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A State Department official warns Israel of 'major' reputational damage in Gaza war

This picture taken from Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip shows an Israeli army tank moving along the border with the Palestinian territory on March 20.
Jack Guez
AFP via Getty Images
This picture taken from Israel's southern border with the Gaza Strip shows an Israeli army tank moving along the border with the Palestinian territory on March 20.

TEL AVIV, Israel — The Biden administration is concerned Israel is making a "major strategic error" by denying "major, possibly generational damage" to Israel's reputation worldwide over its war in Gaza, according to a State Department memo obtained by NPR.

Assistant Secretary of State Bill Russo, overseeing global public affairs in the State Department, told Israeli foreign ministry officials in a call on March 13 that both the U.S. and Israel face a "major credibility problem" as a result of the "unpopular" Israeli military offensive in Gaza, according to a U.S. readout of the conversation.

"The Israelis seemed oblivious to the fact that they are facing major, possibly generational damage to their reputation not just in the region but elsewhere in the world," the memo says. "We are concerned that the Israelis are missing the forest for the trees and are making a major strategic error in writing off their reputation damage."

The State Department memo recommended pressing Israeli officials on the matter "at the highest levels."

The stark differences between the countries' views reflect a widening rift between Israel and its biggest ally over Israel's conduct in the war, as Palestinian civilians face continuous bombing, mass displacement and extreme hunger.

The discord deepened Friday as Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. Blinken urged Netanyahu not to launch an Israeli operation in the city of Rafah.

"It risks killing more civilians, it risks wreaking greater havoc with the provision of humanitarian assistance, it risks further isolating Israel around the world and jeopardizing its long-term security and standing," Blinken said.

Netanyahu said Israel would carry out the Rafah operation — without U.S. support, if necessary.

According to last week's memo obtained by NPR, Israeli foreign ministry Deputy Director General Emmanuel Nahshon disagreed with the U.S. assessment that Israel's global reputation was damaged. He said public opinion polls found a "silent majority" of people in the U.S. and Europe continue to support Israel, and blamed TikTok's algorithm, which he claimed favors pro-Palestinian content, for turning young people against Israel.

The Israeli government has solicited influencers to help target social media users in the U.S. and Europe to counter denial about atrocities committed in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Israel plans a similar social media campaign soon in Egypt, Jordan and Gulf Arab countries, the memo said.

Israeli foreign ministry officials said the "silver lining" of the Oct. 7 attack is that it "now allows Israel to see who its real friends are," according to the summary of the conversation in the State Department memo.

In response to an NPR request, the Israeli foreign ministry said it had no comment on the U.S. memo. The State Department also declined to comment.

The Israel-Hamas war is in its sixth month. It was sparked by the Hamas-led ambush on southern Israel — the deadliest day in Israeli history — when thousands of attackers from Gaza took nearly 250 hostages and killed more than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to Israel.

But it is Israel's continuing military response in Gaza — the deadliest war in Gaza's history — that has sparked large protests against the war in Gaza in U.S. cities and Arab and European capitals.

Israel's air and ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza has killed more than 32,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health officials, who do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Three-quarters of Gaza's population has been displaced, according to the U.N, and the world's top experts in global hunger warn that Gaza faces imminent famine.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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