As the country gears up for the latest round of the PR disaster surrounding the debate over the Goldstone report, one MK has put some serious thought into its first – and second and third – line of defense against similar incidents. So serious, in fact, that MK Nachman Shai (Kadima) recently earned a PhD on the subject, writing a dissertation under Bar-Ilan University’s Prof. Eitan Gilboa on Israel’s public diplomacy in low-intensity conflict.
Shai is one of the most easily recognized of all MKs, let alone of the freshman class that will soon be completing its first full year of Knesset service. Almost anyone on the street recognizes him, not due to his nascent political career but to his near-legendary status as the voice of calm while serving as the IDF Spokesman during the Gulf War. That status made it even more surprising that he felt that he could not rest on his laurels, but instead decided to research the very system in which he had participated.
“I finished my MA 34 years ago, and I thought then that I didn’t complete the process and I wanted to continue, but over the years I didn’t find the time,” said Shai, who in the interim managed to serve as the communications adviser to the embassy in Washington and to the defense minister, command Army Radio, lead the IDF Spokesman’s Office, serve as director-general of the Second Television and Radio Authority and head the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the United Jewish Communities office here.
“After the Gulf War, I knew that I had something to say, but I immediately began more activities until six years ago, I said to myself that if I don’t do it now, I never will.”
Shai began to explore the possibility of resuming his studies where he left off more than three decades earlier, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But he found that the study plan there was too slow for his liking, and began to examine other options. “I met a professor at Bar-Ilan whom I already knew, named Shmuel Sandler, and he said, ‘Listen, Mr. Shai – today is Thursday, on Sunday you are at the university.’ And I said, ‘Why, what’s Sunday?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s the beginning of the academic year.’ So I showed up the next week, and we began to prepare a plan of studies.”
Shai ultimately had to make up for lost ground, taking a year to write an MA thesis and another year to complete course work before spending the next four years concentrating on his thesis. Classmates may have been at first taken aback to find Shai sitting with them, but the veteran media specialist said that he faced some of the same challenges as other PhD students.
“I considered a number of topics – it’s not so simple to come up with your dissertation subject,” he explained. “I initially wanted to write about the status of media, which is nominally privatized. I feel I have a basis to know what I’m talking about on that too. There’s no privatization in many aspects. You see it very strikingly here, the fact that they [media moguls] are coming every single day to the Knesset. They’re fully dependent on the government even though they’re supposed to be independent. And the government will never let them be fully independent.
“But then my advisers warned me that it is a very legalistic subject, and that I would have to read and understand lots of laws. So then, I went to a field that I know and love and worked in, which is public diplomacy. First I picked a topic, and then I had to pick a period, because in a PhD you must go as deep as possible, sometimes to the smallest point at the end of the process. I ultimately framed the period of the second intifada, or what I called the terror attacks of 2000-2005.”
IN THE modern world, Shai argued, wars are not simply won – or lost – by traditional “hard” force, including military victories and economic sanctions, but further complicated by the concept of “soft” force – myriad forms of pressure including the media.
“This is a war without limits, without borders, without time frame. The enemy is not only who fights you in the streets of Gaza. The enemy may be a British trade union who boycotts Israel or an Israeli professor at a certain university,” he explained.
Public diplomacy, he said, has further become complicated by the rise of non-state actors. “Hamas, for example, is a new player, relatively, that became much more relevant when it took over Gaza. It slowly but steadily acquired international support because states look at it and say, ‘It is in charge, it controls a small area with 1.5 million Palestinians, let’s talk to it. If there are hunger, problems, issues with transportation and mobility, both from inside and outside,’ they say, ‘Let’s treat them. Even if it comes at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, it’s still reality now.’ They say, ‘We have to face the new reality.’ And that’s how terror organizations get legitimacy.”
Hamas is not the only such threat to Israel, he said. “Hizbullah in Lebanon is no different. The political, not the military, branch is in government. What could have more legitimacy than that? Now it is a democratically elected part of government. And everybody knows that it is a terror organization, but it is coupled with political power. So how do you delete it from the political arena?”
Part of Shai’s proposed solution, a catchall that could confront everything from Goldstone to the alleged assassination of a key Hamas figure in Dubai, is what he calls “Nachman Shai’s trademark” – MPD (molecular public diplomacy).
“We need to form a world network of molecules and atoms that are spread all over, made up of individuals, organizations, Jews, Israelis and Israel supporters committed to speak on behalf of Israel,” explained Shai. “Why do I need a network? Because on the other side there is a network. Because the world is flat. And there are so many sources and outlets of information that I have to address. Who is talking to a blogger in Oklahoma or in Liverpool? How is this blogger informed?”
Shai’s concept reflects a conceptual hierarchy, possibly based deep in his years of executive experience in the IDF. It would start on a regional level, and then grow, ultimately on a continent-wide scale, and all headquartered in Israel. The lifeblood of his MPD is twofold. On one hand, volunteers, and on the other, communication at the speed of light.
“An Israeli businessman, sitting down to a lunch meeting in Silicon Valley today, will get a certain daily message on his BlackBerry. A ship carrying weapons was intercepted in the Mediterranean. Three, four lines, that’s it. And this will be a topic to discuss during the small talk before they get down to business. And say, ‘What do you want from us? If they are taking hundreds tons of weapons from Iran to Hizbullah to use against us, they don’t mean peace.’”
Shai acknowledged that his plan seems to reflect already existing conspiracy theories, that pro-Israel activity is all masterminded by the Mossad or a similar body. But the Kadima MK pooh-poohs the danger of feeding the concept, arguing that “if anti-Semites already think that this is the way it is, then let’s do it.”
“It’s not enough to put out a certain press release in Jerusalem,” he explained. “There are Web sites, other sources that won’t get the press release. That’s why you have to literally cover the world to get every drop of support. Every molecule will deal with the local NGO, city council, media, both traditional and new media, and every person in this locality that has a certain weight in terms of public opinion.”
SHAI SAID that his vision involves a certain amount of privatization of Israel advocacy, a trend that he sees already under way.
“Take the Israel Project and Stand With Us, HonestReporting, part of a long line of Jewish and in some case non-Jewish organizations as well that are replacing the government and serving the media, representing Israel. There are at least four local nongovernmental organizations working with the foreign media in Jerusalem alone. And they do what the Government Press Office used to do. First because, as usual, the GPO has no money to do it. And secondly, it doesn’t have the liberty and freedom to do it. And third, media may be more receptive.
“One should see it on the background of the third sector taking some of the traditional duties of the government. It’s all surrounding these nongovernmental organizations. This new trend really started in 2002. There were many pro-Israel organizations before, but the new wave came after the Park Hotel bombing in Netanya, which was a big shock to the Jewish world and gave rise to a number of organizations in American media, in Europe, and elsewhere.”
Another problem, said Shai, is that Israel is at least a decade behind the times in getting out its message on one of the Middle East’s most popular modes of communication, satellite television. “We don’t speak to Arabs in the Middle East, either in Arabic or English,” he complained. “Either they have to watch Channel 33 and thus need to learn Hebrew, or we don’t talk to them at all. On the other hand, we are exposed to literally hundreds of Arab channels.”
Not surprisingly, Shai is unhappy with the current state of the public diplomacy apparatus, which he termed a “mess.” The current system – or lack thereof – he said, undermines the recommendations issued in a state comptroller’s report as well as the efforts of the Olmert administration to establish a national public diplomacy headquarters.
“It was clear from day one – read the comptroller’s report – that we need one single body that will contain both government and nongovernment activities, that will have direct access to the decision makers, preferably the prime minister himself, and create a certain mechanism both in and out of Israel to disseminate and collect information, to analyze the media, the foreign news.”
The current attempt to establish a ministry of hasbara, he said, falls short, both in terms of budget and in terms of authority.
While emphasizing that his work was not political, Shai said without almost any pause that “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, without a doubt” was Israel’s best current public diplomat. “It is Bibi’s great ability. He is a mastermind on that, and you can’t take that away from him. If only he was that good in other fields.”
Netanyahu, together with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was one of the 250 people Shai interviewed for his dissertation, but he said that he has not received any response regarding his paper’s recommendations – yet.
But Shai said that he is not quite done pushing the subject, although the words “post-doc” did not cross his lips.
“I hope to publish a book on this – maybe that will be my next career after 75. I want to serve three times in the Knesset. That’s enough. I will retire at 75, and then I can start my really last career.”
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