Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks on stage with Secretary of State John Kerry for a photo opportunity before a meeting in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2014.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks on stage with Secretary of State John Kerry for a photo opportunity before a meeting in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2014. AP Photo

Why Benjamin Netanyahu Should Be Very, Very Worried

Israel's future looks more vulnerable than at any point in the 21st century as demographic and social trends are complicating perceptions of the Gaza offensive. By Ron Fournier

Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday asked Benjamin Netanyahu whether he was worried about "a third intifada." The Israeli prime minister replied that Hamas "wants to pile up" Gazan casualties in hope of instigating an uprising. In other words, he ducked the heart of the question.

Netanyahu should be worried. The Israeli public should be worried. All supporters of the Jewish state should be worried—not only about the prospect of current events spiraling out of control, but also about a confluence of demographic and social trends that threaten Israel's ability to manage the war of perceptions.

Every nation has a story. Israel's is that Arabs have long been unwilling to negotiate with the Jewish state, and that terrorists among the Palestinians want to destroy it. For decades, three significant factors helped make this the dominant Middle East narrative. First, it's correct, at least when applied to the dangerous minority of Palestinians. Second, elite opinion-makers, including journalists and politicians in the West, embraced and amplified the Israeli case. Finally, public opinion in the West, and particularly in the United States, firmly supported Israel.   

The first factor still holds. The United States would not hesitate to respond fiercely to attacks like those of Hamas. No country would. Israel has the absolute right to defend itself, and Netanyahu stood on firm ground as he described to Wallace the motives and tactics of Hamas.

The danger lies with the last two factors, starting with the near-monopoly Israel once enjoyed over the mind share of public-opinion elites. Israel must learn to act in a world of democratized media, where tweets and posts and pictures about Gazan casualties reach the global community instantaneously and without filter.

The newly interconnected world includes mainstream journalists, whose coverage of a decades-old story now includes an expanded array of sources who don't work for a government, a lobby, or an activist group. The past few weeks have exposed a subtle but significant shift in coverage—a more empathic view of the plight of Gazans, and a greater focus on the consequences of Israel's actions.

Consider these three stories and a question raised by each:

  • NBC pulled foreign correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin out of the Gaza Strip, raising questions about whether his empathetic coverage of Palestinians led to his removal. Brian Stelter, who covers the media for CNN, said his reporting "strongly suggests that this was a situation caused by network news infighting and bureaucracy." Public backlash played a role in Mohyeldin's return to Gaza, Stelter said. Question: A decade or so ago, would a news organization receive this much pressure for a staffing decision?
  • A Palestinian-American teenager accused Israeli authorities of beating him. Upon his return to Tampa Fla., 15-year-old Tariq Abu Khdeir said, "No child, whether they are Palestinian or Israeli, deserves to die." Question: A decade or so ago, would the beating be covered at all? As much?
  • CNN correspondent Diana Magnay tweeted that the Israelis cheering bombs hitting Gaza, and who had allegedly threatened her, were "scum." The network pulled her off the story. Question: A decade or so ago, would a network correspondent broadcast her bluntly negative opinion about Israeli soldiers? (What are the chances a network reporter would even think to call Israelis scum?)

Finally, a generation of global citizens is rising to power without the Israeli narrative embedded so firmly in its consciousness. The so-called Arab Spring and the United States' diminished influence abroad has created a new set of filters through which young people will consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a viewpoint that might be less inclined to favor the Jewish state.

In the United States, younger Americans are far less likely to say Israel's actions in the Gaza Strip are justified. According to Gallup, these are the percentages of Americans who support the Israeli position, grouped by age: 55 percent of those over 65; 53 percent of those between 50 and 64; 36 percent of those 30-49; and just 25 percent of those 18-29.

Again, none of this is intended to suggest that Israel should bow to Hamas's demands. Israelis must defend themselves. Neither is this a case for or against Israel completing its current mission to shutter terrorists' tunnels and silence the rockets. Rather, it's a warning that Israel's decades-old public relations and political dominance is coming to an end unless the nation's leaders change the narrative and reset their strategic position with moderate Palestinians.

David Grossman, an Israeli author and noted peace activist, writes in The New York Times today that Israelis and Palestinians are yoked to the same grindstone. He asks why.

Since I cannot ask Hamas, nor do I purport to understand its way of thinking, I ask the leaders of my own country, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his predecessors: How could you have wasted the years since the last conflict without initiating dialogue, without even making the slightest gesture toward dialogue with Hamas, without attempting to change our explosive reality? Why, for these past few years, has Israel avoided judicious negotiations with the moderate and more conversable sectors of the Palestinian people—an act that could also have served to pressure Hamas? Why have you ignored, for 12 years, the Arab League initiative that could have enlisted moderate Arab states with the power to impose, perhaps, a compromise on Hamas? In other words: Why is it that Israeli governments have been incapable, for decades, of thinking outside the bubble?

He said pundits on the left are recognizing the depths of hatred toward Israel, which he colorfully calls "the Islamic fundamentalist volcano that threatens the country." Pundits on the right, he said, must realize that nobody will win this war.

There is no military solution to the real anguish of the Palestinian people, and as long as the suffocation felt in Gaza is not alleviated, we in Israel will not be able to breathe freely either.

Israelis have known this for decades, and for decades we have refused to truly comprehend it.

To me, on Sunday, the talking points Netanyahu deployed against Wallace were simultaneously accurate and archaic. Yes, the terrorists want to destroy Israel and are willing to kill their own people to do so. But why doesn't he seem worried about the consequences of his approach—one tailored for a world that is rapidly ceasing to exist?

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