Netanyahu and the narrative wars
Many of the “expert” talking heads on the Middle East – diplomats, academics, journalists, etc. – are clueless, and this is particularly true regarding Israel. Instead, they project their biases and repeat the “conventional wisdom” with conviction, but little insight.
This pattern was repeated in the analyses of the Obama-Netanyahu speech marathon that took place recently in Washington, D.C. In the Globe and Mail, for example, Paul Koring wrote that the “hard line” and “tough-talking [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu refused to budge,” offering “only the tiniest glimmers of hope” for peace. Similarly, a New York Times headline dismissively read “Netanyahu Gives No Ground in Congress Speech.”
This analysis again missed the reality on the ground, in which the main issue is not a distant peace, but rather a deadly narrative war waged by the Palestinians and their supporters. In a pre-emptive attack launched just before Netanyahu’s arrival, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (a moderate in comparison to Hamas) repeated the myths in an article published in the New York Times.
Abbas’ highly articulate ghostwriters invoked the invented history of 1948 in which “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.” Erasing the Jewish victims of mass terror, and reversing the cause and effect of the Arab invasion, Abbas highlights victims such as himself, living as refugees in tents, while being “denied that most basic of human rights.” The tale then invokes the fictitious “1967 borders” (actually the 1949 ceasefire lines), and “occupied territories” as obstacles to peace.
This mythology of Palestinian victimhood and Israeli aggression fuels the continued violence, as well as the demonization of Israel via boycotts and related campaigns. It’s the antithesis of the negotiations and compromise necessary for a peaceful outcome. Extending these lies to the present, Abbas wrote that: “it was the descendants of these expelled Palestinians who were shot and wounded by Israeli forces… as they tried to symbolically exercise their right to return to their families’ homes.”
In response, Netanyahu’s challenge on the stage of the U.S. Congress, and before a global audience, was to recapture some of the tortured history. Netanyahu is uniquely qualified for the task, and every word echoed this objective. In contrast to the propaganda painting Israel as a foreign invader, he reminded everyone that, “This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace. No distortion of history can deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land.”
His target audience also included Jews and Israelis – particularly rebellious students and members of anti-establishment groups such as J Street – who have no memory of 1947 or 1967. In place of unabated and violent Arab rejectionism, many embrace the myth that post-1967 Israeli policies and settlements are the main obstacle to readily attainable peace.
Netanyahu also sought to bring this generation back to the difficult realities, reminding them: “Our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state… In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition the land… The Jews said yes. The Palestinians said no. They were simply unwilling to end the conflict.”
For most of the past 20 years – when some Israelis mistakenly thought that the Oslo peace process had ended the conflict – Palestinian myths have marched unopposed across the propaganda battlefield. They have conquered campuses, newsrooms and foreign ministries filled with Arabist diplomats. While they’re falsely accusing Israelis of violating human rights, Netanyahu reminded his audience, Arab leaders, including Abbas, “continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists. And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.”
The experts missed all of this, and the fact that before the conditions necessary for peace and compromise can emerge, the pro-Palestinian armies must first be defeated in the narrative wars. By leading the counterattack, and giving no ground to the mythmakers, Netanyahu is making an important contribution toward eventually ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.