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Israel Is Using Disinformation and Deflection as a Foreign Policy Stratagem

Israel is using defamatory attacks against its critics and a strategic deployment of disinformation to shape discourse.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken make statements to the media, inside The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defense, after their meeting in Tel Aviv, on October 12, 2023.

Part of the Series

Finding articles and accounts sensitive to the asymmetries between Israel and Palestine amid the unfolding war is no simple matter. This interview with international relations scholar Richard Falk, however, hopes to show the ways in which Israel has created asymmetric conditions that have situated the attainment of Palestinian rights and aspirations beyond horizons of realistic hope.

Without undermining the horrible reality of historical and current antisemitism, Falk breaks down the implications of Israeli foreign policy and discourse, and how state actors work to divert attention away from government policy and action. Falk explains how the intentional smearing of critics and broadening of the accusation of antisemitism furthers Israeli violence and stigmatizes pro-Palestinian voices. He analyzes three elements that distinguish Israeli state propaganda, making it a powerful military weapon particularly in periods of intense conflict. He provides strategies to address the “both sides” argument.

Lastly, Falk traces the moving parts involving international law and United States and Israeli perceptions of their respective media and legislative machines. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about the Israeli state discourse and how misinformation serves as an extra arm to the overall Israeli military policy, as well as how accusations of antisemitism are weaponized?

Richard Falk: Israel has long been a master of what is called in Hebrew “hasbara,” which justifies what Israel is doing or diverts attention from the message of critics to the supposedly questionable credibility of the messenger. The weaponizing of antisemitism is a cynical example of the deployment of hasbara stratagems designed solely to deflect criticism and shift the conversation. Smearing reputable critics and objective criticism of the state of Israel by giving voice to irresponsible allegations of hatred of Jews known by Zionist apologists to be untrue is reflective of the hasbara mentality. The hasbara mission is to shield Israel from its critics, regardless of whether the criticisms are accurate. The quality of hasbara discourse is not evaluated by truthfulness but solely by effectiveness in changing the subject to an attack. Such diversionary maneuvers are undertaken whenever substantive arguments in Israel’s defense are weak or nonexistent.

Journalist Asa Winstanley has written a powerful book on years of defamatory attacks on political figures or activists who spoke positively about the Palestinian struggle in the United Kingdom and advocated that initiatives be taken to put pressure on Israel in influential opinion-forming venues or by way of activism, as in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign. Winstanley compiles evidence showing that such tactics were being strongly encouraged by Israeli officials and even subsidized by government money. The book carefully narrates the well-orchestrated campaign to destroy Jeremy Corbyn as a credible political leader of the Labour Party by widely disseminating false intimations of antisemitism of his part. The only reasonable conclusion is that the hasbara ethos, fully embraced by Israel’s political leaders and pro-Israel lobbying groups, is “anti-truth,” and not just “post-truth” in the premodern sense of relying on beliefs more than empirical evidence.

Perhaps, as formidable as these attacks on individuals or institutions are the intimidating secondary impacts on the public atmosphere to the effect that any public manifestations of pro-Palestinian views and acts of solidarity will be stigmatized and harm individuals in the workplace or social settings. Many persons are made reluctant to take public stands critical of Israel because they are fearful of Zionist pushback. University administrators, at best a timid lot, withhold funds and even discourage the sponsorship of campus events opposed by unscrupulous pro-Zionist groups and individuals, including apolitical cultural gatherings deemed in some sense to be anti-Israeli or pro-Palestinian. The motivations for such mounting pressure is that cultural expression renders less tenable the use of the “terrorist” label to dismiss Palestinian grievances.

This kind of intimidation is not just the spontaneous work of Zionist enthusiasts associated with nongovernmental organizations; they follow a playbook developed by Israeli think tanks and Israeli officialdom to influence and if possible, shape public discourse. When in 2021 the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized investigations of Palestinian complaints about Israeli war crimes after 2014, the technical arguments advanced by lawyers attracted far less public interest than the outburst by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the ICC decision was a display of “pure antisemitism.” As Israel’s substantive defenses have weakened over the years, hasbara has assumed an ever-growing strategic importance in the management of Israeli foreign policy. This has become more widely appreciated in the one-sided presentations and reactions to the current violence in Gaza unleashed by Israel after Hamas’s attack.

Israel has long been cynical and opportunistic in its approach to international law, as has been the U.S.

Three elements make Israeli hasbara a particularly effective (and therefore harmful) type of state propaganda in periods of intense conflict: 1.) unscrupulous tactics to discredit views perceived as hostile consisting of lies, defamation and subsidized campaigns; 2.) greater sophistication, including seeking the deflection of criticism by recourse to false allegations rather than genuine efforts to defend policies under attack; 3.) abundant public and private funding of Zionist anti-truth messaging, lobbying, and lawfare to win support and destroy adversaries.

Only during the height of the Cold War were criticisms of the U.S. role in Vietnam met with discrediting responses that such views were tacit endorsements of communism. By and large, efforts to oppose the latter stages of the Vietnam War or to support BDS as part of an anti-apartheid South Africa campaign were opposed by conservatives as impractical or inconsistent with foreign policy priorities, but did not give rise to punitive witch hunts that have been the experience of critics and activists supporting nonviolent pro-Palestinian initiatives. Nor did the governments of South Vietnam or South Africa get seriously involved in shaping the public dialogue within the U.S. on nearly the scale or style that Israel and its well-funded Zionist infrastructure have in the main urban sectors of the Jewish global diaspora.

For those who rely mainly on local and national news outlets, and for people who just started watching television coverage in recent weeks, how prevalent do you suspect the “both sides are at fault” account for the casual viewer with this war?

To blame “both sides” in contexts of asymmetrical responsibility such as exists between Jews and Palestinians is to consciously and unconsciously divert attention away from the essential hierarchical structure of oppression and subjugation, which is the core reality confronting Palestinians. This is especially true for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since 1967 or in refugee camps, and to a somewhat lesser extent, characterizes the lives of Palestinians living as Israeli citizens within “the green line” since 1948. Blaming both sides is also a comfort zone for those who feel insufficiently informed or uncomfortable about adopting a controversial position. It makes a pretense of accepting the mainstream media orientation that both sides are to blame for the failure of the 1993 Oslo diplomatic framework.

I find it to be an insidious line of argument or reasoning if applied to a grossly asymmetric conflict of the sort that has lasted 100 years in relation to the contested future of Palestine as between the Indigenous residents and the colonizing settlers. It has falsely situated the locus of responsibility for a continuation of the prolonged tragic experience of the dispossessed and subjugated Palestinian people as well as facilitating Israel’s continuous settlement expansion, territorial ambitions, and contribute to the creation of conditions that over time have situated the attainment of Palestinian rights and aspirations well beyond horizons of realistic hope.

It has been dramatically illustrated in liberal circles addressing the interaction between the Hamas attack and the Israel provocation and response. By characterizing Hamas as “terrorists” with no credibility as representatives of the victimized Palestinian people, and Israel as the democratic government understandably overreacting to its attack in the spirit of a traumatized victim, “both sides” can be blamed in a manner oblivious to the long Palestinian experience of Israeli state terrorism under the umbrella of its international role as occupying power.

What are your thoughts on proportionality as a guideline in war regarding this conflict? How many human rights violations has Israel incurred just in the last week in terms of the overall big picture? What does global opinion suggest about Israel’s actions in the conflict, all done in the name of self-defense?

The overarching claim of self-defense is both of questionable relevance to specific charges of war crimes or broad contentions of collective punishment, unconditionally prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention governing belligerent occupation. But there is a prior question about the legal applicability of “self-defense.” From the perspective of the UN and international law, Gaza (as well as the West Bank and East Jerusalem) are occupied territories subject to the constraints of international humanitarian law. Israel as the occupying power is entitled to take reasonable steps to maintain its security, but it has no right of self-defense against an administrative actor and political movement such as Hamas that is not the government of a sovereign state. Its October 7 attack on Israeli territory qualifies as terrorism, although as a political undertaking, it possessed a hybrid character, as it was a long-provoked resistance to Israeli crimes associated with Israel’s failure to comply with the provisions of Geneva IV, including, above all, the protection of civilians living under occupations.

The legal constraint of proportionality and discriminate targeting are universally considered to be valid rules of international customary law but have functioned more as admonitions than strictly implemented legal constraints. However, Israel’s persistent bombing of residential areas and civilian targets, given the precision of modern weaponry, seems to amount to war crimes, and as applied to the densely populated demography of Gaza, deserves to be treated as collective punishment, especially in conjunction with the blockade imposed after 2007.

In the current phase of violence in Gaza, airstrikes are reinforced by Israel’s forced evacuation order applicable to half the population, and by its siege order cutting the delivery of food, water, fuel and electricity to the whole of Gaza, a policy widely viewed as genocide. The accompanying language used by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in decreeing the siege described Palestinians as “human animals” certainly strengthens and grounds accusations of genocide. This is a clear instance of genocidal language, made more authoritative of the views of the Israel’s government as such language has been neither qualified nor withdrawn.

The Israeli order of “forced displacement” within 24 hours of 1.1 million Gazans from their place of residence in northern Gaza to southern Gaza is itself a most serious example of collective punishment and a distinct wrong that constitutes a gross crime against humanity aggravated by being implemented under conditions of the siege and blockade.

How aware are both the U.S. and Israel of the varied perceptions of conducting this war and how does that factor into their collective decision-making?

Israel has long been cynical and opportunistic in its approach to international law, as has been the U.S. Both countries invoke international law and moral outrage when it helps validate their bellicose allegations or justify their controversial behavior. Israel defies international law, or treats it as irrelevant when it goes against its policies and practices, and refuses to act in compliance with international law or respect for UN authority. This lawlessness has been a prominent feature of its administration of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since the Israel Defense Forces arrived in 1967, most routinely through the continuous expansion of unlawful settlements and the imposition of multiple form of collective punishment, culminating in apartheid, and now with the siege, forced displacement, and systemic bombing of civilians and their places of shelter.

Until now it has managed to get away with such behavior mainly because it enjoys the unwavering political support of the U.S., European Union, and other countries, and has managed through its military prowess and political skill to neutralize criticism from most of its Arab neighbors, including many countries in the Global South. This normalizing dynamic, which has proceeded by way of pushing Palestinian grievances further into the background, has now been disrupted, perhaps irreparably. If Israel persists with its current policy in Gaza, demonstrations around the world will be enlarged and radicalized, exerting increased pressure on governments to act, particularly in the Middle East, and risks of a wider war involving Iran will grow daily, with potentially disastrous consequences.

On October 19, President Joe Biden delivered a dangerously arrogant speech that overlooked numerous experiences of U.S. frustration and political defeat since the Vietnam War, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and reaffirmed the global role of the U.S. as leader of the “democratic” forces for good in the historic battle against “autocratic” forces of terrorist evil, encompassing Hamas and Russian President Vladimir Putin. With no show of humility, he ended his talk by reaffirming “American exceptionalism” at one of its darkest hours: “In moments like these, we must remember who we are. We are the United States of America, and there is nothing, nothing beyond our capacity, if we do it together.”

Indeed, we do have to remember who we really are and realize that when we act together, we may be the greatest danger the world has ever faced, as when the U.S. Senate shockingly voted 97-0 last week to support Israel unconditionally as its genocidal actions against the people of Gaza continues to unfold.

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