Thursday, August 10, 2006

Taking Back the Narrative

Back in the beginning of July, Irwin Cotler, international human rights lawyer and former Canadian justice minister, gave a talk on the need for Israel to "take back the narrative" in framing Israel's conflict with the Arab world:
The conflict was not about borders, said Cotler, but about the refusal of the Hamas-led Palestinians and most Arab states to accept a Jewish state in the Middle East.

"It's double rejection" said Cotler. Not only did the Arabs reject Israel's right to exist at the dawn of Israel's statehood, they were prepared to forgo Palestinian independence if it meant accepting a Jewish state, he said.

"Now they're willing to destroy the Jewish state, even if it means not having a Palestinian state," he said.

In taking back the narrative, said Cotler, Israel must make it clear that radical transnational Islam is as much a danger to Muslims as it is to the rest of the world...
Cotler of course was speaking about framing the discussion about Israel in its broadest sense, in terms of her history since her re-establishment in 1948. But the attempts to reformulate that narrative continue and morph in the context of the war in Lebanon as well. It goes beyond talk about disproportionate force.

In a piece in The Telegraph on The tall story we Europeans now tell ourselves about Israel, Charles Moore recounts an episode in Parliament:
At foreign affairs questions in Parliament on Tuesday, Sir Peter rose. He wanted Margaret Beckett to tell him whether the Prime Minister had colluded with President Bush in allowing Israel to "wage unlimited war" in Lebanon, including attacks on civilian residential areas of Beirut. These attacks, he added, were "a war crime grimly reminiscent of the Nazi atrocity on the Jewish quarter in Warsaw".

...Here is a man who has been in public life for more than 50 years (he was an assistant to Anthony Eden in the general election of 1955), and yet he compared Israel's attack to the most famous genocide of the 20th century. What possessed him?
Moore is not concerned with Tapsell, but with the overall frame within which the war in Lebanon is now being framed--a narrative within which, not unexpectedly, Israel is once again cast as the evil villian.
You could criticise Israel's recent attack for many things. Some argue that it is disproportionate, or too indiscriminate. Others think that it is ill-planned militarily. Others hold that it will give more power to extremists in the Arab world, and will hamper a wider peace settlement. These are all reasonable, though not necessarily correct positions to hold. But European discourse on the subject seems to have been overwhelmed by something else - a narrative, told most powerfully by the way television pictures are selected, that makes Israel out as a senseless, imperialist, mass-murdering, racist bully. [emphasis added]
The images being used by the media--some of which have already been exposed as being either altered or staged--are more than just short term propaganda tools to score points. They create the way the story is going to be told now and the way it will be retold--and reacted to--for generations.
As well as being morally imbecilic, this narrative is the enemy of all efforts to understand what is actually going on in the Middle East. It is so lazy.

Thus, for example, you would hardly know from watching the television that most Arab nations in the region, with the notable exception of Syria, detest the power of Hizbollah. You would barely have noticed that Hizbollah is a Shia faction, actively supported by Iran, and therefore feared by most Sunnis and by all who resist Iranian hegemony.

Nor would you have seen investigations of how Hizbollah places its missile sites in civilian areas, or coverage of the report in a Kuwaiti newspaper that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, was expected in Damascus on Thursday for a meeting with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. You would also not have gathered that the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, which the television so recently invited you to admire, cannot possibly be carried through if Syria and Iran and Hizbollah are able to operate in that country.

Behind the dominant narrative of Israeli oppression is a patronising, almost racist assumption about the Arabs, and about Muslims, which is, essentially, that "they're all the same". Public discussion therefore does not stop to consider whether the immediate ceasefire called for by most European countries might hand a victory to Hizbollah, which, in turn, would ultimately lead to a much greater loss of life. It just postures.
The problem is not only that Israel is losing the narrative, but that it takes on the accepted narrative as well. That she accepts the concept of "occupied territories" in particular or the historical revisionism of "Post Zionism" in general.

Even now, it seems that Israel is already accepting the narrative of events in the war in Lebanon. The American Thinker reacts to comments by Israeli ambassador Dan Gillerman in the UN Security Council debate:

To my dismay, he stayed within the context of the UN narrative: start with the status quo ante, take account of the terrorists’ demands, and such baggage.

Israel should know that it is leaving its friends with little ground to stand on by taking this line. It is leaving us with the impression that it hopes some international force will take over the role of deterrence from it. This would mean that for the first time in its history, the IDF would not be the protector of the security of the state.
Instead, Greg Richards--the author of this post--describes the narrative that Gillerman should be presenting to the Security Council, that Israel should be presenting to the world:
We were attacked.
Because of that attack, a state of war exists between Israel and Hizbullah.
Our policy in war is victory.
How long will the war last? Until victory is achieved.
The alternative is the situation that Israel now finds herself as a result of her acceptance of the way the war is currently being framed:

By avoiding the narrative of war and the policy of victory, Israel puts itself on the ground that the international community prefers – how many more bombs will it drop; how big will any new offensive be; how long will the war last, always put in the form of how long will Israel continue attacking civilians in Lebanon.

Richards puts it another way:

The missile attacks by Hizbullah have, it is reported, either put 1 million Israelis in air raid shelters or forced them to move to other parts of the country. In the U.S., the equivalent number would be 50 million people displaced by hostile attack. This would be more than the combined populations of the three West Coast states. Would the U.S. think it was a satisfactory state of affairs if California, Oregon and Washington had to be evacuated due to enemy activity and that our policy would then be to follow whatever the bureaucrats at the UN decided?
On the one hand, Israel is facing a war on two fronts: Hamas and Hezbollah.

On the other hand, Israel is facing a war on three fronts: military, diplomatic, and psychological--the narrative.

Right now, Israel needs a change of strategy in all three.

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