Palestine 1945-48: the Information Campaign and the Limits of Influence


In the past information, influence or non-kinetic psychological aspects of conflict had a supporting function to the physical, kinetic aspects; today it is seen as central. Militaries have done ‘influence’ for years, but there is a dominant view that in the current information environment all actions, deeds and words are scrutinised in a way that was not the case in previous epochs. Tactical level incidents have the potential to create negative strategic effects, vulnerabilities which adversaries exploit. The information environment is a significant shaper of the conflict space, acting as a force enabler or multiplier. As contemporary adversaries seem to understand, information can be an effective tool in the hands of the weak, even acting as a force equaliser, as a principal means of affecting the strategic centre of gravity: the will to fight.

The inherent political and psychological nature of fighting and countering insurgency means that information and strategic communications aspects are critical. Bard O’Neill argues insurgency is a political legitimacy crisis, ‘a struggle between non-ruling group and ruling authorities in which the non-ruling group consciously uses political resources … and violence to destroy, reformulate or sustain the basis of legitimacy of one or more aspects of politics’. The identification and remedy of the sources of insurgent discontent and persuading the people that they would gain more by supporting the ruling authorities than they could obtain from the insurgents becomes pivotal to achieving success. The information campaign therefore becomes central to countering insurgency. None of this is new. My examination of how the British government used an information campaign to support its counter-insurgency efforts and to reach a solution to the problem of Palestine can offer insights that may be relevant today.

Palestine 1945-48

Historical examples and analogies should always be used with care, yet this case study offers insights into the challenges of conducting a strategic information campaign to support both a political process and counter-insurgency in the context of an international struggle for legitimacy that was on the front page of newspapers during this period.

Britain had been granted the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in 1922 which allowed Britain to fulfil her strategic aims of access to the Suez Canal, the creation of a land bridge from the Mediterranean to Iraqi oilfields and to prevent French ambitions drifting south from their position in Syria and Lebanon. Britain was responsible for creating ‘such political, administrative, and economic condition as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home … and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion’. As Mandatory power in inter-war Palestine, Britain strove to accomplish institution building and attempted to square the circle between two communities who each believed Palestine belonged to them. Britain was accused of being pro-Arab and pro-Jew simultaneously and faced growing inter-communal violence, which culminated in the Arab Revolt (1936-9) against Jewish immigration and land purchases. By the end of the Second World War the Palestine Mandate had become costly politically, militarily and economically. In the 1944 US election both Republican and Democratic candidates supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. The impact of the Holocaust and the refugee situation in Europe also gained the support of international opinion for a Jewish state. Within Palestine, British security forces had to deal with an increasingly perilous situation: a Jewish uprising against the British and widespread inter-communal violence.

In Palestine the competing strategic narratives pitted the victims of the Holocaust who had no alternative than to take up an insurgency against the country that stood in the path of saving the remnant of European Jewry, versus a Britain which was doing its best to achieve a political settlement in the interests of all the inhabitants of Palestine and in accordance with its international responsibilities.

Between 1945 and 1948 the British government tried to implement a long-term policy over Palestine which would preserve British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East, while influencing day-to-day decisions over the future of the Mandate. The government favoured an agreed solution to create an independent Palestine as a unitary state, which would guarantee British military facilities and maintain Arab goodwill, on which Britain’s general position in the Middle East was predicated. But there was no clear plan. Instead there were broad policy assumptions – that any settlement leading to independence had to be agreed, and agreed not just between Britain and the Arabs and Jews living in Palestine, but also a settlement that would be supported by the United States and states in the Middle East.

Domestic and International Opinion

Domestic opinion in Britain had to be convinced not to oppose the government’s efforts to reach a solution and that the sacrifices were worth it, but the main target audiences of British information efforts were abroad. British policy in Palestine had to reconcile the differing objectives and opinions of three constituencies: Arab, Jewish and American. Optimally, the information campaign sought to persuade each constituency to consider compromise rather than rigidly holding to its goals. Failing that, it tried to maintain Anglo-Arab and Anglo-American friendship by a damage limitation exercise. The prosecution of counter-insurgency on the ground therefore involved the security forces trying to hold the ring until a political settlement could be achieved.

The Political aim

Most counter-insurgency doctrine stresses the primacy of the political aim. In Palestine the British had a clear political aim: a settlement that was compatible with wider British strategic interests, the preservation of the Anglo-American relationship, and Britain’s position in the Middle East. This was not a clear political aim in narrative terms that could be articulated in a way that could have undermined the insurgency. Britain consistently presented herself as the ‘neutral’ arbiter and honest broker in dealing with this unwanted international responsibility. In reality Britain pursued its own national self-interest. It was not just having a clear political aim, but having one that was credible, that could be translated into a meaningful outcome and set of activities on the ground.

The government was conscious of the ingredients of a successful information campaign and attempted to conduct one, albeit with mixed results. Officials correctly understood both the insurgents’ aims and how they would exploit British vulnerabilities. British persuasion efforts urged the merits of compromise – that Palestine alone was not the answer to the problem of Jewish Displaced Persons, that Britain had responsibilities to two communities in Palestine, not just one, and that there should be a peaceful settlement of the issue rather than terrorist violence or criminal illegal immigration.

The problem was of the policy, not the information campaign. The tempo of the events on the ground was greater than the British ability to deal with them in a way that would ensure the British version of events dominated in the perceptions of what was occurring. Thus the British information effort was often on the defensive, reacting to events rather than proactively controlling how they would be received.

In terms of the battle for the dominant strategic narrative, Zionist ‘legitimacy’ beat the British honest broker. The insurgents made any British attempt to hold on to Palestine morally and economically unacceptable and it was impossible for the British to look good in the process.

Target audiences and agendas

Countering insurgency requires an end state that can be clearly articulated to all audiences and that can also be translated into a campaign on the ground. As Palestine shows us, this is made almost impossible if both or all the protagonists are of equal importance and have what are in effect zero-sum aims.

In Palestine the British identified key target audiences correctly. The regional audience was crucial. It was believed that British political, economic and strategic interests in the Middle East depended on the maintenance of Arab goodwill and the compatibility of British and Arab interests, particularly in the context of growing Arab nationalism across the region.

The Jewish audience in Palestine represented a population of nearly 600,000 and the active membership of insurgent underground organisations was approximately 45,000 in the Haganah, 1500 in the Irgun, and 300 in the Lehi. These numbers belie the real challenge that faced Britain. While the British information campaign sought to marginalise the insurgent extremists and build an alternative moderate majority, in practice for most of this period the distinction did not exist. This is not to say that all Jews supported the terror campaign, and indeed at times it was seen as counter-productive by the Jewish Agency. However, the British never really understood the nature of political Zionism and the general support for illegal immigration, the one thing that united the Jewish community. Again, the audience was correctly identified, but its agenda was misunderstood.

British public opinion was a less critical audience and no British election would ever be decided in the merits of the Government’s handling of Palestine. Where British press, public and parliamentary opinion did play an important role was as pressure on Britain to withdraw from Palestine because expectations raised by the information campaign were not met and the sacrifices made were questioned.

Again it was correctly identified that the US was the most important audience because it was the power broker with the power to either help or hinder Zionist aims. Britain tried to persuade the US to use its influence to get the Zionists to compromise. But Britain was vulnerable to American policy as she was dependent upon American economic aid.

Maintaining Legitimacy

If an insurgency is primarily a battle for legitimacy, an information campaign can only work if the legitimacy of the counter-insurgents can be successfully demonstrated and defended. This is why tactical mistakes such as acting outside the law or civilian casualties are own goals and a free gift to the insurgent’s information campaign, reinforcing perceptions of illegitimacy. Today it is recognised that a counter-terrorist strategy needs to be holistic, addressing both the causes and the symptoms of terrorism. But how do you address very real grievances without ‘delegitimising’ your own counter-insurgency strategy? In Palestine, denying Jews a state was not perceived to be internationally legitimate.


Information campaigns, influence and narratives are not new areas of activity. But they are difficult areas and even more challenging today because of the proliferation and immediacy of the media, sources of information and opinion. The limits of the information and strategic narratives need to be understood. A strategic narrative is not a substitute for policy. It will not succeed unless it is credible and supported by action and political will. While strong enough to withstand a temporary setback, it is not a panacea or an alternative to a strategy which is ill-conceived.

The target audiences for the counter-insurgent’s information efforts need to be thought through carefully, identifying whose perceptions count in the battle for legitimacy and who can materially affect the success or failure of the insurgency. An information campaign needs to be coherent, ideally a simple and credible ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ based on facts that can be transmitted and reinforced to all target audiences. It should support the wider political process, which in turn should reinforce the government’s credibility and reputation as the legal government, while the campaign should also undermine the insurgents by representing them as a criminal minority. Moreover, the campaign should persuade the wider international community that the state’s political aims are legitimate; its methods are both legal and moral; and that it is intent on promoting a political settlement that addresses the expectations of the moderate majority. This is the ideal, but information alone cannot deliver success. As the case study of Palestine shows, it is also easier said than done.

For more detail see the author’s, ‘Palestine 1945-48: Policy, Propaganda and the Limits of Influence’, in Greg Kennedy & Chris Tuck, British Propaganda and Wars of Empire: Influencing Friend and Foe 1900-2010 (Ashgate, 2014), pp.71-95

Image: British paratroopers enforce curfew in Tel Aviv following the King David Hotel bombing, July 1946 via wikimedia commons.

A serviceman accesses social media channels, using a desktop computer.

‘Lidl Heart II’: Thinking about the challenges of Influence

This is a response to a previous Defence-in-Depth post by Dr Chris Tuck entitled “Lidl Heart: Cut Price Strategy and the Perils of Influence”.


Aside from having the cleverest title of a Defence-in-Depth blog so far, Lidl Heart: Cut Price Strategy and the Perils of Influence says much about the challenge of being successful in achieving results through influence that it is difficult to disagree with. The article is particularly effective in highlighting how even a nation like Britain, with extensive engagement with the cultures of target audiences and a willingness to try new approaches, was not able to deliver consistently effective outcomes.

However, whilst it is useful to caution against the over-privileging of influence as a substitute for other sources of power, it is equally important to recognize the potential utility of influence as part of a full-spectrum approach and therefore what might contribute to a better effect. Ultimately, the outcome of all conflict is decided in the cognitive domain or as a British Army colleague put it, it is about breaking the enemy’s will to fight.

In thinking about influence primarily through the prism of Joseph Nye as being about the use of power for attraction however, it is possible to miss the opportunities that exist to employ non-military national power to achieve outcomes in the way that is at the heart of contemporary Russian and Chinese doctrine and practice. That is not to suggest that it is appropriate for the UK to adopt some of the specific practices employed by these states but rather to call for a better understanding of what is required to do influence successfully and what that might mean as the UK approaches an SDSR.

The article highlights five related and recurring difficulties in the use of influence activities but consideration and commitment in four areas these could at least begin to be addressed.

Firstly, there is a need to make much more effort in developing insight and understanding. Notwithstanding the British military’s historic links to many parts of the globe, in recent times there has been consistent under-investment in developing the assets required to understand what is increasingly labelled as the human terrain. Although there have been improvements through the period of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan the level of effort is marginal when compared with more technical approaches to surveillance and reconnaissance. Developing some expertise in likely conflict zones, and building on both language skills and the social sciences will allow for more effective understanding of target audiences and how they might be influenced in order to achieve effects critical to the campaign. A further benefit of improving understanding will be to build confidence in commanders in the ability of influence activities to deliver effects.

Secondly, there is a need to truly integrate influence into mainstream thinking. Yet again, whilst the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns saw some progress in this area, influence activities are still seen as a bit second tier and not the preserve of real warfighters in the UK military. This is reflected in the way that units with specialist skills in this area are often subordinated in ways that are not logically coherent. The UK’s psychological operations capability for example has been a part of a military intelligence brigade and the Security Assistance Group when it should actually be more closely linked to fires. This requirement for integration also extends to ensuring coherence across the levels of a campaign from tactical actions to the strategic narrative, as well as across all of the actors in campaign both cross-government and cross-coalition.

Thirdly and leading directly from the previous two, there is a need for continuing development of professionalization of the influence business. It needs to be a core discipline with those who have the skills and desire to specialize recognized appropriately including with a meaningful career structure. However, it is also important to ensure that this is reflected in wider training and education as it is equally important to develop planners and operators who are capable of employing influence activities and integrating them to deliver joint campaign effects. There is a temptation when that is not understood well for the focus to be on the minutiae such as the colour of a leaflet or the phraseology of a broadcast rather than the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome.

Lastly, mirroring one of the difficulties identified in the initial blog is the need to ensure that the level of investment is adequate for the task. If the UK is going to make a real commitment to deliver effects through influence then it is clear that people, training as well as technical capabilities to produce and deliver materials are required. However, the cost of doing this properly will be a fraction of that required for harder capabilities. Indeed, with some creative thought elements of the capability can be outsourced to businesses that already do the analysis and then design, produce and deliver the products successfully such as advertising agencies. The US military is already doing this in support of current operations.

Conflict is inherently about a cognitive battle and influence activities are a sensible part of any full spectrum military capability. However, it is a force multiplier and not a force replacement and there must not be a trade off with harder military capabilities. However, if the UK aspires to do influence in a meaningful way it needs to invest in people, training and capabilities, but equally importantly needs to move the business from a niche activity not considered a proper part of war fighting, to the core integrated military activity as British joint effects doctrine already suggest it should be.

About the author: Ewan Lawson is the Senior Research Fellow for Military Influence at the Royal United Services Institute and a former RAF officer. During his career, he worked closely with the Defence Studies Department on his research interests. He is now a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies where he is researching the development of international regimes to deal with sexual violence in conflict. (

Image available under Open Government License.


Lidl Heart: Cut-Price Strategy and the Perils of Influence


Influence has become a fashionable concept in British defence circles, and it is easy to see why. Influence fits with a powerful globalist zeitgeist focused on the power of networks and ideas. Moreover, with its focus on the logic of persuasion rather than physical force, influence seems an intelligent way of getting what Britain wants in the world: it represents the smart exercise of power. In fact, influence seems an especially relevant concept for Britain, giving it the ability to leverage the benefits of British cultural attraction, and historical connections with other parts of the globe. In straitened times, influence promises to be an important force multiplier, sustaining the British military’s ability to ‘punch above its weight’ in the world.

But the importance attached in Britain’s defence policy to influence carries with it an important risk: that, seduced by the apparent advantages of the influence tool, we fail to understand just how difficult it can be to wield influence effectively. Influence is fundamentally about power: it is about achieving desired outcomes. In consequence, British culture, history, and global connections are not influence: they only become influence if those things can be translated into instruments that allow Britain to get more of what it wants. But creating these instruments isn’t easy.

Indeed, far from constituting the foundations of success upon which the British military can build, Britain’s colonial past has been littered with influence failures. Britain often failed in its past influence campaigns despite what would be considered today some compelling advantages: for example, a long history of engagement in regions around the world; and a cadre of officials with detailed local knowledge, including language skills. Nor did British influence campaigns fail because they were always badly handled, because they often weren’t – they regularly displayed an understanding of how to harness local actors to the British effort; embraced new media; and demonstrated a grasp of the local difficulties in influencing populations that were often disparate and illiterate.

Instead, what past British failures suggest is that there are five related recurring difficulties with attempts to use influence as a central tool of policy:

First, influence requires investment. Presence in a region, and a history of engagement, does not translate necessarily into a deep understanding of how propaganda, information operations, and political warfare should be conducted. During the Confrontation with Indonesia (1963-66), for example, British efforts for much of the conflict lacked any decisive effect because those efforts were underfunded, understaffed, and wracked by the perennial problems of inter-agency conflicts. Influence does not derive simply from being British.

Second, reading other cultures is crucial if one is to construct, direct, target and transmit influence effectively. But it is difficult genuinely to understand other cultures. This has been the case even where Britain has had a long history of presence and engagement, and so is likely to be even less easy to do now. Cultures are complex, disparate, contested, and often imagined. Attempts to understand the ‘other’ often simply become an exercise in cultural stereotyping. In the ‘battle of the narratives’ in India, in the lead up to independence in 1947, British influence efforts were hamstrung amongst other things by romantic sentimentality and a failure to understand just how much had changed since the heydays of the Raj.

Third, the influence audience is complex. Actually, there are usually multiple audiences, and often these have opposed view points making it difficult to target messages effectively. These audiences may include multiple conflicting local groups, allies, the international community. In Palestine (1945-48), Britain had Jewish, Arab, American, domestic British, and international audiences to consider, and the messages suitable for one audience often had an entirely undesirable effect on another.

Fourth, influence targets are not infinitely malleable: they are not blank sheets of paper waiting to be written on. Targets have predispositions, views and beliefs all of which influence the credibility of an influencer’s message and the receptiveness of the audience to it. In Egypt (1945-55), Britain was trying spin messages that couldn’t be made popular to ordinary Egyptians because of the British ‘image problem’ that was a legacy from the colonial period. Aldous Huxley wrote of the importance in influencing others of the ability to ‘canalize an existing stream’, noting that ‘in a land where there is no water, he digs in vain.’

Fifth, in general, there is likely to be a competition for influence, with adversaries attempting to delegitimize our messages and legitimise theirs. In such places as South Arabia in the first half of the 1960s, the problem often for Britain was that it was struggling with anti-colonial groups whose message had an intrinsic power because it spoke to the indigenous population’s perceptions of material reality and their experience on the ground and who, because they came from the indigenous population, often understood local society better.

Last, and crucially, influence is not an independent variable: influence is an adjunct to material strength and not a replacement for it. In 1954, an inquiry into the British Overseas Information Service concluded that ‘propaganda is no substitute for policy; nor should it be regarded as a substitute for military strength, economic efficiency or financial stability. Propaganda may disguise weakness, but the assertion of strength will deceive nobody unless the strength is there.’ For example, British influence in colonial Africa was built on a background of actual or threatened violence expressed through a conservative and authoritarian colonial political structure.

The risk in privileging influence too much as a concept is that we may come to believe that it can substitute reliably for other forms of power. In doing so, the danger is that the target most influenced by influence is actually Britain itself, and that we are contributing to the delusion that we can continue to pursue ambitious foreign policy goals without the material strength to meet them.

Image: “Unity of Strength Together (British Empire servicemen)” by William Little – This file is from the collections of The National Archives (United Kingdom), catalogued under document record INF3/318. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.