Into the Fray: Intellectual warriors, not slicker diplomats
Israel’s greatest strategic challenge, its gravest strategic failure, its grimmest strategic danger is the (mis)conduct of its public diplomacy.
Soldiers [illustrative] Photo: Ben HartmanWar is a continuation of politics by other means. – Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 1832
Politics is war conducted by other means. – David J. Horowitz, The Art of Political War, 2000
Frederick the Great, who reigned as king of Prussia (1740-1786), famously remarked that “Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.” Today, over two centuries later, it would appear this relationship has been entirely reversed, and that “Arms without diplomacy is like music without instruments.”
Arms without diplomacy
In a recent opinion piece (Jerusalem Post, January 7) titled “Why Jews are so bad at PR,” Shmuley Boteach asks, with evident exasperation, “What good is having Apache helicopter gunships, or Merkava tanks, to defend your citizens against attack if you can’t even use them because the world thinks you’re always the aggressor?”
The last several weeks have seen a spate of similar articles, berating the dismal and dysfunctional performance of Israel’s public diplomacy – reflecting, one hopes, growing public discontent at the deplorable state of affairs that has prevailed in this sphere for decades.
Regrettably, it appears that these – richly deserved – rebukes have been largely limited to the nation’s English-language press. A Google search I conducted on major Hebrew media outlets showed that far less attention seems to be allotted to discussion and analysis of this critically important component of Israel’s strategic capabilities – revealing what appears to be an alarming lack of awareness of, and/or interest in, the topic among the Hebrew-reading public.
Difficult to overstate the gravity
It is difficult to overstate the gravity of Israel’s public diplomacy debacle, and to grasp the ongoing official disregard of the strategic dangers that its continued neglect is creating.
Indeed, well over half a decade ago, in an article called “Public diplomacy: the missing component in Israel’s foreign policy,” published in a well-known scholarly journal, Prof. Eytan Gilboa issued the following ominous warning: “The lack of an adequate PD [public diplomacy] program has significantly affected Israel’s strategic outlook and freedom of action…. Any further neglect of PD would not only restrict Israel’s strategic options, it would be detrimental to its ability to survive in an increasingly intolerant and hostile world.”
While nearly all the recently published critiques did a good job in their diagnosis of the malaise, I fear the prescriptions many of them suggested for its remedy are hopelessly inadequate, and reflect a serious underestimation of the depth and the scale of the problem.
Right diagnosis, wrong prescription
For example, one ardent and articulate advocate for Israel, who for many years has been a sterling stalwart in defending the country against unfounded defamatory attacks at home and abroad, suggested measures with which many might concur. He prescribes that “Israel must appoint a DIPLOMAT, rather than a politician as our next foreign minister,” and that “Israel needs a friendly, cooperative, rapid response PR team that will PROMPTLY supply helpful CREDIBLE information whenever needed about government, IDF or police actions that are liable to be criticized in the international media.”
I would prefer not to get ensnared in a discussion as to whether it is practicable in the current or foreseeable future political realities to expect that a plum political position such as foreign minister could be conferred on a non-political figure; or whether the problem with information provided by Israel is its promptness and credibility rather than the editorial prejudices of the major media channels, both domestic and foreign.
So while I might concede that such suggestions should not be dismissed out of hand as unfeasible or irrelevant, I have no doubt that even if implemented, they would have little more than marginal impact.
There is no quick fix for this prickly predicament. The abysmal situation we find ourselves in took years to develop.
It is the result of decades of gross negligence by both the political and the professional echelons responsible for the formulation and execution of the nation’s diplomatic strategy. It will take years to redress, and is far more a problem of overall structure, than of specific personalities.
As such, it cannot be rectified by the appointment of this or that individual to the post of foreign minister and/or information minister – to be replaced after a maximum of a four-year tenure. It cannot be resolved merely by putting a more polished ex-post spin on events, or a more articulate after-the-fact presentation of recent incidents.
For what we are facing is nothing less than a deeply troubling system-wide failure of the entire complex of diplomatic “machinery,” allegedly designated to advance Israel’s cause abroad.
In his “How not to win friends and influence people” (Jerusalem Post, January 11), Barry Shaw fires off this caustic – but largely justified – condemnation of Israeli officialdom: “It is the total dereliction of duty, public diplomacy duty, at the heart of the decision-making process. The foreign office, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Government Spokesman’s Office, or the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs – all have proven themselves to be incapable of addressing the urgent need to present Israel’s position on leading issues, particularly the Palestinian issue.”
Regrettably, I find it difficult to dispute this withering accusation.
Comprehensive intellectual effort required
Indeed, combating the growing delegitimization of Israel requires a far greater, wide-ranging and concerted intellectual effort – much of which the government can only help facilitate but not execute, certainly not on its own.
A radical restructuring and revamping of Israeli diplomatic strategy, infrastructure and doctrine is called for. The requirements for such a metamorphosis go well beyond the individual appointment of personnel, or the efficiency of transmission of information to an innately antipathetic press.
The full elaboration of what is required – and the rationale as to why it is required – extend beyond the limits of a single opinion column. Accordingly, I will confine myself to a skeletal tour d’horizon of the principle parameters that such an enterprise must comprise.
Its underlying foundation must be a fundamental change in the perception of the role of public diplomacy in the strategic arsenal of the nation. As I have written in several columns, the function of diplomacy – particularly public diplomacy – is akin to the traditional function of the air force. For just as the classic role of the air force is to provide ground forces the necessary freedom of action to attain their objectives, so the classic role of diplomacy is to provide national policy- makers the freedom of action they require to attain the objectives of that policy.
Intellectual warriors, not slicker diplomats
Adoption of this perception of diplomacy as an operational arm of national strategy has inevitable operational consequences.
The first of these involves the realization that the effective conduct of strategic diplomacy cannot be left to official diplomats, for as soon will become clear, it requires activities which state representatives, bound by the formalities of protocol and the niceties of diplomatic etiquette, are unlikely to be able to undertake.
These are tasks that must be assumed by nongovernmental organizations, comprised of resolute and focused civil society elites, dedicated to the defense of their country and with the appropriate attributes and resources to engage its adversaries in intellectual combat, unfettered by the constraints that limit the freedom of response (and initiative) of the official organs of state.
It is these “intellectual warriors” who must comprise the front-line shock troops in the ongoing battle against Israel’s international delegitimization.
Intellectual warriors (cont.)
The second consequence relates to resources.
Winning a war requires a war chest. No matter how well formulated the message, and how intense the motivation of its conveyors, the impact will be limited to the size and range of the “megaphone” that civil society intellectual warriors have at their disposal. This clearly requires funding. Israel has been incredibly miserly in allotting resources for its public diplomacy efforts and for the fight against its delegitimization.
As I have pointed out in previous columns, this frugality is not due to a lack of resources. Were Israel to apportion a fraction of 1 percent of its GDP (around a quarter of a trillion dollars), for this purpose, this would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars that could be channeled to engage, inform and educate large swathes of the public who have fallen prey to its detractors’ defamatory deception. They could be channeled to help confront, curtail and counteract the unwarranted delegitimization of the Jewish state and the Zionist ideal.
Inexplicably, while foreign governments finance a myriad of NGOs dedicated to besmirching Israel’s reputation, the government of Israel extends virtually no support to NGOs seeking to defend it.
As this parsimony is unlikely to disappear in the near future, and until the government bureaucracy can be coaxed/convinced into amending its current self-obstructive budgetary priorities, Israel’s intellectual warriors will have to seek funding from like-minded private benefactors, who have the necessary insight – and foresight – to grasp the urgent imperatives of the hour.
Question of context
For the intellectual warrior, the primary challenge is not to change the way in which current events are reported but rather to change the context in which that reportage is conducted.
For a given incident will be interpreted entirely differently, depending on the context in which it is perceived. Thus, no matter what events are to be reported, it matters greatly whether Israel is portrayed as a beleaguered democracy, a bastion of civil liberties and democratic governance, valiantly defending itself against a sea of tyranny and theocracy, or as an avaricious expansionist rogue state, coveting the lands of others and trampling the rights of the defenseless.
Clearly, any civilian casualties resulting from IDF operations would be judged very differently, depending on which of these contexts apply: Regrettable but understandable “collateral damage,” in the former; unacceptable victims of colonial aggression, in the latter.
Changing the context in which Israel is perceived is a task of mammoth proportions – particularly in light of the decades of neglect that have passed since the dramatic transformation from its pre- 1967 status of a David-like underdog to its post-1967 status of a Goliath-like oppressor. It is a task that cannot be left to the country’s official diplomatic corps.
The ‘poodle-rottweiler’ syndrome
For international understanding of Israeli policy and IDF actions, Israel must portray its adversaries – particularly the Palestinians – as they really are.
Unless this is done, such policy and action may well appear excessive.
To employ a rather stark metaphor – and without wishing to impute canine qualities to humans of any kind, if one insists that one’s antagonists are “cuddly poodles” rather than “vicious rottweilers,” one cannot expect others to understand why “rottweiler” action is appropriate.
Clearly, however, Israeli diplomats cannot portray Palestinian society in its true light: as a cruel, brutal society where women are suppressed, gays are oppressed and political dissidents are repressed; a society where journalists are harassed, press freedom is trampled, political opponents are lynched, honor killings of women by their male relatives are endorsed or at least condoned, and homosexuals are hounded.
That must be left to civil society intellectual warriors.
Going for the jugular
Only civil society intellectual warriors can identify and articulate the raw truth as to the true origins of the delegitimization of Israel. Only they can “go for the jugular” and underscore the inconvenient fact that if the Palestinian narrative which portrays the Palestinians as an authentic national entity is acknowledged as legitimate, then all the aspirations, such as achieving Palestinians statehood, that arise from that narrative are legitimate. Accordingly, any policy that precludes the achievement of those aspirations will be perceived as illegitimate.
But – in the absence of wildly optimistic, and hence irresponsibly unrealistic, “best-case” assumptions – any policy that is designed to secure Israel’s minimal security requirements, will preclude the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Consequently, any endeavor to realistically provide Israel with minimal security will be perceived as illegitimate.
The inevitable conclusion must therefore be that for Israel to secure conditions that adequately address its minimal security requirements, the Palestinian narrative, and the aspirations that flow from it, must be delegitimized.
This is something that only civil society elites can express and convey.
Israel’s greatest strategic challenge
Israel’s greatest strategic challenge, its gravest strategic failure and its grimmest strategic danger is the conduct – or rather misconduct – of its public diplomacy.
Unless new battalions of intellectual warriors are formed and mobilized, the challenge will go unanswered, the failure will remain unaddressed, and the danger will continue to intensify.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.