The IDF’s Counterproductive Social Media Campaign

November 16, 2012 § 1 Comment

This article was originally published in Foreign Policy yesterday, and I am reposting it here.

Ever since the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Pillar of Cloud on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari, the official IDF Twitter feed has been working overtime to publicize Israeli military exploits.

As of this writing, the feed has published 88 tweets since Wednesday. It began with the announcement over Twitter that Israel had launched a military campaign against Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, continued with posting video footage of Jabari’s car being blown up by an IDF missile, and then moved on to taunting Hamas fighters not to “show their faces above ground in the days ahead.”

This prompted a response from Hamas over Twitter that Israel had “Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves” and that Israeli leaders and soldiers would be targeted no matter where they were, lending new meaning to the term cyberwarfare. The IDF’s utilization of Twitter became such a big story that there were rumors, which turned out to be uncorroborated, that Twitter had suspended the IDF’s account over terms of service violations for posting the Jabari assassination video. All in all, it is clear that using Twitter to encourage its supporters and drive media coverage is a purposeful component of the Israel’s public diplomacy strategy while it is fighting Palestinian terror groups in Gaza. The strategy certainly has its supporters, as it has been described as an effective way to explain “the morality of the war it [the IDF] is fighting” and as “the most meaningful change in our consumption of war in over 20 years.”

But the IDF’s barrage of tweets indicates that it has not learned some important lessons from its last major incursion into Gaza. Operation Cast Lead, carried out in December 2008 and January 2009, was a tactical military victory that came at a costly price. The large numbers of Palestinian civilian casualties and images of destruction led to a renewed and vigorous effort to isolate Israel in the international community. The highest-profile example was the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, conducted by South African judge Richard Goldstone, which damaged Israel immeasurably. The report was such a disaster for Israel that in 2009 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it one of the three biggest threats Israel was facing, alongside a nuclear Iran and Palestinian rockets. The aftermath of Cast Lead also brought a renewed fervor to the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, which seeks to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and generally placed a harsher spotlight on Israeli efforts to deal with Hamas. In all, Israel beat Hamas on the battlefield but lost the war of public opinion, which in some ways was the more important one. And while Israel always faces an uphill battle in winning the world’s approval for reasons that are beyond its control, there are some lessons it has not absorbed.

The IDF is doing two things through its Twitter campaign that are replicating the same public relations mistakes it made the last time around. The first is a strategy of playing to its own base. In posting a video of Jabari’s car exploding in a fireball or issuing blustery warnings to Hamas to stay hidden, the IDF is trying to galvanize its supporters and mobilize the pro-Israel community into retweeting and posting messages on Facebook that bolster Israel’s case and create the impression that Israel will be able to rout Hamas and eliminate the rocket fire coming from Gaza. This is an effective way to rally those who are already with you, but it is unlikely to win any new supporters. People inclined to criticize Israeli military action are not going to be swayed by such appeals, and the evidence suggests that Israel is not trying very hard to target this demographic. Mobilizing your own supporters is great, but ultimately widening your circle rather than deepening it is going to be needed in order to blunt some of the criticism that is bound to come once Operation Pillar of Cloud has concluded.

Second, and more saliently, the reason Israel suffered so badly in the court of public opinion following Cast Lead is because there was a perception that Israel was callous about the loss of Palestinian life that occurred during that operation. Partly this was fueled by the sheer number of casualties — a number that was deeply tragic but also unsurprising given Hamas’s strategy of purposely embedding itself in the civilian population — but partly it was fueled by things like T-shirts depicting Palestinians in crosshairs, suggesting disgustingly poor taste at best and a disregard for the terrible consequences of war at worst.

Publicizing posters of Jabari with the word “Eliminated” do not rise to the same level, but do not send the message that Israel should be sending. The IDF in this case is trumpeting the killing of an unapologetic terrorist leader, and nobody should shed a tear for Jabari for even a moment, but the fact remains that many people, particularly among the crowd that Israel needs to be courting, are deeply skeptical of Israeli intentions generally and tend not to give Israel the benefit of the doubt. They cast a wary eye on Israeli militarism and martial behavior, and crowing about killing anyone or glorifying Israeli operations in Gaza is a bad public relations strategy insofar as it feeds directly into the fear of Israel run amok with no regard for the collateral damage being caused. Rather than convey a sense that Israel is doing a job that it did not want to have to do as quickly and efficiently as possible, the IDF’s Twitter outreach conveys a sense of braggadocio that is going to lead to a host of problems afterward.

Israel is proud of its ability to hit Hamas where it most hurts, and understandably wants to make Hamas leaders think twice before escalating rocket attacks against civilian population centers. Nevertheless, the IDF Twitter feed over the past two days is going to great lengths to inadvertently ensure that Israel once again wins a tactical military victory but loses the overall battle, further contributing to its own international isolation and a fresh round of vociferous condemnations once the dust has cleared.

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Guest Post: Egypt’s Gaza Conundrum

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

After I analyzed the Israeli decision making calculus on Gaza on Monday, Zack Gold, who is an astute Middle East analyst and tweets from @ZLGold, rightly took me to task for neglecting to examine the Egypt angle. I asked Zack if he’d be willing to write a guest post filling in the large gap that I had left, and between now and then Israel has launched Operation Pillar of Cloud in Gaza and Egypt has responded, making Zack’s post all the more timely. In addition, I argued in the Atlantic that Egypt is likely to be more active in pressuring Israel over the Palestinians, but Zack has a different view contrary to mine and comes at it from an interesting angle, and I like to air as wide a debate as possible here at O&Z. So without further ado, here is Zack on the Egyptian reaction to Israel’s operations in Gaza.

The recent flare-up in tit-for-tat violence between Israel and Gaza, and especially the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense yesterday, has had me watching for reaction across the border in Egypt. Michael wrote a post on Monday on the likelihood of a wider Israeli operation in Gaza. I agreed with many of his points, but I was surprised that a post on Israeli policy towards Gaza didn’t take into account the reaction of a post-revolution Egypt. Michael graciously invited me to write a guest-post on the topic.

The theory that Israel lost its strategic depth on the Gaza front with Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, and the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, is two-fold. First, a democratic leader of Egypt will have to be more responsive to public opinion; and whether Islamist, liberal, revolutionary, Nasserist, Muslim, or Copt, pretty much the only thing that all Egyptians agree on is animosity towards Israel.

In addition to the pressure from the street, it was likely that any Egyptian leader not from the ancien régime would view Gaza differently than had Mubarak. This is not because Mubarak was an American-Zionist stooge, but his regime viewed Hamas in the same light as he viewed his most powerful opposition: the Muslim Brotherhood. That Egypt’s post-revolutionary president, Mohamed Morsi, hails from the Brotherhood is all the more reason to assume the Egyptian government would not sit still during a major Israeli operation in Gaza, as Mubarak’s had during the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead.

So the Israeli government has gambled that Egypt will not react as a changed nation or decided that even if it does the reaction is worthwhile because the threat from Gaza is too great. More worrisome would be that Operation Pillar of Defense is a short-term political decision: acting against an immediate threat to the homeland, right before an election, in a way that may damage longer-term strategic interests.

As of this writing, Egypt has not acted in the tempestuous way one might expect. It is possible that—the Israeli operation so fresh—the Egyptian government has been able to issue harsh statements, to recall its ambassador, and to call for discussions at the United Nations, but not had enough time to plan a more thorough response. Indeed, the “street” has not even had a chance to mobilize yet: small gatherings of leftists and revolutionaries have rallied and marched in Cairo, but the Muslim Brotherhood has called for nationwide demonstrations this afternoon (a public holiday) and tomorrow.

At the same time, there are several reasons the Egyptian government may not react as expected. First is the issue of proximity. Unlike Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s response to Cast Lead, it is difficult for Morsi to be a champion on the “Arab street” when his actions will have important consequences for his own nation. He may refuse to utter the word “Israel,” and his Muslim Brotherhood seeks to quietly diminish relations, but the Egyptian president has continued to stand by the peace treaty. Max Fisher speculated that Egypt could open up the Gaza border: breaking the blockade and allowing in necessary aid. But opening the border is a two-way street, which could allow a portion of 1.5 million Palestinians to flow freely across the border: giving Egypt more responsibility for Gazans’ wellbeing.

An overflow of Palestinian refugees would also exacerbate Egypt’s own economic woes, which also limit its actions towards Gaza. At the very moment the situation unfolds across the Gaza-Israel border, in Cairo the government is sitting down with IMF officials to negotiate a much need $4.5b loan. Egypt just secured $6.3b from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, but that money will be tied to IMF approval. Not to mention the $1.5b annual contract with the Americans. In addition to government loans and grants, Egypt needs private investment. But if Egypt breaks its post-revolutionary commitment to maintain the peace treaty with Israel then investors are less to risk whether it will stand by other commitments.

Finally, post-revolutionary Egypt is still struggling to make the transition to a post-revolutionary system. Morsi is also held back by the Egyptian military and interior ministry, which are “chasing ghosts” in the Sinai: smugglers and Salafi jihadis with links to Gaza. Indeed the Egyptian president’s first attempt to change the status quo was cut short by the August 5 attack that left 16 soldiers and guards dead near the border with Israel and Gaza.

Morsi is trying to raise Egypt up as a regional powerbroker, but he is stunted by domestic problems. For now, it seems, Morsi has settled on statements and for calling on others (namely the United States and the United Nations) to halt the violence. As he meets with members of his cabinet and security apparatus—and as Egypt’s population mobilizes in support of Gaza—it has yet to be seen if Egypt’s first post-revolution president will act any differently from his pre-revolution predecessor.

Random Thoughts, Gaza Edition

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have a bunch of interconnected things to say about Gaza and Operation Pillar of Cloud, so here we go.

First, on Monday I wrote that I thought Israel was likely to go into Gaza eventually with ground forces, and three days later I see no reason to alter that prediction. Taking out Ahmed al-Jabari was guaranteed to elicit a response from Hamas, and now that three Israeli civilians were killed when a rocket from Gaza hit their apartment building in Kiryat Malachi, the IDF is going  to ramp up military operations even further. Over 200 rockets were fired out of Gaza yesterday, and the Israeli cabinet has authorized the army to call up any reserve units that it needs, on top of the earlier authorization to call up reservists serving in the Home Front Command, so I am relatively confident that it is only a matter of time before ground forces are ordered into Gaza.

Second, nobody should be shedding any tears for al-Jabari, and I do not begrudge for a second Israel’s right to kill terrorist leaders who target civilians. That said, the Hamas problem is not going to be solved militarily. Cast Lead was not able to do away with Hamas, and Pillar of Cloud is likely to meet the same fate of quieting things down in the immediate aftermath but not solving the overarching problem of Hamas controlling Gaza and still not being willing to negotiate a permanent end to its war with Israel. As Jeffrey Goldberg and Brent Sasley have both pointed out, this type of operation is all about short term tactics in an attempt to ignore a long term strategic conundrum, and until Israel figures out a way to address this, the next Cast Lead or Pillar of Cloud is only four or five years away. Already there have been Palestinian civilian casualties, and much like Israel faced the Goldstone Report and a renewed BDS push following its last incursion into Gaza, no doubt it is going to deal with a fresh round of condemnations and pressures when this is over. As much as Israel can hit Hamas where it hurts, this is no successful way to operate.

Third, Pillar of Cloud makes the Foreign Ministry’s threats earlier this week to collapse the Palestinian Authority over its UN bid an even stranger move than it already was. The fact that Israel is now engaged in its second major military operation against Hamas in four years while collaborating with the PA security forces in the West Bank over the same time period demonstrates the absurdity of Avigdor Lieberman’s position that the PA is just as bad, or even worse, for Israeli interests than Hamas. If the PA collapses in the West Bank, it is a near guarantee that Hamas takes over, and then Israel’s security situation is vastly worse. Pillar of Cloud is going to damage Hamas militarily but may very well strengthen it politically, and so in tandem with a strategy of weakening the PA, it means that a Hamas-controlled West Bank is ever more likely. Lieberman obviously knew Pillar of Cloud was coming and just didn’t care, and it is also evident that Bibi Netanyahu either has limited control over what Lieberman is doing at the Foreign Ministry or doesn’t see it as a problem. The operations in Gaza make reneging on the UN bid impossible for Mahmoud Abbas, since he cannot back down in the face of Israel pressure while Palestinians are being killed in Gaza and retain any shred of credibility. What this all means is that Israel’s right hand and left hand are essentially working at cross purposes, trying to forestall a UN bid while also making it more likely, and trying to eliminate Hamas while giving it the West Bank on a silver platter. Someone in the upper echelons of Israel’s decision making hierarchy needs to take a step back and look at the big picture here.

Finally, Turkey’s response to all of this has been interesting. It was well behind Egypt and the Arab League in condemning Israel yesterday, waiting hours to say anything and then issuing a Foreign Ministry statement close to midnight (and one that has still not been posted on the ministry’s English language website). Ahmet Davutoğlu had some harsh words for Israel when talking to reporters but the overall Turkish response was not as fast and furious as one might have expected. Egypt, in contrast, was way out in front and has been keeping up the pressure rhetorically while recalling its ambassador back to Cairo. I have some thoughts at the Atlantic on why this might be and what we can expect from Turkey and Egypt going forward, and here is a teaser:

Since Israel’s last major foray into Gaza with Operation Cast Lead in 2008, no country has been more vocal about the plight of the Palestinians than Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan has made it a priority to keep the world’s attention on Gaza and has repeatedly called out Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians while attempting to bolster Hamas. The Palestinian issue has been so important to the Turkish government that it has made ending the Gaza blockade one of its three conditions, along with an apology and compensation, for restoring full ties with Israel following the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. Erdoğan recently announced plans to visit Gaza, which would undoubtedly go a long way in the campaign to legitimize Hamas.

Becoming the champion of the Palestinian cause is one of the primary reasons that Erdoğan has had such high approval ratings in the Arab world. It has not only made Erdoğan personally popular but also enhanced Turkey’s international stature, contributing to Turkey’s efforts to be seen not only as a regional leader but as a leader of the wider Sunni world as well. In essence, the resulting deterioration in relations with Israel has in some sense been well worth the cost as Turkey’s reputation and soft power has been enhanced. In light of all this, the expectation following Israel’s new military operations in Gaza today is that Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are going to be leading the charge to condemn Israeli military actions, which would be consistent with Turkey’s position over the past few years.

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

For the rest, please click over to the original at the Atlantic’s website.

 

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