to reach a more balanced assessment of the aims and actions of the two sides and facilitate the search for a peaceful management of differences between Israelis and Palestinians.

Published by The Post