Engineering a flop
For most of the three months from May to July 2011, the Jewish world was abuzz with the impending Gaza flotilla and its higher-end cousin, the “fly-in.” After Israel’s mixed success in dealing with the 2010 flotilla, there was obvious apprehension that things might be disastrous. In the end, Israel’s diplomatic efforts and security measures turned the flotilla into a non-event. Instead of an armada, a single overcrowded French-owned yacht staggered in the direction of Gaza and was intercepted in international waters – with no casualties on either side and next to no media attention.
An ambitious plan to fly over a thousand anti-Israel activists to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv was largely preempted by Israeli liaison with foreign airlines, which prevented most of the agitators from even reaching the Jewish state. The minority who arrived were (briefly) detained and deported with little fanfare. A handful were even admitted to Israel.
I’d like to discuss what lessons we can learn from this whole episode: what we did well and what we can do even better.
Media events – the flotilla and fly-in
In a recent post (
) I wrote of the ease with which the media can be manipulated. One of the simplest ways to achieve this objective is through media events: incidents contrived solely to generate coverage from the media.
The flotilla and the fly-in were conceived of as just such stunts, actions designed to manipulate the media into covering events a certain way to produce the story that the anti-Israel organizers wanted. Israel responded remarkably well to the flotilla of 2010, realizing that they did not have to be passive victims of media manipulation. The IDF found they could add their perspective to the media stream by shooting their own footage of events in the Mediterranean and releasing the video directly through YouTube. This use of the Internet allowed them to bypass mainstream media outlets that had already fallen into the conceptual frame of the anti-Israel activists.
In 2011 Israel went one step further. The Israeli government asked itself the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and CNN doesn’t cover it, has it happened?” By ensuring that the media event never took place, the message it was intended to convey was lost.
Another media event – the GA ploy
Through diplomatic and other means, Israel was able to control events surrounding the would-be flotilla and fly-in. But Israel had no way to control actions in countries hostile to Israel. In September 2011, the Syrian government and Hizbollah organized mass marches on their borders with the Jewish state. Forced to act forcefully to defend her borders, it was the IDF who were manipulated into falling into the stereotype of “brutality.” Fortunately for Israel the story picked up little momentum, perhaps because it was such a transparent attempt to divert attention from the real brutality of the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ suppression of domestic dissent.
With the prospects of a reprise, the IDF is straining to develop new tactics to minimize the potential damage from even larger mass demonstrations likely to coincide with the threatened appeal to the UN General Assembly to acknowledge Palestinian Arab sovereignty in September 2011.
Israel has grasped that the GA ploy is another media event and is using diplomatic efforts to try and stymie this stunt as well. By the way, those who – like myself – are critical of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s advocacy efforts should take pause to congratulate the diplomats on their success when they do what they are supposed to do: exercise diplomacy. As I write these words, it’s too early to tell whether Israel’s envoys will succeed or not.)
What can we learn from the successes and failures of these attacks on Israel?
All politics are local
When Tip O’Neil coined that slogan in the 1930s, he was talking about the need to relate to the concerns of your local constituents. As local activists for Israel, we should apply the lessons of the flotilla successes and failures to campaigning for Israel on the local level. Local media is read, listened to, and watched much more than national and international outlets. If we are to define the parameters of debate we should learn the lessons of the crucial importance of media events, but translate them to a local level where we can have the biggest impact. To focus the attention of local media, we might try staging events such as the following:
- Street theater dramatizing the plight of Gilad Shalit. Three volunteers (two dressed as Hamas terrorists and one as Gilad Shalit), a cage, a few people to hand out flyers, and a prime location (shopping mall, sports stadium, local legislature, or Iranian Airlines office) are all you need to get on the six o’clock news.
- Placing anti-Israel terrorists on trial. Under Article III (c) of the 1948 “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” is a crime. That makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call to “wipe Israel off the map” a crime under international law. Targeting Israeli civilians with rockets and mortars are war crimes. That makes the leaders of Hamas and Hizbollah criminals. Use local legal academics to set up a public tribunal to try any of the above on suitable charges. Take dramatic testimony from individuals who have suffered or are threatened by them. Invite the media. Repeat as necessary.
- Celebrate your community’s links with Israel. When your community sends a mission to Israel, have local political leaders and/or celebrities welcome them back at the local airport. Get up a crowd with national and Israeli flags. Arrange some sort of award. Have the under-12 Jewish day school choir, dressed in white (always think about how to make an event photogenic) and holding candles, sing to greet them.
Generating our own stories gives us the edge. It’s much better to have Israel’s enemies loose sleep wondering how they are going to counter our campaigns than vice versa.
 If you are reading this blog you are probably well informed on the facts of what happened and I’ve no intention of reinventing the wheel. I would offer three links that didn’t get wide distribution in case you’d like to know more.
Melanie Phillips reveals the small Israeli NGO that lead the legal challenge to the flotilla. She also musters some compelling proof of the duplicity of the flotilla organizers in talking about the nonexistent “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.
Left wing, post-Zionist activist and journalist Amira Hass (who identifies so strongly with Palestinian Arabs that she lived for several years in Gaza) essentially derides the handful of foreign agitators who were on the final yacht for being “useful idiots” in this breathtakingly honest article, where she also gives the lie to the “humanitarian crisis” canard.
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs offers one of its excellent analyses of the murky forces behind the flotilla.