Israel has committed war crimes, and possibly crimes against humanity. That is the conclusion of the report issued last week by a U.N. fact-finding mission investigating the three-week war in Gaza last winter. The response of Israel and its media allies to this latest calumny against the Jewish state has been the predictable one: mustering facts and logic to counter the bias, credulousness, and myopia of the U.N. mission and its director, Richard Goldstone. Given the strength of Israel's arguments, this is the natural response. It is also the wrong one.
The focus of Israel's P.R. battle should be on damage control, not persuasion. The sort of person who actually trusts the United Nations will not be easily persuaded by evidence and arguments in Israel's favor, let alone have the time or will to take a fair-minded look at them.
It is the political fence-sitters who count in this media war -- the ones who, while they realize that The New York Times does not have all the news that's fit to print and view the U.N. with suspicion, cannot help but be swayed by language as powerful as "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity."
These grave terms, combined with the U.N. report's recommendation that Israel (along with Hamas, but who cares?) be referred to the International Criminal Court, will make even reasonable people associate the Jewish state with Darfur, Bosnia and, yes, Nazi Germany. No amount of persuasion is likely to undo this damage.
Position papers can't compete with bumper-sticker phrases and the images they evoke. In fact, the Times' article that followed a couple of days later dealing with Israel's nausea and fury over the report only amplified the "I-am-not-a-crook" effect, ensuring that every Israeli rebuttal would only reinforce the association in people's minds between Israel and war crimes.
The best reaction to a thrown grenade -- or so I am told, as I know as little of war as Goldstone -- is not to do the instinctive thing and run away, but to throw it back or cover it up to minimize the impact. In responding to the report, Israel has made the instinctive choice, and what it is now feeling is the shrapnel in its back.
Since the negative associations won't go away (has mud thrown at Israel ever not stuck?), its response should be to defuse them rather than fight them.
What I want to hear from Israeli leaders is this: "If defending my country against unprovoked attacks is a war crime, then yes, I am a war criminal. If defending our citizens against thousands of attempted massacres is a war crime, then yes, I am a war criminal. And if my children, the ones whom I am trying to keep safe from terror, were in my shoes, then I would expect them to act no differently."
I won't disguise in this brashness that it is a rhetorical concession. It is a retreat. But it is a tactical retreat. As any politician knows, it's always better to be the bearer of one's own bad news. Once you've conceded you're a war criminal without conceding that you're wrong, what rhetorical grenades does the enemy have left to throw?
Israel is on the defensive, playing the P.R. game on its enemies' terms. It should strip the anti-Israel insurgents of their rhetorical tricks and bring them out in the open to fight on their merits, where Israel has the advantage.
In this attempt to cheapen dangerous words, Israel would only be borrowing from the Palestinians' playbook. I used to know what "terrorism" meant until Palestinians started accusing the Israel Defense Force of "state-sponsored terrorism." A thousand repetitions later, and the original word is so malleable that it has practically no meaning left. It has been neutralized.
Some might protest that devaluing "war crimes" or "crimes against humanity" will undermine our ability to speak clearly about good and evil, but the opposite is true. Terms like "terrorism" are designed to cut off debate.
Palestinian suicide bombings are not wrong because they are acts of terror, they are wrong because they are gratuitous acts of vengeance against innocent people. If Operation Cast Lead was also wrong, we should think so not based on the childish arithmetic of casualty counting used by the United Nations, but based on a complex calculus that takes the motives of both sides and the circumstances of the conflict into account. Stripping Israel's opponents of their intellectual shortcuts will force them to take a more mature look at Israel's case.
Nathan Bloom is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago and an intern at the Middle East Forum.