The head of the Israeli army’s Arabic Media Desk, Avichay Adraee, celebrated the 10th anniversary of his first television appearance on Arab satellite channels to explain his country’s position on its war on Lebanon.
In a sense, this may be a cause of celebration for Israel. The fact that Israeli officials have become familiar faces on Arab TV screens in recent years reflects their growing victory in “normalising” their country and gaining political legitimacy in a region that rejected its existence for decades.
But in another sense, it may be a cause for consideration. At the popular level, hostile Arab perception of Israel as a major threat remains entrenched. It is deepened by Israel’s meta narrative of being the victim with a right to defend itself, conveyed time and time again in these television appearances.
TV appearances a victory for Israel
A fluent Arabic speaker, Adraee, the head of the Israeli army’s Arabic Media Desk, shared the celebratory video below with his 900,000 followers on Facebook.
Adraee’s comment on the video reflects a sense of victory.
He ended his comment with a Lebanese saying, which he wrote in the Lebanese vernacular. The saying--“no matter how long he lies, there will come a day when a liar will be exposed”--, describes best, as he put it, “the extent of Hezbollah’s lies”.
In mid-July 2006, as Israel’s war on Lebanon gathered pace, a stern Adraee appeared on the main pan-Arab channels, including Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, to drive the message home to Arab viewers that Israel, as always, will respond with “violence to terrorism” while seeking to live in peace with its neighbours.
Less than two minutes long, the video is a compilation of excerpts of some of his television appearances during the crisis. Its most striking feature is the focus on how Adraee was introduced by his Arab TV anchors as “the Israeli army spokesman”, instead of “the occupation army spokesman”—the disparaging term used by much of the Arab media to describe the Israeli army.
In the video, five Arab presenters are shown uttering Adraee’s official job title, almost eclipsing excerpts of his stern, menacing comments directed at Hezbollah.
Hearing those four words being said on Arab channels in such normalcy gave them an honorific tinge, indicating a change, as slight as it may be, in Arab media perception and narrative and the politics of naming and renaming in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“Zionist entity”—key term in politics of naming
‘Israel’, ‘Zionist’, ‘Palestine’, ‘occupation’ are all hotly contested words that reverberate with intense political, religious and ideological meanings. Repeating a name standardises it, and in this case changing a name reflects a normalization of the reality behind the names.
Naming is an assertion of power. Arabs might have lost wars against Israel, but with the politics of naming they try to superimpose their discourse, narration and interpretation of events on the conflict.
For many decades since its founding in 1948, Arab media referred to Israel as “occupied Palestine” or the “Zionist entity”—a pejorative term that echoed the official and popular Arab position of denying its legitimacy as a real country.
With the launch of the peace process, first with Egypt, then Jordan and the Palestinians, Israel saw its name acknowledged by sections of the Arab media—a reflection of a new “peace culture”, as advocates of normalising ties with Israel call it.
A major shift came with the establishment of pan-Arab satellite television networks, mostly owned by Gulf countries, and the expansion of their broadcast range beyond national borders in the 1990s.
Under its adage of presenting “the opinion and the opposite opinion”, Qatari-owned Al Jazeera set the trend of interviewing Israeli officials, and more Gulf-funded satellite channels, Al Arabiya, MBC, Abu Dhabi, followed suit.
Ostensibly independent, these television channels, all mouthpieces of the Gulf monarchies, led the way of “normalising” Israel, on Arab screens.
This trend reflects growing economic and diplomatic ties, mostly conducted out of the public gaze, between Gulf Arab states and Israel, which none of them is publicly willing to admit exist.
Echoing this development, Saudi commentator Abdulateef Al-Mulhim wrote on the Saudi website Arab News last February that news about Israel have almost disappeared from Arab media since the so-called Arab Spring uprisings and the ensuing civil strife and political turmoil that engulfed several Arab countries. He wrote:
“Zionist entity” in anti-Israel media
This view is a far cry from the staunchly anti-Israel line of many Arab mainstream and digital media outlets, which have kept the naming practice of referring to Israel as the “Zionist entity” along with other pejorative terms like the “Israeli enemy”.
This practice is upheld, not only by media outlets with leftist, Islamist and pan-Arab affiliations—all three political movements have been traditionally the bulwark of opposition against normalisation with Israel. But also by pro-regime and opposition media outlets in countries that either have ties with Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, and others that embarked on some form of normalisation of ties with it, like Tunisia.
It is not uncommon to see the term “Zionist entity” used in op-eds and commentaries in Egypt’s semi-official daily Al Ahram; its state-appointed chairman of the board Ahmed al-Naggar, also uses these terms.
The term “Zionist entity” is still in use in Tunisian media, not just the ones affiliated with the Islamic Ennahda party and pan-Arab groups, but also in liberal ones like the news websites of Tunisia’s satellite Nessma TV and Shems FM. They are both privately owned outlets affiliated with business interests in Tunisia.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, journalists and their professional associations have been traditional bulwarks against normalising ties with Israel, beyond official diplomatic and trade ties established at the state-level.
Hostile public, hostile narrative
This anti-normalisation sentiment is all pervasive in the Arab region. Public perception of Israel as a hostile state has not waned even in Egypt and Jordan, the only Arab countries that signed peace treaties with Israel many years ago.
Despite a period of peace lasting since 1978 and closer and warmer ties under the current regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egyptians still view Israel as the “most hostile state”, according to a report published by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research in 2015.
It is against this backdrop of hostility that Adraee and other Israeli officials have had to deliver their country’s view on Arab television channels. Further feeding this hostility, their perspective was not one that reached out to the viewers. On the contrary, their “Israel has the right to defend itself” narrative made their task a daunting one.
Israel’s PR tactics for Arab channels
In an essay published in 2015, Yonatan Gonen, a doctoral candidate in the Communications Department of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, explored the Israeli army’s PR narrative and “tactics” for Arab television channels. The essay examined the media appearances of two army spokespersons, the Arabic speaking Adraee and the English speaking Avital Leibowitz.
Between 2006 and 2013, Adraee gave nearly 2,000 interviews to Arab television networks, according to Gonen. Half of the interviews were conducted during the Lebanon war in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza (2008-2009). Each interview was an average of about three and a half minutes long, the essay said.
Adraee became a familiar face on Arab screens during escalations in the Arab-Israeli conflict—he had to defend Israel’s four military operations with devastating consequences on civilians between 2006 and 2014—one in Lebanon and three in Gaza. Naturally, the anti-Israeli sentiment peaked during these escalations.
On the day a ceasefire ended the Gaza war on 17 January 2009, Adraee acknowledged his daunting task but remained unruffled.
“It is hard, it’s hard,” he told AFP. “There are those who think my job is hopeless because it is a lost cause from the start.” “To me that is a mistaken view. My job is to deliver a message and there are lots of citizens in the Arab world who want to hear another point of view, the Israeli point of view,” he added.
However, despite a slight thawing in media presentation of Israel, this point of view has not helped it forge better relations with a hostile Arab public.