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Conflict currently hinges on public relations


By Gordon Fellman
On September 27, 2011

  • REACHING HIGH. Setter Maggie Swenson ’16 sets the ball during the Judges 3-1 victory against Colby College at home on Saturday.

At this moment, the focus of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has shifted from violence and non-violence on the ground to public relations. Although PR has been important all along for both sides, Palestinians seem to be gaining ground in the effort to make their case before the world that the two-state solution is the only viable way to end the confrontation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not the first Israeli prime minister to favor the establishment of a Palestinian state, but his actions continue to belie that declared support. Netanyahu speaks peace even while ordering the establishment of still more Jewish settlements on what would be the land of Palestine.

Last week, both Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, a government-in-formation, made their cases before the U.N. General Assembly. Abbas laid out the frustrations, violence and exasperations that have marked Palestinian experiences with Israel since the 1967 war, at the end of which Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza. His speech was very well received, but it did not mention Hamas' refusal to accept Israel or the history of Palestinian violence against the occupiers. The speech was conciliatory, though, and invited a mutual response that could conceivably push the conflict toward the two-state resolution.

Netanyahu's speech mocked Abbas and made no reference to the burden of the occupation upon the occupied or to the increasing number of settlements or to Israel's protecting settlers who act violently against Palestinians.

The rhetoric was fully adversarial. Netanyahu repeated many times that Israel desires peace, but that desire was not located in a discussion of the occupation and reasons for its continuation or its inconsistency with the only peace that could be acceptable to Palestinians, a national entity of their own. However, the Israeli prime minister spent much time on the dangers of Islamic extremism and the case for a Jewish national response to centuries of anti-Semitism, persecution and annihilation.

Indeed, the tradition of Israeli PR is to emphasize the real dangers of Israel's hostile neighbors and to invoke the Holocaust to justify Israel's existence and fears. This PR has been given muscle over the decades by a strategy of threats and intimidation. Members of the United States Congress dare not criticize the occupation for fear of losing their seats to what would surely be organized Jewish establishment attacks upon them. They have gone so far to the extent that a very smart U.S. president apparently felt compelled in his U.N. remarks to empathize with Israel completely and with the Palestinians not at all.

Although both sides are indeed guilty of outrageous violence, the conflict is not symmetrical. Israel can end it; the Palestinians cannot. Powerful minority elements of each side have, in typical macho fashion, assumed that maximum violence against the other would bring it to its knees. It does not work that way in either direction, but the compulsion behind assumptions about the effectiveness of violence continue among powerful elements of both contending parties.

Abbas' U.N. speech is part of a PR strategy to gain empathy, sympathy and political support from much of the world. Indeed, there appears to be more attention than in the past to Palestinian suffering. Israel's insistence on its rights to do whatever it wants because of what it has suffered in the past may be running its course. The influence of Palestinian PR appears to be expanding, as does awareness of the realities of the occupation.

However, the persuasiveness of Israeli PR seems to be limited to those passionate and very active Israeli and U.S. Jews who support the occupation, some wealthy U.S. funders of Democrats who insist on uncritically accepting whatever the far-right-wing government of Israel does and those Christian fundamentalists who believe that Jesus will return to earth only when Jews have returned to Israel and converted to Christianity.

Whether or not the U.N. General Assembly accepts Palestine as a member or grants it official observer status, such actions will not end the occupation. But it will, under Abbas' PR strategy, garner increased world support for the Palestinian cause.

Israel's right-wing government continues its puzzling antagonism toward two former regional allies, Turkey and Egypt, and continues its dismissal of anyone who recognizes the two contending parties as each in its own way both victim and victimizer. Genuine reconciliation would have to address this reality.

It is worth noting that none of those three General Assembly speeches by Abbas, Netanyahu or Obama built upon this hardcore truth of the conflict. There may be ways to resolution without addressing the genuine and deep hurts, fears, anger and hopes of both sides, but I doubt it.

Editor's note: The writer is a professor of Sociology and Chair of the Peace, Conflict and Coexistence studies program.

Israeli left plays crucial role in peacemaking

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