When US Secretary of State John Kerry made his rounds on Sunday morning talk shows to address the ongoing turmoil in Gaza, he defended the actions of the Israeli military and the Obama administration while placing the blame squarely on Hamas. On “State of the Union with Candy Crowley,” he went as far to say that Israel is a nation under siege, using the very language that the international community widely accepts to describe the position of Gaza – and inverting it.
However, just before his interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Kerry did not realize his microphone was on. On camera, in a moment of frankness, he said, “it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation; it’s a hell of a pinpoint operation,” to an aide in his earpiece. After a full morning of defending the Israeli campaign, Kerry seemed to reveal his frustration over defending the Israeli military’s use of force when the 80 percent civilian casualty rate in Gaza seems anything but targeted.
After host Chris Wallace implored him to address his comments, Kerry reiterated the administration’s position: “We support Israel’s right to defend itself against rockets that are continuing to come in. Hamas has started its process of rocketing after Israel was trying to find the people who killed three young [people] – one American kid, three young Israelis.”
Israel’s assault on Gaza is as much an operation to crush Palestinian resistance as it is a battle to control the narrative. On Fox, Kerry unintentionally revealed the possibility that the administration does not fully buy the intentions behind Operation Protective Edge. Yet, he must continue to sell the Israeli argument to the American public and the world. The secretary of state’s gaffe is a breakdown of the US government’s long history of nearly unconditional support for Israel.
The Israeli effort to control the narrative is not new, but in this interconnected world where images of explosions in Gaza circulate while the bombs are still falling, the need for Israelis to justify their actions is greater than ever. Young Israelis at home and abroad have entered into combat through “hashtag activism.” They have set up “war rooms” to sell the Gaza assault on social media. Chillingly, the discourse is remarkably uniform and has not changed even as the death toll in Gaza continues to climb. The same arguments cycle among politicians, anchors and Twitter users, as they constantly defend Israel’s right to defense.
There is a word in Hebrew, hasbara, for this particular type of organization and speech. Hasbara translates to “explanation,” but as Ambassador Chas W. Freeman explains:
That does not do the concept justice. Hasbara links information warfare to the strategic efforts of the state to bolster the unity of the home front; ensure the support of allies; disrupt efforts to organize hostile coalitions; determine the way issues are defined by the media, the intelligentsia, and social networks; establish the parameters of politically correct discourse; delegitimize both critics and their arguments; and shape the common understanding and interpretation of the results of international negotiations.
Despite the power that hasbara holds, it may be that Israel’s allies are growing tired of recycling the rhetoric. No argument can justify the deaths of children killed on a Gaza beach, on rooftops, in their homes and on the streets. If Kerry could not maintain his composure and keep up the narrative for the commercial break, might this be a sign that the Israeli side of the story is losing traction?
Though the mainstream media coverage of the conflict overwhelmingly privileges Israel, a few diverse voices featured on network news refuse to accept this status quo. For instance, CNN recently hosted Youseff Munayyer, the executive director of the Palestine Center in Washington, DC. During his brief interview, he challenged Israeli assurances that their operation is limited in scope, stating that Israel “can say all they want that they are not targeting civilians,” but that does not reflect what is happening on the ground. He rejected the blanket claim that Israeli strikes are meant to target rocket launch sites, because that does not explain the civilian death rate. Rather than simply proposing a ceasefire, he said that the only real way to end the conflict is through “a serious attempt to address the sincere grievances of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.”
An attempt to seriously address the grievances of the Palestinian people would be a step away from the Zionist narrative that Israel is the victim, that Israel, not Gaza, is under siege. Kerry’s slip-up on the Sunday talk show may be a sign that the administration is willing to truly listen to the Palestinian narrative, which means there is hope for compromise.