You’ve got to hand it to Bibi Netanyahu, who somehow managed to turn international outrage over the brutal massacre of a young Jewish family on the Shabbat as they slept in their beds into widespread criticism of his aggressive settlement policy.
The most frequent question I get in speaking to Jewish groups around the country is “Why doesn’t Israel get better PR advice?” The answer is simple: the problem isn’t PR, it’s policy and the way it’s announced to the world.
One Israeli friend emailed me this week, ” For a person supposed to be a seasoned, articulate ‘hasbarah guru,’ Bibi certainly clouded the water in the pond.”
Presented with an opportunity to focus international condemnation on Palestinian incitement and the PA’s refusal to return to the peace table, Netanyahu grabbed the spotlight for himself and turned the discussion to settlements.
A headline writer in one Israeli paper summed up the PM’s response: “They shoot, we build.”
Who benefits? The rejectionists on all sides who don’t want peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Playing to his right wing base, Netanyahu not only announced the construction of 500 new homes but he also is trying to bring into his governing coalition the farther right National Union party, which includes an unabashed admirer of the late Meir Kahane.
An equally tone deaf Mahmoud Abbas failed to grasp the importance of this heinous crime. After much private and public prodding – Netanyahu labeled the initial PA response “weak and mumbled”—he went on Israeli radio to condemn this “abominable, inhuman and immoral” act. It remains to be seen whether he will repeat that on Palestinian media in Arabic.
While the five members of the Fogel family, three young children and their parents, were being buried in Itamar, a few miles to the south in the town of Al-Bireh, Palestinians were dedicating a town square in the memory of the leader of Fatah terror cell which killed 35 Israelis and an American in a 1978 bus hijacking.
The Israel Today newspaper raised the possibility that extremist settlers could put a “price tag” [revenge] on the Itamar murders and try to collect from the Palestinians, which could kindle another violent intifada.
Both Netanyahu and Abbas had an opportunity to calm the waters and use the incident as an opening to return to the peace table, but, as usual, neither appeared interested.
It seemed as though everyone wanted to exploit the tragedy for his or her own purposes.
For Israeli rejectionists it was more evidence that the Palestinians have no interest in peace and that withdrawing from the West Bank would be a disaster for Israel.
For the left it was proof of the need to accelerate peace talks, as if a signed agreement would somehow tamp down the overflowing animosities that undoubtedly motivated last week’s murders.
Hamas and the Islamists praised the murder as a “heroic” act of resistance.
And among Jewish groups there were even those who saw it as a fundraising opportunity and mailed out appeals for contributions.
Several media organizations looked like they were out to prove their reputation for anti-Israel bias. CNN seemed to question whether the murders were an act of terrorism when on its web site it put quotes around the term “terror act.”
The BBC, with a longstanding reputation for bias, said the killer was an “intruder…whom the Israeli military calls a terrorist.” And Reuters referred to the IDF as “the Israeli occupation forces” and then had the chutzpah to say there was nothing pejorative about using a term popular among anti-Israel activists.
Others used the incident to spread their ideology, facts be damned. The notoriously unreliable DEBKAfile, an Israeli website that claims to be an intelligence and security news service, offered a totally unsubstantiated but incendiary claim suggesting Abbas himself was personally responsible for the murders. It reported, “Abbas had quietly ordered heads of his Fatah organization to throw its support behind the atrocity.”
Netanyahu is right: incitement is a major source of friction and distrust. But both sides play that game. He should listen to the invective of some of his own ministers. One took the unprecedented – and inflammatory step – of publishing the grizzly crime scene pictures. And does the PM think the announcement of 500 new settlement homes does not rile the Palestinians as well as Israel’s friends?
When he could have calmed the waters and displayed statesmanlike leadership, Netanyahu, who is often ridiculed for comparing himself to Churchill, chose instead to pander to his extremists. Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here.” Bibi needs one that says “Sheket Be’vakasha.”