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Hezbollah attack in Northern Israel. (MFA)

From Victim To Criminal
The critical importance of Israeli public diplomacy in the war against the Iran-Hezbollah axis of terror. 

-- Dr. Raanan Gissen

Public diplomacy for any country, not just Israel , has gone global. While the conflict may be determined in local terms, such as Israel 's fight against Hezbollah, the ramifications of the action itself are global in nature. Therefore, public diplomacy must be geared toward the global scene.

Ever since 9/11, we have been in a different type of war. We were exposed for the first time to a global network of terrorist organizations, sort of a multi-national corporation of non-state actors. 

On the Lebanese scene, through the careful manipulation of evidence, the theater of war has turned into a crime scene. Every action that Israel takes in Lebanon -- with its densely populated villages that Israel must operate in because that's the only way that we can uproot the terrorists in them -- creates an opportunity for the other side to use public diplomacy with global ramifications. Thus, instead of the war being about Israel's right of self-defense, Hezbollah was able to turn it around so that the issue on the international agenda became Israel's destruction of Lebanon and Israel as the cause of world instability. The victim becomes the criminal.

For example, Nasrallah ordered his men to remove their uniforms and blend in and continue to fight from within the civilian population. In this way, when Israel attacks Hezbollah, the scene is one of Israel moving against what appears to be civilians, even though rockets fired from these villages are striking Israel. Attacks on what looks like civilian targets can then be called "crimes against humanity" and "war crimes." In addition, by blending in with civilians, it's easier to fight the Israelis who exercise self-restraint when fighting near civilians. 

Another way to change a theater of war into a crime scene is by building Hezbollah positions in close proximity to those of UNIFIL. Then there is always an opportunity for a potential mishap where Israel will hit the UNIFIL position by mistake. Or Hezbollah may provoke an Israeli attack by firing from a specific location and ensuring that a human shield of innocent civilians will be present at the site. 

These are just some examples of how Hezbollah uses public diplomacy and the media as a tool of war. They create changes on the ground so that later they can manipulate the situation, and once the crime scene is created, the media look for the villain and his smoking gun. 

Not Like the 1982 Lebanon War: Iran on Israel's Northern Border

What we are seeing today in Lebanon was not there before. The conflict is no longer a local or even a regional conflict. Iran and Syria are now deeply and directly involved. In 1982 the PLO had some support from Syria and from other Arab countries, but was basically a regional terrorist organization. Now Israel faces the "special forces" of the Iranian military, the best guerilla warfare units, in front-line positions. The whole concept of how they operate on the battlefield and in public diplomacy is directed by Iran as part of its global war design against the West.

This did not start recently. When the PLO was in Tunis , having been ousted from Lebanon in August 1983, Hezbollah made its debut on the scene. In October 1983, Hezbollah blew up the barracks of the U.S. Multinational Forces and Observers (MFO) unit in Lebanon, killing 241 American soldiers. Back then, Iran was giving only spiritual support and some money, while Syria was Hezbollah's main supporter. Over the last twenty-five years Iran has gradually created a global network, first forming an axis with Syria and then building up Hezbollah, with Lebanon serving as a regional theater, one in which it had the most favorable demographic conditions -- a large Shiite minority. 

Today Israel has strategic cooperation and coordination with the United States that it didn't have in 1982. With regard to Iran's nuclear weapons, Israel is participating in a coalition. In other words, there is a perception among world leaders that in public diplomacy, an issue that seemingly looks like a local one -- and Hezbollah is a classic case -- actually involves a much more global phenomenon that needs to be addressed. 

The globalization of a local conflict has important implications for public diplomacy. What happens on Israel's northern border will affect what happens on its southern border with the Palestinians in Gaza. And the overall situation in the north and the south is going to determine the overall impact on the Arab world, and to what extent stability will be threatened in those regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan that fear the rise of Hezbollah.

On the military operational level, sometimes terminology misleads. The head of Israel's Air Force intelligence and the deputy chief of staff referred to Hezbollah as "terrorist gangs." But these are not merely terrorist gangs. This is an army - a well-trained, well-organized, and ideologically indoctrinated guerilla army - and Israel did not make that point strongly enough at the beginning of the war, neither to the world, nor to itself. 

Lebanon is a testing ground -- like Spain in 1936 -- for weapons, tactics, and doctrine of how Iran is going to fight the war when it comes to confront the West. We have to alert people not only to the fact that there are 13,000 missiles threatening Israel's very existence, but that these missiles do not belong to a terrorist organization -- this is a front-line position of Iran. Not surprisingly, the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, reportedly found refuge in the Iranian embassy in Beirut when his underground headquarters came under Israel Air Force bombardment.

Israel's intelligence services knew about the bunkers and the missiles, but the wider interpretation was not made. Is it only Hezbollah that will launch an attack against Israel? Or is it the Iranians building up this force as their long arm in Lebanon, to be used when they decide to make their initial move to take over? 

The kidnapping of the soldiers enabled Israel to preempt before the Iranians had completed their buildup. The Iranians did not want a full-scale war yet. They wanted to put pressure on Israel , but Hezbollah made a mistake in its assessment of Israel 's response. The end result was a "premature" war that has put the Iranian terrorist threat on the global agenda of public diplomacy, alerting the West before Iran was completely ready.

In February 2006, during a meeting at the Northern Command of the Israel Defense Forces, Prime Minister Olmert was given a full briefing by the chief of staff, who said that the scenario of a kidnapped soldier should be avoided since this could cause a major strategic embarrassment. It could set the entire conflict in motion because the whole Hezbollah army had made preparations for such a scenario. 

Hezbollah was also prepared with its public diplomacy. It had prepared for this war for a long time. It had spokesmen speaking fluent English who would escort the reporters to the designated crime scenes. Hezbollah knew that Israel was going to launch attacks on Beirut and that there would be scenes of destruction.

From the minute Israel left Lebanon in May 2000, Iran began to implement its initial plan for a takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah. First, it got into the political system and then from within it is trying to take over. Israel struck over two thousand Hezbollah targets, and not only in south Lebanon. Hezbollah is fully deployed in south Lebanon, Beirut, the Bekaa Valley, and on the border with Syria. By looking at the targets that Israel struck, one can see the extent of the Hizballah takeover.

There was a discrepancy between public diplomacy and the actual fighting on the ground. From a public diplomacy perspective, Israel should have been seen as the victim. We were being attacked. We were the ones who fulfilled all of the requirements of the game. We were true to the international border, we restrained ourselves, we held back. Why should it be that once we start attacking, we immediately start to lose in the diplomatic arena? Because Nasrallah and his patrons in Iran successfully integrated the "ABCs" of public diplomacy into their long-term strategic war doctrine. 

Strategic Public Diplomacy

This war is a symptom of the inability of Israel to prepare strategically with public diplomacy as a tool of war. It would be useful to learn and follow what Hezbollah has done in terms of its preparations to meet the requirements of a proactive public diplomacy strategy. 

Today, states and governments can learn much about the effectiveness of operations from NGOs (non-government organizations). Again, unlike the 1982 war, there is an environment of NGOs - some sinister and bad, some good. Backing the terrorist organizations are NGOs that operate on the world scene with the support of other countries. 

Hezbollah invests $15-20 million a year in its own TV station, Al Manar. That is more than the overall public relations (hasbara) budget of the State of Israel. Its broadcasts are pure propaganda, but they are professional and are carried worldwide via satellite and cable. 

We need to recognize that the media is a tool and that it can serve as a weapons system. Hezbollah is ten years ahead of Israel in the ability to use and manipulate the media for its strategic purposes. I don't want to underestimate the limitations that a democracy has in instituting a coherent long-term public diplomacy strategy, but thinking has to start about this as a strategic issue. 

Hezbollah had a strategic problem after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. It was an organization in search of a cause, in search of a reason to continue to exist and justify its continued terrorist operations. Therefore, it did all it could to show that it was an integral part of Lebanon and not an agent of Iran - which it is.

Armies fighting each other in the desert is a thing of the past. From now on it's "dirty wars," and that means that the role of public diplomacy is much greater. There are only two basic scenarios. Either you fight in densely populated areas on enemy territory, where the enemy is, or the enemy fights on yours. Israel is not a country that can absorb casualties. One of Israel's basic security principles is that it cannot afford to fight wars on its territory. Israel's existence is based on deterrence. Deterrence is based on the perception that Israel is able to project to its Arab neighbors who did not participate in the war - to the Palestinians, the Egyptians, and the Jordanians - that messing with Israel is too costly. This is a message that can set in motion the need to come to a political agreement with Israel. 

The threat Israel faces is not just Hezbollah, it's Iran, and we should alert the rest of the world to that, as we alerted the world to the Iranian nuclear program. Israel is on the front line of Iran's war against the West. This may sound alarmist, but the best way to conquer fear is to tell people the truth. Tell them what we are facing, and then mobilize the world as well. Military action alone is insufficient. 

The globalization of terror under the auspices of Iran is a much more formidable and more clear and present danger than the Iranian nuclear threat. The minute the Iranians get nuclear weapons, they may not immediately send them against Israel on their missiles. But this will give them the kind of protection and deterrence to use the methods that they're using now in Lebanon. For instance, if there was an Iranian terrorist coup in Egypt , the world would have to weigh any reaction differently if Iran had nuclear weapons.

The Iranians are coming, and we better read the writing on the wall. It is not in Arabic; it is in Persian, and it is still not too late to learn. 

Courtesy of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Dr. Raanan Gissin, a former senior advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, is one of Israel's leading spokesmen to the foreign press and the international community on security and strategic issues.