Craven images: Israel obsessed with its PR image – not with morality

Television functions as a continuation of the fight by other means - the organizers of the Palestinian uprising are directors of genius and manipulators of public opinion; the army chief of staff gives out video cameras to soldiers, Israel perceives itself as the victim of a media ambush. The question that keeps coming back to “our” television stations who have been drafted “for our side” is how is it that only “we” see the outrageous gap between the way things appear to be and the way they are, between semblance and essence.

This was the subject of a dialogue between Gabi Gazit and an expert on Middle East affairs, Dr. Yossi Olmert, on Gazit’s show broadcast this past Sunday morning, just prior to Dr. Olmert’s departure on a public relations mission for the state. The relaxed tone was one befitting a casual conversation, an offhand exchange of opinion on the situation, typical of the present period.

“Our public relations situation is not too good,” sighs the host, “apparently nothing is going to help, somehow we are not managing to explain ourselves.” From which we learn that there is something to explain, that things are not as they appear, and that it is the role of public relations to rescue the truth that is hiding behind the warped televised representation. “It is true that a picture speaks more than a thousand words,” said Olmert, tossing the cliche of a public relations victim, “and perhaps some pictures are worth tens of thousands of words.” And this is the basic Israeli position, that images are misleading, that pictures deceive, and only the rhetoric, the verbal “spin,” can reveal the truth.

But where is the distortion and where is the truth?

“What an amazing thing that the image of that boy killed at Netzarim junction is so much stronger then the pictures of the lynch they did to us,” says Gazit. And of course the picture distorts, almost conspiratorially, presenting the less upsetting incident (the killing of “that boy”) as the more sinful.

And how much alienation and dismissal is there in that anonymous phrase “that boy” as opposed to the lynch they did “to us,” the parable being that the two Israeli soldiers murdered at the Ramallah police station were literally flesh of our flesh, an organ of the collective national body. Here, already, does the selective nature of Israeli morality make itself felt, a morality that is incapable of binding itself in any empathy or sadness for “that boy” (whose only crime was to have ended up in the wrong place by mistake).

What’s more, Gazit’s alienation is so great that he is not even referring to the incident itself but rather to its image - the misconstruction.

“By the way,” commented Olmert, “I want to tell you that no one can, or should, rejoice about murdered Palestinian children, and believe me that I say this in all fairness and honesty. But it is possible to present these things in the right context.”

The words raise questions as to the state of Dr. Olmert’s conscience. Why does he feel it necessary to note “in all fairness and honesty,” that one should not rejoice in the death of Palestinian children? Is this not obvious, axiomatic? Is it not the same as saying two apples and two apples make four apples? Apparently not. It is a sign that the building blocks of universal morality are tottering here.

Again, what is distortion? What is the truth? In what “right context” can things be presented? We are talking about children. Some cynic took no steps to remove them from danger (although this does not mean that one should kill them). They are victims to no avail at any rate, however you look at it, unless you examine it in the “right context”; a context that remains hidden, exactly like the truth it is meant to uncover.

The cold, clinical discussion continues to unfold around images instead of bodies, on damage to perception rather than real damage. “Why,” asks Gazit, “is Israel unable to explain the basic facts, such as, for example, that the people shooting at us from Beit Jala were the ones to open fire on Gilo. One tank shoots one shell and we are depicted as the initiators of the incident.” And Olmert murmurs”Look, the biggest experts on public relations, the ones who teach communications, will tell you that the image of a tank facing houses is a sure loss.”

And in this learned Olmertian murmur all Israeli morality foldsIf only we could take steps in secret, unseen, everything would be all right. What a shame that cutting off electricity and starving a population doesn’t photograph well. It is not a question of humanity, but of television aesthetics. Within the understanding that the Israeli response is not photogenic is enclosed the recognition that it is morally flawed. But this understanding does not stem from empathy for the suffering population - the stranger, the other, the “that boy,” the “those people,” that same mass of populace who lack identity, who are known as “them” - but rather from a utilitarian empathy for oneselfthe fear of the damage it will cause “us.”

Olmert is aware that the image is a bad one, but he has no problem with the reality it representsa tank bombarding houses. Once again, this gap between image and reality remains unclear.

Yet Gazit persists in the assumption that the gap exists, and the conversation continues, flowing freely, as if unaware of itself, as if taking place behind the scenes: “An image that we see a lot lately, I saw it yesterday about five times, is that of a Palestinian boy throwing a rock, his friend shooting a slingshot, and opposite them two soldiers with guns shooting live bullets. Now, when the whole world sees something like that…” To this Olmert replies frivolously: “Whoever sees it is reminded of a certain biblical story, and we are on the wrong side of the equation. Believe me, I am aware of where the problems lie.”

Gazit: “Of course you know … if I was Polish, or Hungarian, or Peruvian, then I would say ‘those poor children throwing stones while the evil soldiers shoot at them with guns.’”

Olmert: “So we need to work harder and more correctly … Let us do the work and see what can be done.”

This is how the mechanism of Israeli self-persuasion worksThe problem is not that the “whole world” is wrong, but rather that the “whole world” sees. Gazit understands that if not for the fact that he is Israeli, he would have comprehended the injustice. Olmert also knows that Israel is the Goliath in this story. They are not arguing about relative strengths - children armed with slingshots facing soldiers firing live ammunition - and do not attempt to justify it. But the understanding that the children are unfortunate and the soldiers evil, and that Israel is acting like Goliath, they put down to the a different viewpoint, a hostile one, a “whole world” that conspires against us outside our ghetto. They distance it from themselves, pushing it away, and do not try to come to terms with it. The subject of the conversation is not the acceptance of responsibility but the avoidance of guilt, outsmarting the facts.

In this conversation, a faithful representation of the general trend in televised discussions on the Israeli “public relations problem” (as opposed to the moral problem) - the Israeli conscience is dead. Gazit and Olmert removed the discussion from the field of morality (on which, actually, they have nothing to say) to that of propaganda, and thus rendered the problem less tangible and less threatening, given that propaganda is flexible, a matter of interpretation, and a question of perspective.

So where is the distortion? And what is the truth? The enveloped assumption is that the truth is what is best for “us,” some rhetorical illusion of hocus pocus that will hypnotize the world and brainwash it. It is exactly like that oft-repeated scene of the stock sitcom, in which the wife catches her husband in bed with another woman, who, while feeling frantically for his underwear, sticks his foot into a sock, and mumbles “It’s not what you think, let me explain.”

It is difficult today to be an Israeli who interprets the images in the way that a Polish man or a Hungarian would, for example. Shulamit Aloni did so on that same program, in response to which Rivka Michaeli told her”There are, I am sure, many viewers who are up in arms now because you sound as though you are not from here, not Israeli.”

That’s how it is. There is “us” and there is “them”; You’re either with us or against us.