Chances are that Gideon Meir, a veteran Israeli diplomat who on Friday will mark the last day of a 45-year career in the Foreign Ministry, did not agree with much of Economy Minister Naftali Bennett's fiery and tough speech Tuesday night against a two-state solution and the idea of leaving settlements under Palestinian rule.
But there is one part of that speech that Meir, who for eight years stood atop the ministry’s public diplomacy pyramid, would endorse wholeheartedly. Speaking of the delegitimization campaign against Israel, Bennett declared, “We need to take the budget of a flight squadron or tank brigade and close the brigade, and look at the struggle against delegitimization of Israel as an Israeli national project. Today we are not even scratching the surface of what we need to do.”
To which Meir would only say amen.
In fact, two days before Bennett made his remarks, Meir said pretty much the same thing while sitting in his office as director-general for public diplomacy that he was to clear out of by the end of the week.
Israel's government, he bemoaned, does not see public diplomacy – hasbara – as a key component of national security, and as such, has not budgeted the funds needed for the purpose. Bennett talked about diverting money from a fighter squadron or a tank brigade, Meir just suggested diverting the money spent to buy one F16 fighter jet, at a cost of some $35 million.
Israel needs Congressional approval to buy the F16s, he pointed out, but is not investing now to ensure that in the future, Congress – a Congress representing a significantly changing US demographic landscape, which includes huge Hispanic and Asian communities not reflexively pro-Israel – will be as supportive as it is now.
Had he the funds available, Meir said, the first thing he would do would be bring in large numbers of influential opinion-makers and potential opinion-makers to Israel.
“There is nothing like seeing it with your own eyes,” he said.
Last year, he proposed a plan to bring some 3,000 North American non-Jewish campus influentials to the country, a type of “Birthright for non-Jews,” to let them see and feel the country. He needed $12m.
for the program, but the government could not find the funds, and the program never got off the ground.
But it is precisely these types of programs that Israel needs to advance in order to improve its image and enhance understanding of the country. Too many people both in and outside the government, Meir argued, equate good hasbara with a fluid and knock-out appearance by an Israeli spokesman on CNN. But that is not enough. Such an appearance provides Israeli supporters with a fleeting “feel good factor,” but that is only a minuscule part of public diplomacy. What is really needed, he argued, is millions and millions of shekels to engage, educate and provide people with an “Israel experience.”
Meir called that approach the "three Es," his answer to the Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s “three Ds” for judging what crosses the line from valid criticism of Israeli policy into anti-Semitism: demonization, delegitimization and double standard.
Meir served twice as head of public diplomacy in the ministry, once during the height of the intifada from 2000-2006, and a second time from 2012 after he returned from a stint as ambassador to Italy.
During the days of the second intifada, Meir said he waged three parallel, but not equal, battles. The first and most important was the campaign for Israel in the world, to demonstrate the justness of its cause during a period of mind-numbing terrorism and a campaign of lies that hit a peak in 2002 with the Palestinian claim of mass IDF slaughter in Jenin.
The second, he said, was a campaign in the government to get its various arms to see public diplomacy as vital, and to cooperate.
He singled out former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Avi Dichter, and then deputy chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon for praise, for recognizing the importance of public diplomacy in Israel’s overall national security envelope, and for cooperating. Dichter, he said, understood the importance immediately and began cooperating by providing the ministry with “raw material” that could be used for hasbara p u r p o s e s , something previous Shin Bet heads had been more reticent to do. And Ya’alon, too, provided access during Operation Defensive Shield to two PR experts from the US, who were hired to help Israeli hasbara during this period. “He understood the importance,” Meir said.
And the third campaign, he said, was paradoxically waged against various Jewish organizations, which were constantly saying that Israel was not getting its message across. Meir’s argument at the time was that hasbara should not be judged solely by whether an Israeli spokesman was winning a debate with a Palestinian spokesman on the nightly news, but rather whether Israel’s narrative was penetrating those who matter: the US president, his advisers, Congress. And in the days of president George W.
Bush, one could make a strong case that those messages did penetrate.
“I would say to the Jewish groups that we were not doing such a lousy job,” he recalled. “And they would say, ‘Why don't you close down Haaretz.’ My answer was, ‘I’ll do that the minute you can close down The New York Times.’ That is part of our democracy.”
“Everyone knows how to criticize,” Meir said of the hasbara critics, likening public diplomacy to the weather, something everyone likes to speak about and disparage.
What people overlook, he said, was that while Israel has one ambassador arguing its cause in dozens of nations around the world, in those same capitals are 23 ambassadors from the Arab world, often full of hatred of Israel and unlimited funds, promoting an anti-Israel agenda.
“We do a wonder with our limited means,” he said.
Asked why Israel does not utilize the services of various PR companies around the world, which during the height of the intifada volunteered their services, Meir said, “I am against getting something for free, and am in favor of paying. If you pay the client, you can say what you want.”
With that, however, he lauded the efforts of groups such as StandwithUs, The Israel Project and other grassroots groups that have sprouted up since the intifada and engaged in Israel advocacy.
“Israel is the joint venture of all the Jews in the world,” he said. “It is an insurance policy so that every Jew knows he will always have a place to go. Just as for an insurance policy you pay a premium, the same is true here.”
Israeli Jews, he said, “pay that premium” by serving in the army, sending children and grandchildren into the army, voting for the government, and carrying an enormous tax burden. .
The Diaspora premium, he said, is to engage in Israel advocacy.
And what of those who don’t agree with Israel’s policies, he is asked, why must they pay the premium? His reply: There is agreement on 85 percent to 90% of issues, and that is where they should focus.
Even those who disagree with the polices of one government or another do not want to see Israel's existence called into question, or see the country weakened.
Israel, he said, needs the Jewish people, just as it needs the world.
His 45 years in the Foreign Ministry has imbued him with the sense that Israel cannot dwell alone.
That does not mean, he quickly pointed out, that it must dance to the world’s tune, but that it must realize that it does not “exist on a different planet.”
Here, he said, he has differences with his brother, who lives in Beit El and has seven children, and where the guiding philosophy is to trust in God, not the nations of the world. Meir admits that his philosophy has been shaped by his years in the Foreign Ministry, where serving stints from Washington, London and Rome, shaped the way he looked and the world and Israel’s place in it.
Israel needs foreign support and arms and markets – “we live in the world,” he said. “When I talk to my brother’s family and say that we cannot dwell alone, they say we can rely on God. But I say that God has given us a strong army, support from America, and that is all part of it.”
Meir then goes on to tell the story of a religious man in a house during a great flood. As the waters rise, someone in a canoe paddled by and offered him a ride to safety.
The man said he had faith in God and would wait for Him to save him. The waters then rose, and he went to the upper floor, where a boat sailed by and offered rescue.
The man gave the same reply. As the waters rose further and he climbed on top of the roof, a helicopter flew past and dropped a ladder. The man refused to take it and save himself.
In the end the man drowned. At heaven's gate he complained that all his life he was a righteous man who performed all the mitzvot, and bewailed that God did not save him. To which came God’s reply, “I sent a canoe, a boat and a helicopter.
What were you waiting for?” So, too, he said, Israel lives in the world and must navigate pragmatically and realistically, not waiting for miracles.
One of the reasons he was able to last so long in the ministry, he said, was because he viewed the job of a diplomat as akin to that of a lawyer: his job was to represent a client, in this case the elected government of the State of Israel. And to his good fortune, he added, be believed in his client.
“My job is to package and represent the policies of the government,” he said, something that was not overly difficult because despite what appear to be huge differences, Meir said there is a wide consensus in the country on about 85% of the issues.
As to whether he ever felt that he could not neatly package and represent the government’s policies, he quoted that remark attributed to Harry Truman about getting out of the kitchen in you cannot take the heat. Throughout all the years in the ministry, he said, “I never felt the heat was too much to bear.”