The spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister’s office held a webcast today. Mark Regev, who is expert at talking with the media and is specifically geared toward English-speaking audiences, spent half an hour answering questions that had been submitted through Facebook.
If Israel is smart, they’ll have Regev do a lot more of this. He’s very good at it, and his remarkable skill at disseminating
hasbara (propaganda) was on full display. He sticks as best he can to areas where Israel can make a good case and he’s very good at framing his statements to present Israel in the best light possible. But a careful listen shows once again the limits of even the best public relations; you can sell a Honda like it’s a Mercedes for a while, but eventually the quality of the product you’re selling cannot be disguised.
In a mere thirty minutes, Regev could only touch on the subjects that came up, yet the time amply demonstrated both the strengths and weaknesses of Israel’s arguments.
Recognizing the “Jewish State?”
The first statement Regev made which bears examination is when he described the Israeli vision of a demilitarized Palestine that recognizes “the Jewish State.” The first part of that sentence will raise some hackles, but it is a condition which, while it has never been formally committed to, has always been understood to be a part of a final status agreement.
But the idea of Palestine recognizing not only Israeli sovereignty and its right to exist, but recognizing it as a Jewish state is a deal-breaker. It is a willful wrench that has been thrown into negotiations, actually by Ehud Olmert, who first brought the idea to the fore.
Palestinians might be able to live with a demilitarized state. But recognizing Israel as the Jewish State demands that Palestinians drop their objections to the discrimination their fellows who hold Israeli citizenship face. More importantly, it implicitly demands that they acknowledge that the dispossession they have endured for the past 62 years was justified. Whether one believes that Palestinian dispossession was inevitable, criminal, justified by war or a case of ethnic cleansing, surely everyone can agree that asking Palestinians to make such an admission is simply unreasonable.
It’s also unthinkable. Regev, like many other advocates for the official Israeli position, puts this out there as if it is a normal demand. Far from it—no country recognizes another “as” anything. It simply recognizes another country’s sovereignty, with the rights and responsibilities that implies. One of those rights is for any country to define itself, through its own political and social processes.
Thus far, most Jewish peace groups and others who support a two-state solution have avoided taking this issue on, and this is a mistake. Regev’s casual use of this demand shows how easily it has settled into Israeli political discourse. This must be challenged, and it is easily assailed. It should be dealt with not only with the arguments I have raised already, but also by a more self-interested one.
Israel, as a mature country, should itself decide what its nature and character is. Its character can change, as has that of many countries as their history evolves. I am still of the belief that Israel can be the homeland of the Jewish people and a democracy that treats all its citizens with full equality. That is up to Israel, not the Palestinians or anyone else, and the test of the country’s success is what its own citizens (particularly the weakest sectors) say about such matters, not what anyone outside says.
Talking directly, avoiding realities
Another item that Regev harped on ties in with a question he ducked. He was asked why, if all these civilian goods were being allowed into Gaza, they had been forbidden before. The question was helpfully framed with a second part, allowing Regev to ignore the first one.
Regev repeated the Netanyahu mantra about direct talks with the Palestinians. Regev, like Bibi, did not address the political realities that have led to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ reluctance to engage in direct talks.
Palestinians have seen talks that went on endlessly and generally ended with no diplomatic progress and a degeneration of conditions for them on the ground. That was the rationale behind the settlement freeze to begin with, but the fact that Palestinians have seen little change in settlement construction since the freeze began has rendered that gesture meaningless. Meanwhile, the needless cruelty that was inflicted on Gaza until the reaction to the flotilla crisis finally caused Israel to relent further undermines Palestinian belief that Israel wishes to resolve the conflict through negotiations. Rather, many believe, the Netanyahu government wants to engage in fruitless talks so the world will believe Israel is seeking peace while it continues to tighten the occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Regardless of whether this perception is correct (and I believe it is), this is the political reality, and if Israel really wants direct talks, for whatever reason, they have to change those conditions. They understand this very well; after all, it is the same sort of dynamic which they insist makes an end to settlement construction “impossible” for them.
Israelis are also mistrustful of Palestinian intentions, but they also know that the PA has managed to keep violent attacks against Israelis down sharply. That results in Israelis being skeptical, but still supportive of direct talks. Despite the whining about all their “sacrifices,” the Israeli government hasn’t come close to matching the PA in such a confidence-building measure, and that is what is required for direct talks to be politically manageable for Abbas. He may cave in to pressure regardless, but if he does, it will only further undermine his position and make him an even weaker interlocutor than he is now, as the Israelis endlessly complain.
The one-sided narrative and appeal to liberals
It is, of course, Regev’s job to advocate the Israeli government’s position, and one cannot complain about him doing it so well. He urges people to “learn about the issue” to become effective advocates, and then offers a simplistic point, the Arab rejection of the UN’s 1947 Partition Plan, to explain the conflict (the Arab refusal was a terrible mistake, an example of short-sighted foolishness, but also understandable. And, if one looks at the proposed map of the two states, one realizes that, while history would have been different had the Arab countries accepted the plan, the two states were not practically drawn up, and would have created their own problems).
Regev also knows how to find valid points and take them to an extreme. He talks about the religious/reactionary nature of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran, as well as Saudi Arabia. It’s certainly true that, particularly among the farther left groups and in much of Europe, insufficient attention is paid to the repressive nature of such groups, and one often sees far too many apologetics among leftists for them.
But even Israel doesn’t contend that they are fighting with these parties because they are trying to defend liberal values, but rather because of their own political and security concerns.
I actually agree with Regev about the groups themselves. I believe there are reasons, many of them stemming from the colonial history of the region which few countries anywhere have yet recovered from, that religious fundamentalism thrives and enjoys more political influence in the Arab world. But the West is far from free itself from the influence of similarly reactionary Christian forces, and obviously, Israel suffers enormously from reactionary religious forces (the new conversion bill being only one, actually relatively small, example). But in Iran and in many Arab countries, the influence is more popular and has more direct influence.
And yes, I find that objectionable. But that really has nothing to do with Israel’s conflict with Arab and Persian countries. Indeed, the ongoing conflict with Israel is a major reason for both the power of reactionary religion and for the fact that popular outrage is directed away from the repressive regimes, religious or secular, in much of the Middle East.
Indeed, Mark Regev is very good at what he does. But what he does is distract Israel and her supporters from the real issues that need to be tackled in order for Israel to live in peace and security. As long as it’s all about the hasbara and not about the real steps that Israel must take to move toward resolving this conflict, the choice will remain only between the status quo and something worse.