Savir's Corner: The ‘Hasbara’ Syndrome
To say that Israel today is not popular internationally or that it suffers from a bad image is an understatement.
Beit Shemesh resident erects Israeli flag Photo: picture credits - Menachem Lipkin
To say that Israel today is not popular internationally or that it suffers from
a bad image is an understatement. In last year’s annual BBC poll on the
international popularity of 16 countries and the EU, Israel ranked almost last,
with only Iran, North Korea and Pakistan lagging behind us; it is hard to
believe that countries such as Russia, South Korea, India and China are more
liked than Israel.
In the United States, 43 percent express a positive
view of Israel, 41% a negative one. In Britain, 66% have a negative view of
A country that came into being with tremendous world support for
the dramatic homecoming of the Jewish people and its successful and unique
nation-building process. The world was on the side of David, surviving against
all odds, and rebuilding its ancient homeland, a modern, integrated country,
bound to its historical and cultural roots, reviving its ancient language,
creating a modern, democratic society, with a modern economy, culture and
The year 1967 was the historical watershed.
Goliath, the great moral cause of the new Israel was being questioned, as we
became over night the rulers of almost 3 million Palestinians. This
deteriorated, as we became enamored with the occupation and as the settlements,
on a land not anymore ours, came to be perceived, by a post-colonial world, as
Since then our image has deteriorated on a slippery
slope: an image of an occupying power, not respecting basic human rights, a
strong military power vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Lebanon and its civilian
The image of sovereign Israel also gradually deteriorated,
from admiration of the social progress of the kibbutzim and of the vibrant
democracy, to sharp criticism of a state where secularism gives in to religious
political forces, with Middle Age doctrines about the role of women, a state
where racism toward Arabs is rampart, etc.
These images have led us to be
totally isolated in the family of nations as expressed at the UN, with only the
US, Germany and perhaps Micronesia supporting us; in many countries our generals
are accused of war crimes, and our academia boycotted.
Some see it as if
we are losing a beauty contest (“So what if we are unpopular!”) – a wrong and
For a relatively small state like Israel, our
international image and legitimacy is of great importance.
our defense capacity, our room for maneuver are to a large degree a function of
our international standing. If we want to be part of globalization and to reap
its fruits, we must be a respected member of the family of nations; if we must
act in self-defense, we need at least a degree of international
A bad image of a delegitimized Israel is therefore dangerous
to our national security.
And what is the remedy for this predicament?
According to official Israel, in past years as well as today, it is hasbara – a
Hebrew word, often pronounced in Israel with an American accent as most of it is
targeted at the United States. Furthermore, there is no exact English
translation. It derives from “lehasbir,” to explain. No country in the world,
except for us, has an explanation policy, let alone an explanation
This notion lies deep in our mythology about ourselves – we
have “to explain,” meaning that the truth is on our side, we just have to
explain it and we will be understood. And if the audience does not “understand”
then traditionally there are three possible explanations: the hasbara was not
good enough because the messenger was not truly convinced of the gospel; the
non-Jewish audience did not “get it” because of anti-Semitism; or the Jewish
audience did not “get it” because of “Diaspora mentality.”
And yet we
have had some brilliant PR agents and propagandists, starting and starring our
current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – Mr.
Hasbara. Bibi truly
believes that a good speech, emphasizing the right core messages, is a remedy
for every predicament. His last “talks like a duck” speech at AIPAC was a
propagandist masterpiece, that got the audience engaged in a virtual fitness
program of endless standing ovations, but it did not stop Iran’s nuclear
ambitions, or give us the political space to act on it ourselves. At most he
succeeded in insulting the ducks.
Bibi is only a symptom of our Hasbara
Syndrome – when a lieutenant-colonel brutally beats an unarmed Danish protester,
the country laments the damage to hasbara and not the moral predicament; when we
send rescue missions to international disaster areas, such as Haiti, the focus is on the
hasbara dividend more than on the tragedy.
It is high time that we
understand some basic facts of modern-day international relations and public
relations in regards to three key areas: • Some things just cannot be
“explained.” Take the settlements in the West Bank, to which the whole world,
without a single exception, are opposed. If we enlisted the greatest hasbara, PR
experts in the world, from Arthur Finkelstein to Coca- Cola’s PR agency, they
would not be able to convince a single soul that 300,000 settlers in the West
Bank strengthen Israel’s security.
With all of our efforts to convince
the world otherwise, the settlements are universally perceived as a provocation
against the Palestinian people, if not the Arab world as a whole.
are, in the minds of all governments including that of the United States, an
obstacle to peace, internationally illegal, a symptom of an occupation, and
against the basic interests and values of a post-colonial world – not even one
hundred Bibis and Finkelsteins can convince the world otherwise.
world is relatively wellinformed in this era of information and technology
Through the various Internet news outlets, Wikipedia,
worldwide traditional media and social networks, people generally are more
informed than before – and they are skeptical of governmental messages, which in
today’s information glut are, in any case, a drop in the ocean.
matters is not public relations or hasbara, but policy. When Israel had an
active peace policy, be it under Begin, Rabin, Peres and in part Sharon, our
actions spoke louder than any hasbara. We had far better international standing
and it impacted our trade relations, brought about economic growth and
strengthened our national security against external threats.
As to the
future, it is imperative that we divorce ourselves of the notion that good
hasbara is a remedy for bad policy. Good policy sells itself; not necessarily
popular policy, but policy that can be rationally described as serving our
interests of peace and security, as well as the values that we share with the
Americans and the international community.
We can then engage not in
hasbara, which is nearly synonymous with propaganda, but in what is known in the
modern and the new media world as public diplomacy, engaging through traditional
and new media about how great Israel is, which indeed it is, despite its
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and
served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.