It often feels as if Israel can never win the public diplomacy war. After all, how do you compete with hundreds of dead Palestinians, other than through the one thing Israel will always do its utmost to prevent – even more dead Israelis? But while there’s no easy solution, two developments of the current war in Gaza offer hope that over time, this uphill battle can be won.
The first is a fascinating Gallup poll published last week on how Americans view the Hamas-Israel conflict. Unsurprisingly, most respondents deemed Hamas’s actions unjustified (70% to 11%). But they split almost evenly over Israel’s actions, with 42% considering them justified and 39% unjustified. At first glance, that doesn’t seem encouraging. But Gallup’s breakdown of the results is illuminating.
First, shockingly, the poll revealed that the more closely people follow “news about the situation,” the more they support Israel. Those who follow the news “very closely” overwhelmingly view Israel’s actions as justified, by a margin of 71% to 24%. Those who follow it “somewhat closely” consider Israel’s actions justified by a smaller but still significant margin, 51-42. Only among those who don’t follow the news closely did a plurality consider Israel’s actions unjustified (43-18).
The educational breakdown was equally surprising. The people most likely to consider Israel’s actions justified are those with postgraduate education (53% to 27%), followed respectively by those with first degrees (49-33) and those with some college (43-38). Only among people with a high-school education or less did a plurality consider Israel’s actions unjustified (45-34).
The first statistic is surprising because the media has focused overwhelmingly on the “disproportionate” Palestinian casualties, while blindly parroting the UN’s highly dubiousclaim that most are innocent civilians. Thus one would expect people who follow the news closely to be more convinced that Israel is massacring innocents than those who haven’t been deluged with daily pictures of dead Palestinians.
The second statistic is surprising because, like every other recent poll on American attitudes toward Israel, this one shows a clear partisan split: Republicans consider Israel’s actions justified by a 65-21 margin while Democrats consider them unjustified by a 47-31 margin. Thus one would expect traditional Democratic constituencies to tilt against Israel. But as Gallup noted, people with postgraduate educations “are the most likely education group to endorse Israel’s actions” even though they “tend to be politically Democratic.”
Granted, Jews are disproportionately represented among both people who follow the news closely and those with postgraduate educations. But at only 2% of the American population, Jews remain minorities even when they’re disproportionately represented. And while non-Jewish Israel supporters are also disproportionately represented among people who follow the news closely, so are Palestinian supporters. Thus even after adjusting for these factors, is seems likely that Israel is winning both among people who follow the news closely and people with more education because these are precisely the groups most likely to look behind simplistic comparisons of casualty statistics, whether by visiting Israeli news sites, listening to Israeli officials, exploring information available on social networks or any other means.
In short, the poll indicates that Israel’s justifications for its actions really can convince people who – despite the meager amount of time, effort and money Israel invests in public diplomacy – actually manage to hear them. Thus upping this investment in order to reach more people would likely pay handsome dividends.
The other stunning development has been the sea change in Egypt’s behavior. For 35 years, Israeli-Egyptian peace ranged from cold to frigid. But in the current war, Egypt has been acting like a real ally. Cairo coordinated its cease-fire proposals with Israel rather than Hamas, enabling a united Israeli-Arab front against the Obama Administration’s disgraceful pro-Hamas line. When America and much of Europe suspended flights to Israel last week, Air Sinai kept flying. Egypt’s military boasted last week of stopping two terror attacks against Israel (since when have Arab countries bragged about saving Israeli lives rather than taking them?). And many Egyptians are siding openly with Israel. “Thank you Netanyahu and may God give us more like you to destroy Hamas,” one journalist wrote. “May God make the State of Israel victorious in its war against the terrorist movement Hamas,” added an Internet commenter on a different Egyptian news site.
Egyptians don’t love Israel. But they’ve discovered that radical Islamist groups like Hamas are far more dangerous to them than Israel is. Not only did the Muslim Brotherhood – of which Hamas is a branch – subject Egypt to devastating misrule during its year in power, but Sinai-based jihadists, who receive training, weaponry and other assistance from Islamist groups in Gaza, have perpetrated numerous attacks inside Egypt. Egypt now views Hamas as its enemy, and is following the ancient adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.
I don’t know what critical mass of attacks is required to produce this mindset change. But with radical groups like the Islamic State posing an ever greater threat to other Mideast countries, and thousands of Western jihadists in Syria threatening to attack Europe once they return, it’s plausible to think other countries might experience similar epiphanies in the coming years.
In one of the most fatuous statements of all time, Shimon Peres once said that Israel doesn’t need public diplomacy, because good policies are self-explanatory and bad ones can’t be explained. Nothing better proves the fallacy of his argument than the current war. Virtually every Israeli, Peres included, considers Israel’s conduct justified, yet it’s far from self-explanatory; as the Gallup poll shows, Israel’s support comes mainly from those prepared to delve beyond the casualty statistics into complex explanations.
But the poll shows that Israel can convince people if it can get them to listen. And Egypt’s example shows that growing Islamic extremism may well make people worldwide more willing to listen. These two facts lead to an unequivocal conclusion: Israel must start investing far more resources than ever before in public diplomacy. The battle for international public opinion is no less important than the one in Gaza. And like the military one, it can’t be won without investing the requisite resources.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post