Israel ‘s ongoing public diplomacy fiasco
On Feb. 28, at a meeting of something called the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations, Turkey ‘s Prime Minister Tacip Erdogan called Zionism “a crime against humanity.” Another day, another vicious slur on Israel , in this case from the leader of a country that only yesterday had been its strategic ally in the region. All that was unusual was that this one actually drew a comment from Secretary of State John Kerry — “objectionable” — after it was exposed by the private monitoring group U.N. Watch, awkwardly for Kerry at the very time he was visiting Turkey . The episode underscores the worldwide no-holds-barred attack on Israel ‘s legitimacy and how little push-back this meets from Israel herself.
A number of articles have appeared recently lamenting Israel ‘s public relations failures. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes in The Jerusalem Post on Jan. 7, “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?” On Jan. 11, in the same paper, Barry Shaw, author of “Israel — Reclaiming the Narrative,” says, “government-wise, we are barely on the battlefield for hearts and minds, while the Palestinians and their supporters seem to have endless resources and are succeeding to win the world away from us.”
Martin Sherman, executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, also writes in The Jerusalem Post on Feb. 14: “Israel’s greatest strategic challenge, its gravest strategic failure, its grimmest strategic danger is the (mis)conduct of its public diplomacy.”
Such complaints are nothing new. Decades ago, Shmuel Katz, who thought of himself primarily as an “information man,” returned repeatedly to this subject, as readers of this blog well know. He called for a response against the assault on Israel ‘s legitimacy, what Shmuel described as the “many-faceted campaign of denigration throughout the world, openly aiming at the demonization of Israel as a state and of the Jews as a nation.”
In “A Crying Need” (The Jerusalem Post, August 6, 1982) Shmuel wrote:
How long must the battle for a sane and rational policy on information go on? … [F]or years Jews and other friends throughout the world, specifically in the U.S. and Europe, have been complaining bitterly that attacks on Israel go unanswered. There simply is no permanent, established machinery adequate for the task and ready to handle the very special problems faced by Israel.
Nothing has changed except the extent to which the campaign of demonization has succeeded. Sherman, in his op-ed, says the criticisms of Israel ‘s public diplomacy are found only in the English press, “revealing what appears to be an alarming lack of awareness of, and/or interest in, the topic among the Hebrew-reading public.”
There have been valiant civilian efforts made outside of Israel . The media watchdog group CAMERA is a striking example. It was founded in 1982 and under the tireless leadership of its chairman Andrea Levin, has exposed media bias around the world. “Stand with Us” focuses its energies on educating about Israel on college campuses, which have become a frontline in the propaganda war against Israel . Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI offer a window into what Arab media and governments say in their own language.
The Internet has opened up the field to the efforts of individuals. Marcella Rosen, a former ad agency executive, has created the site “Untold News,” which creates short videos on Israel ‘s positive contributions to science. This writer has made his own efforts at Zionist education with the website Zionism101.org, created at the behest of Herbert Zweibon, the late chairman of Americans for A Safe Israel. The very number of groups and websites advocating for Israel indirectly points an accusatory finger at Israeli governments for failing to do the job themselves.
In Sherman ‘s view, the job may not be up to the government, but civil society elites. He writes that battling Israel ‘s delegitimization “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.”
While Shmuel would have applauded Sherman ‘s attention to the issue, he would have felt the government could and should do much more. One reason was that representatives speaking for the Israeli government have more authority than the collection (no matter how admirable) of self-appointed representatives who do battle now.
Shmuel had argued for an entire ministry dedicated to Israel ‘s public diplomacy fight. He referred to the case of Great Britain in World War II, which created a Ministry of Information, second in size only to the Ministry of War.
Shmuel felt that Israel was at war no less than England in World War II. As he wrote in “Countering Propaganda” (The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 26, 1984):
Israeli governments have evidently not come to grips also with the nature of the war. It is not designed to achieve a change in this or the other policy of the Israeli government. Its aim is to put an end to the Zionist entity, to delegitimize Israel — by the assertion, endlessly repeated, that the Jewish people has no right to Palestine, and the Jewish State has no right to exist at all, that the land is Arab territory usurped by the Zionists with the aid of the imperialists.
And Shmuel felt that to properly counter the Arab propaganda juggernaut, Israel must have a juggernaut of its own, that its public relations efforts must have a focus. Shmuel described how he stopped the outburst of propaganda against Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the U.S. in the immediate aftermath of his election. Begin first asked Shmuel to go, but then Begin was advised to send a whole team. Shmuel said the team could go, but without him. There needed to be a focus. Begin acceded and Shmuel stopped the onslaught within 10 days of his arrival in the U.S.
The need for focus brings up another problem — that leadership of the effort be in the right hands, lest it prove counter-productive. For example, a focus on Israel’s desire for peace and willingness to do just about anything to obtain it — a focus that no doubt some elements in Israel would find appealing — could only lead to even greater denigration of Israel for failing to achieve it.
Nor can an information campaign be conducted divorced from public policy. For example, in his effort to cobble together a governing coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu has offered to put Tzipi Livni, head of the Hatnua party, who made “peace” the focus of her platform, in charge of negotiations with the Palestinian Arabs. Aaron Lerner of IMRA (Independent Media Review and Analysis) points out some of the pitfalls. From day one, Livni will be making every effort to lay the failure of the talks on Netanyahu. One possibility is that Livni makes backdoor, unauthorized concessions to the Palestinian Arabs, putting overwhelming international pressure on Netanyahu to accept them. Or negotiations fail and Livni could have her staff prepare reams of working papers supporting concessions Netanyahu refused to approve that she would leak to the international press. Finally, Netanyahu might fire Livni leading her to launch a dangerous campaign along these lines against him.
No information campaign can counter the enormous damage stemming from the policy decision to put Livni in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians. But this also underscores how consideration of the strategic importance of public diplomacy could protect Israeli leaders from making policy decisions convenient in the short term but harmful both to themselves and Israel in the long-run.
Decades have passed, and despite the continuing outcry to do something, Israel has ignored the public relations front in the Arabs’ war against her. If Israel took seriously her public relations — including the impact of her policy decisions on them — it could have a transformative effect, empowering her existing friends as well as gaining her new allies.