The public diplomacy era – or the big chance

On Shabbat of Passover 5773, Israel made a great stride forward in energy independence.

April 4, 2013 15:31
Netanyahu and Obama at Ben Gurion airport, March 20, 2013.

Netanyahu and Obama embrace 370. (photo credit: Jason Reeed/Reuters)

Question: What do the natural gas that began to flow to our homes from the Tamar reservoir, US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel, and the expected rapprochement between Israel and Turkey have in common? Answer: The new public diplomacy.

And now for a more detailed answer. On Shabbat of Passover 5773, Israel made a great stride forward in energy independence. The Tamar gas reservoir started to supply natural gas that could provide for the country’s domestic needs in the next 20 years and also be used for export. On Passover, the Festival of Freedom, Israel became independent (or almost independent) in providing for its energy needs, apart from gasoline for automobiles. This constitutes a significant change in the country’s economic situation, as well as its international status. Instead of openly or secretly courting energy suppliers, Israel has become a player in this field. Moreover, it has additional reservoirs that have not yet been explored and that may enhance the dimensions of the gas discovery.

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Thus, Israel has reinforced its image as a state with hard power. States with hard power are characterized by a strong, independent economy and significant military and technological abilities. In other words, they are global or regional powers that are capable of deterring any enemy or of using force to impose world or regional order.

Israel is a regional power that has proven its military capability, both against armies (the last of which was in the First Lebanon War that started in 1982) and in asymmetric confrontations such as with the Palestinians in the second intifada, with Hezbollah in 2006 and with Hamas in 2009 and 2012. Israel is a secure country, notwithstanding the Iranian threat, which must not be underestimated but which it is also able to overcome alone or with the help of the international community.

The new economic capability the gas gives us also reinforces our ability to withstand extended military conflicts and to open up new channels based on economic interests between us and neighboring or more remote states. This joins our diverse exports to Europe, the Far East and the US and the impressive achievements of Israel’s hi-tech industry. This is hard power at its best, which our enemies, both near and far, respect and take into account when threatening Israel.

THE SECOND element that was mentioned in our equation is soft power, which Obama demonstrated over the past few weeks. Sometimes, it is best to observe the actions of others and to learn from them and implement them. Let’s take a look at how the president of the US acted: He understood that Israel, particularly the public, has reservations about his open gestures toward the Arab and Muslim world, that Israel does not have faith in his economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, and that the Israeli public gives him a low ranking and mistrusts him. So, in a pure gesture of public diplomacy, Obama decided to give Israel top priority at the beginning of his second term.

His first presidential visit in this term was to Israel. He preceded the visit with an interview on Israeli television, in which he employed the best of his rhetorical skills for the cameras. He amazed us with small human gestures such as giving an informal flavor to the visit, short conversations with various people that testified to prior preparation, and countless photo ops with soldiers at Ben-Gurion Airport, children at the President’s Residence and others. He let Israel market itself as it would like to be seen: a combination of military ability and modern technology alongside an age-old history and deep roots expressed in the Dead Sea Scrolls. And of course, how could he forgo the indelible memories of the Holocaust and its deep effect on the lives of the Jewish people and the State of Israel? He went with the flow, as they say, with the people, the places and the issues, and it came naturally to him.

Above all, of course, were his public appearances, particularly his speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. Here the public diplomacy whiz targeted the Israeli public, particularly the young generation, speaking to them above the heads, or maybe below the belts, of the government to convince them that the time for peace between Israel and the Palestinians had come. He crafted his speech around three essential components: security, peace and prosperity, molding them together in a message that he placed in their laps, telling them: The ball is now in your court, you must decide what you want to do with it.

That is the way of public diplomacy, which differs from the world of government versus government and includes publics and individuals from other countries as central players and legitimate participants in the international relations arena. (That is one of the primary areas I address in my recently published book, Media Wars, which deals with Israel and the new public diplomacy.) Obama studied Israel’s soft power, composed of values, history and culture, and demonstrated this when he returned to the White House and held a traditional Passover Seder. This is the ultimate expression of the Israeli narrative of the transition from slavery to freedom and of the struggle for liberty. This is the essence of the soft power that Israel would like to impart to the world and that it expects to serve its relations in the international arena.

IT IS not surprising, therefore, that the third element in the question I asked at the outset was Israeli-Turkish relations. These relations have taken a blow and have deteriorated in recent years. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attacked Israel on every international platform, including a public confrontation with President Shimon Peres at Davos. He even recently stated that Zionism is a crime against humanity. Throughout all this, however, economic and defense cooperation between the two countries continued to flourish, and it appeared as though Israel was swallowing the Turkish president’s double game and was willing to live with it. But the situation exploded with the Mavi Marmara flotilla affair.

The flotilla, which was supported by the IHH, a Turkish non-governmental organization, and included Turkish citizens among its passengers, was stopped and boarded by the Israel Navy. Nine Turkish citizens were killed in the confrontation. At this point, the rhetoric became reality, and Israeli-Turkish relations were officially broken off.

But life in our region is full of surprises, and since the encounter between the Israeli commandoes and the IHH activists, the Middle East has undergone a dramatic change. The Arab Spring has shaken up many Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and continues to do so. Syria has a border with Turkey, Jordan and Israel which has degenerated and serves as a passage for refugees.

More than ever, Turkey and Israel are perceived as islands of stability, that maintain democracy and share a common concern about the developments in the neighboring states. Both countries have a common interest in stopping development of a nuclear Iran, which, if it materializes, will change the face of the Middle East, placing Iran against Turkey, Israel, Europe and the entire international community.

It is therefore not surprising that the immediate, direct result of Obama’s visit here was to remove the obstacles to a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey. The truth is that the main moves had already been made in secret negotiations between Turkish and Israeli representatives, but ultimately Obama’s pressure was needed, and he reaped the immediate fruits of his public diplomacy efforts. He pushed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the telephone conversation with Erdogan, in which he participated and in which Netanyahu apologized for “operational mistakes” that took place in the raid on the Turkish ship.

We all know that there were no “operational mistakes” and that Israel had to use force to stop the ship, but more than two years later, it is clear that the Marmara affair is marginal and unimportant compared to what Netanyahu himself described as the tectonic upheavals in the Middle East. Thus, public diplomacy worked again. What was needed was not secret diplomatic activity, but a complex and even painful public act to set out on the long trek to repair Israeli-Turkish relations.

NETANYAHU’S CONSIDERATION was correct: Israel can handle Erdogan’s victory parade up to a certain point, after which America, which is a party to this move, can hold Erdogan up and calm him down. After all, Turkey needs Israel no less than Israel needs Turkey. Israel’s willingness to put its honor aside to pacify Turkey (perhaps, for a change, the Israeli ambassador sat on a lower chair than the Turkish ambassador) proved that it is capable of combining hard and soft power to demonstrate smart power.

It is clear to all that we cannot survive on one of these powers alone. They are interdependent, especially in the tough neighborhood in which we live.

Hard power is important and irreplaceable, but it is not enough and needs to work together with soft power to prepare Israel for membership in the international community, such as the important membership in the OECD, which only accepts democracies.

Smart power requires the right balance.

We are now facing a new chapter in the Middle East.

Obama has returned to Washington, leaving the Palestinian problem – the hot potato – in our hands. He has other problems to worry about, such as North Korea and the American economy. He has left us to deal with our own issues, expecting that the public, followed by the government, will understand that it is first and foremost in Israel’s interests to promote a settlement with the Palestinians. He left a similar message with the Palestinian Authority and its president. He told them things in a similar spirit, but stressed, correctly, that the key is in the hands of the stronger party, not the weaker one, and the strong party must be the one to make the first move if it is really interested in a settlement.

At the end of a week like this, in which Israel’s hard power, and its security, have been significantly empowered, it can and is even obliged to set negotiations in motion as soon as possible to demonstrate the use of that same smart power that we knew how to use in the Israeli-Turkish saga.

■ The writer is a Labor MK. His recently published book, Media Wars, deals with Israel and the new public diplomacy.

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