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How Israel Lost a Media War

But blocked an Iranian information campaign.

2:10 PM, Mar 11, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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Or rather, it would be hostile if it weren’t taking place in a vacuum. Both Ben-Yishai and Rabinovich note that the big foreign news story in the United States right now is about Ukraine, and Washington, says Rabinovich, is a one-story town. Maybe that was true when courting public opinion was simply about placing stories with four or five journalists at the networks and major newspapers. And to be sure, Obama has cultivated relations with a number of journalists he uses as sounding boards and surrogate spokesmen. But Obama also has a much larger understanding of communicating with the public. For instance, when the president of the United States does a six-minute comic segment on “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifinakis to promote the Affordable Care Act, that’s evidence that the media environment has changed. When there is no one public forum but many, shaping public opinion is a different matter.

Or, to see it from a different angle, let’s look at another information operation, one potentially very powerful and, unlike Israel’s most recent effort, truly capable of changing the strategic landscape of the Middle East.

As I argued last week, the Klos C story is only partly about Iran and Israel. It’s also about Israel and Egypt. The fact that Israel seized the weapons at sea before the ship docked at Port Sudan is evidence Jerusalem knows that the Egyptian army and intelligence services are incapable of stopping missiles from crossing the Sudanese border and traversing the length of the country to the northern border. Ben-Yishai speculates on what might have happened had those rockets reached the Sinai peninsula. “The IDF does not enter Sinai,” wrote Ben-Yishai, “and Israel Air Force planes don't fly in the peninsula's airspace so as not to violate Egyptian sovereignty. The military regime in Egypt is known to be very sensitive about its national honor, and so an M-302 launching system in Sinai is ideal.”

So what would have happened had Sinai militants started firing rockets into Israel? In spite of the Egyptian army’s obvious incompetence, Jerusalem presumably would have let the Egyptians have at least first crack at it, so as not to violate the army’s “honor.” The problem is that using the Egyptian army to root out jihadists firing on Israel would expose Egyptian strongman General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to very dangerous criticism—Sisi is protecting the Zionists.

What’s worse is that it’s basically true. Ok, the Egyptian army is incompetent and it seems that at least some of the intelligence Cairo has on jihadists in the Sinai, its own territory, comes from Israel. Nonetheless, Israel and its supporters regularly boast that security and military ties between the two countries are better than ever. But what’s common wisdom in Jerusalem and Washington and regularly reported in the Israeli and U.S. press is all but unknown in Egypt. After all, it is the kind of information that could get Sisi killed—as it doomed Anwar al-Sadat—or at least play into the hands of Sisi’s Muslim Brotherhood enemies. Right now, he is winning Egypt’s information war by calling the brotherhood “terrorists,” but they might be able to win back a large part of Egyptian public opinion, entirely anti-Israel and broadly anti-Semitic, if they can tar him as a Zionist collaborator.

To understand how their own information operation failed, Israeli strategists need to understand how they succeeded in stopping Iran’s information operation before it ever took off. The Iranians were simply seeking to advance the media narrative that’s already out there—Sisi is working with the Israelis. What Israelis and Americans think is a positive thing would strike Egyptian society very differently. Given that Egyptians don’t read newspapers in the first place and that in any case there are many different media you can use to push your argument in the court of public opinion, you can either, say, post on twitter—or wage a rocket campaign from the Sinai.

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