How Israel's Propaganda Machine Works

Dr. James Zogby
The Arab American Institute’s Washington Watch
January 12, 2009

As in past Mideast conflicts, both the media story line and political commentary here in the U.S. has closely followed Israel's talking points on the war. This has been an essential component in Israel's early success and in its ability to prolong fighting without U.S. pushback. Because it recognizes the importance of the propaganda war, Israel fights on this front as vigorously and disproportionately as it engages on the battlefield.

Here's how they have done it:

1) Define the terms of debate, and you win the debate. Early on, the Israelis work to define the context, the starting point, and the story line that will shape understanding of the war. In this instance, for example, they succeeded by constant repetition, in establishing the notion that the starting point of the conflict was December 19th, the end of the six-month ceasefire (which Israel described as "unilaterally ended by Hamas"). In doing so, they ignored, of course, their own early November violations, and their failure to honor their commitment in the ceasefire to open Gaza's borders. They also ignored their having reduced Gaza into a dependency, a process which began long before and continued after their withdrawal in 2005. Because they know that most Americans do not closely follow the conflict and are inclined to believe, as the line goes, "what they hear over and over again," this tactic of preemptive definition and repetition succeeds.

2) Recognize that stereotypes work. Because, for generations, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been defined with positive cultural images of Israel and negative stereotypes of Palestinians, Israel's propagandists have an advantage here that is easy to exploit. Because the story has long been seen as "Israeli humanity confronting the Palestinian problem," media coverage of any conflict begins with how "the problem" is affecting the Israeli people. As Golda Meir once put it, "We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for making us kill their children." And so, it was not surprising that, despite the disproportionate suffering of the Palestinians, media coverage attempted to "balance" the story, giving an extensive treatment, with photos of anguished and fearful Israelis and the impact the war was having on them. Early on, when media treatment mattered most, Palestinians were reduced, as always, to mere numbers or objectified as "collateral damage."

3) Anticipate and count on your opponent's blunders. Hamas' stupidity played into Israel's strategy. From the outset, Israel could count on the fact that Hamas would launch rockets and issue the kind of threats that Israel could then parley into sympathy in the West. Knowing that these would most certainly come, and could be exploited, was an advantage in their propaganda war.

4) Be everywhere, and say the same thing -- and make sure your opponents remain as invisible as possible. Israel begins each war with a host of English-speaking spokespersons (many born in the West) available at any time for every media outlet (it's no accident, for example, that Israel has an "Arab" Consul General in Atlanta - that's where CNN is). The work of their propaganda operation, which spreads multiple spokespersons in venues across the United States with consistent talking points, guarantees success. At the same time, they are able to deny media access to Gaza, only allowing the Western reporters to operate near the war zone under IDF supervision, guaranteeing Israel the opportunity to shape every aspect of the story while removing the possibility of independent verification of the horror unfolding in Gaza.

5) Give no ground. Since half of the story will be determined by what political leaders say and do, the political apparatus in Washington is also pressed into service, ensuring that White House and Congressional leadership will "toe the line." Statements issued by Congress, therefore, reflect the talking points and, together, the Israeli spokespersons, the political commentators, and the Congressional statements serve as echoes of one another.

6) Deny, deny, deny. When events and reality break through, contradicting the Israeli-established narrative, creating stories that run counter to the imposed story line, the propaganda machine works overtime to deny, deny, deny (saying quite boldly, "Who do you believe, me or your lying eyes?"), and/or concoct a counter-narrative that shifts the blame ("We didn't do it, they made us"). In this instance, that means asserting that the death of Palestinian civilians is always the fault of someone else, or that reporters or their opponents are staging the photos of grief (as if to say, "Arabs don't really grieve like we do").

7) The last refuge.... When all else fails, point to a few examples of outrageous anti-Semitism, generalize them, suggesting that that is what motivates critics. It stings, and may be over-used, but it can silence or put critics on the defensive.

Israel-Palestine Timeline

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History of the Israel Lobby


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Organizations

Public Committee Against Torture in Israel

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