Israel may be a military giant, but it is a diplomatic minnow. The diplomatic corps representing it is engaged in a seemingly perpetual losing battle. The Hebrew word for “public diplomacy” is hasbara, which can be loosely translated as “explanation.” This gives some idea of the defensive apologetic attitude that characterizes it.
When the United Nations voted on US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, 128 states voted to condemn the decision and only nine supported the measure. The diplomatic bar is so low that one Israeli UNESCO representatives referred to the vote as a “great diplomatic achievement” since there were more abstentions than expected.
The fate of Israeli diplomats is similar to that of a beleaguered goalkeeper in a World Cup qualifying game between, let’s say, Germany and San Marino. No matter how much grace and poise are shown, defeat is certain. The only matter at stake for the wretched soul given the task is the exact differential.
To everyone’s surprise, a gift to Israel’s diplomatic standing recently materialized out of thin air. A video of teenage Palestinian girls interacting with an Israeli soldier went viral. Normally popular videos from the occupied territories show Palestinian civilians harassed at checkpoints or experiencing any number of indignities. This particular clip showed young girls, one of whom was later identified as Ahed Tamimi, slapping and kicking an Israeli officer. The assaulted soldier showed commendable poise and restraint, refusing to react.
As an extra boon to Israeli “explanation,” several older videos of Tamimi similarly provoking Israeli soldiers were disseminated. The first documented incident of her intentionally provoking Israeli soldiers took place when she was a mere nine-year-old. Clearly, the Tamimi family had been using her as a pawn in the West Bank propaganda wars for some time. Pro-Israeli activists even had a sardonic nickname for her: “Shirley Temper.”
The optics were in Israel’s favor. The minor victory was reminiscent of when San Marino somehow scores that one goal against Germany.
But Israel refused to capitalize on its advantage. The seemingly endless series of wars Israel has experienced and the cold shoulder shown by the international community have engendered a siege mentality there. Believing that the world is dead set against the Jewish state no matter what it does, it prefers physical security over diplomatic advantage.
In a particularly striking manifestation of this condition, several prominent voices in the country sounded concern that the incident would harm Israel’s deterrent capability. Israeli politicians, in an effort to outbid each other, competed over who could overreact most outrageously to Tamimi’s provocation.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Tamimi should “finish her life in prison.” Oren Hazan, a provocateur from the back benches of the Likud, said “restraint is a failed and dangerous policy. Next time it must end differently.”
Even those who should know better responded similarly. Veteran journalist Ben Caspit, normally a moderate, wrote: “In the case of the girls, we should exact a price at some other opportunity, in the dark, without witnesses and cameras.”
No doubt inspired by the political climate in the country, the Israeli military arrested the young girl. This time a very different clip went viral. Tamimi, her long blond locks flowing defiantly, was dragged out of her home in the middle of the night. Contrary to Caspit’s advice, the arrest took place in full public view, probably in order to satisfy public opinion. The new viral clip restored the international conversation to the standard narrative portraying Israel as a serial violator of human rights.
The move was seemingly designed to remind the world of some of Israel’s moral nadirs. In both Intifadas, Palestinian youth played an important role. Therefore, Israel targeted that demographic. Untold thousands of under-age individuals served time in Israeli prisons. The lives of two generations of Palestinian youth were disrupted through mass incarceration and the closing of schools.
The arrest reinforced the worst perceptions of its policy in the West Bank. Rather than serving as an embarrassment to the Palestinians, Tamimi was now an asset.
A particularly mocking headline that appeared on The Intercept website told the embarrassing story: “Israel tackles existential threat posed by 16-year-old Palestinian girl.” Posters calling to “free Ahed Tamimi” appeared at bus stops across London, and #freeahed trended on Twitter.
The initial confrontation may have failed to provoke the officer, but it succeeded wildly in goading Israeli politicians and public opinion into a self-sabotaging overreaction.
The reality on the ground in the West Bank is too complex to be captured in a viral clip. If there is one thing we can learn from vignettes captured out of context, it is that the conflict is not made up of monolithic “good guys/gals” and “bad guys/gals.” Rather, what we find are flawed individuals operating within a tragic context.
However, reality can be incidental to public perception. The moral framing depends on camera location and hashtag impact. If Israel wants to cease losing the information war, it will have to overcome its insular tendencies and engage openly with the world on its own terms. If it continues to succumb to anger and populism, Israeli diplomacy will continue to impersonate San Marino forever.