Dear Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and the entire Netanyahu government, I asked you, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, a question this Sunday at the Jerusalem Post’s Annual Conference… Your response was nothing but loaded rhetoric downplaying the existential BDS threat and the attacks against me on my campus for being a Zionist. Perhaps worst of all, you downplayed the anti-Semitic attacks on students across the United States, Europe and soon the world.
– Justin Hayet, “An open letter to Foreign Minister Liberman” – The Jerusalem Post, April 10
It is… time for Israel, as a collective, as a nation, to begin a long-term celebration of our assets.
– Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul-general in New York, Jerusalem Post Conference, April 6.
Imagine a man accused of murder, rape and robbery, who in his defense claims that he is a good scientist, loves classical music and has a beautiful wife.
– Dr. Yoram Shifftan, an insightful E-correspondent, on trying to rebuff criticism of Israel by “positive branding.”
It probably would have been more timely to have written this column last week, but my sense of outrage, aroused by the asinine attempt by Tom Friedman to draw a parallel between the Judeophilic magnate Sheldon Adelson and Judeophobic mullah Ali Khamenei, dictated otherwise.
In light of his absurd allegation that the two men pose equal danger to the future of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, I felt compelled to use the public platform available to me to repudiate as robustly as possible his unfounded and unfair comparison.
Still sufficiently newsworthy
Much of what I had to say on the recent 2014 Jerusalem Post Conference remains newsworthy for discussion this week – particularly with regard to the fundamental policy implications (read “grave policy deficiencies”) that came to light during its proceedings.
Although I have no intention of confining myself to mere ex-post reportage of the conference program, or to presenting readers little more than a descriptive synopsis of addresses made and discussions held, some reference to them cannot be avoided.
So before moving on to a more substantive interpretation of what took place, allow me the briefest tour d’horizon of the event.
By any objective criterion, the 2014 Jerusalem Post Conference was a success.
The venue, the towering Marriott Marquis at Times Square on Broadway, was eminently prestigious. The organization seemed immaculate and the attendance impressive (reportedly up to 1,000) – despite the competition from other high-profile pro-Israel attractions on the same day.
Indeed, apart from expressions of disagreement/annoyance on specific matters with some speaker or other, nearly all the reactions I encountered from the audience seemed to indicate that the overall sentiment was that the experience had been interesting and worthwhile.
The 2014 conference was significantly different from its predecessors, in that several prominent public figures, who had featured in previous conferences and were billed to appear again this year, dropped out of the line-up – some of them, like Ehud Olmert, not entirely of their own volition.
But this allowed for a refreshing face-lift for the 2014 program providing an opportunity for greater exposure of interesting personalities and perspectives than they might otherwise have received.
There were impressive presentations of Israel’s advanced capabilities in the field of cancer treatment by Dr.
Raanan Berger, director of Sheba Medical Center’s Institute of Oncology, and its cutting edge achievements in areas such as irrigation, tourism and water conservation in arid regions by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund world chairman Efi Stenzler. V.-Adm. (res.) Eliezer “Chiney” Marom former head of the Israel Navy, gave a glimpse of Israel’s covert war in the maritime theater, culminating recently in the precision interception of the Klos C carrying its deadly cargo of missiles destined for Gaza.
And then of course there was the ravishing Rita, Israel’s Persian-born diva, who supplied the cultural garnish for the event. I confess to being completely enamored by Rita and outrageously biased in her favor. So anything I might write should not be taken as an objective evaluation of her contribution to the conference.
The defining moment
There were of course other speeches and panel discussions – addressing the Iranian threat, the Palestinian problem, and the unity of Jerusalem.
With some, I found myself in great agreement, with others, far less so.
But, for me, the defining moment came early in the conference – following the interview of Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman by the Post’s editorin- chief, Steve Linde. It was precipitated by a question from the audience asked by a young pro-Israel activist, Justin Hayet, a Binghamton University undergraduate.
After introducing himself, and articulating his – entirely correct – belief that the delegitimization campaign against Israel represents a grave strategic threat, Hayet asked Israel’s foreign minister, “What is the Foreign Ministry doing to stand with college students, like myself, to fight BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] on campus?” Liberman’s response was dismaying, and should be a cause of grave alarm for all those concerned with the long-term future of Israel and its vital ties with Jewish communities across the world.
Indeed, it encapsulated all the misperceptions, and mismanagement that have characterized Israel’s diplomatic strategy. In particular, it spotlighted the incomprehension and incompetence Israeli officialdom has displayed in the conduct of our public diplomacy, going a long way to explain Israel’s growing international beleaguerment.
Denial as diplomatic strategy?
Dispensing with any semblance of civility, and any expression of encouragement of the voluntary efforts of young pro-Zionist activists in defense of Israel on hostile campuses, Liberman brusquely conveyed to Hayet that endeavors like his were essentially unnecessary, and largely a waste of time.
According to the foreign minister, the BDS movement should not be a great source of concern for Israel, as it has not had serious impact on the economy which today is among the most robust in the world. Likewise, he pointed out, has had no real success in bringing about significant international isolation of Israel. In support of his contention, he cited an array of prestigious international organizations which recently admitted Israel to their ranks.
Liberman’s responses were entirely correct in terms of their factual accuracy and equally irrelevant in terms of their operational substance.
For nothing could be more dangerously self-deceptive than adopting an attitude of denial toward the admittedly limited, but indisputably growing, efficacy of BDS. All one has to do is compare its profile and international status to that it had less than a decade ago, when it was launched in 2005, to realize how foolish this would be.
Importance of momentum
The focus should not be on the movement’s achievements, but on the momentum it is acquiring.
As the person ostensibly in charge of Israel’s foreign relations, Liberman would be well-advised to cast his mind back to the days when he first began his political career, and recall how marginalized the notion of Palestinian statehood, and negotiations with Arafat’s PLO, was then. This should serve as a salutary and instructive example of how an idea, no matter how insignificant it is initially, can force its way into becoming, not only mainstream, but a majority-endorsed position, if promoted with sufficient resolve, resources and resourcefulness.
Moreover, it would be a grave error to limit the assessment of the detrimental effects of the BDS effort merely to the impact it is – or is not – having on the Israeli economy and/or its international ties. The kind of arguments that drive the BDS endeavor are precisely the arguments that propel the overall delegitimization of Israel and undermine its standing abroad.
The insidious effect of this phenomenon across a range of aspects of national life in Israel cannot be overstated.
Dereliction of duty
As I have pointed out in considerable detail (“Dereliction of duty,” October 25, 2013), the failure to confront and counter the delegitimization process is becoming not only a strategic threat to the country, hurting Israel’s ability to respond robustly to military threats, and corroding domestic cohesiveness.
It is also beginning to imperil Jewish communities abroad – as Hayet correctly observes in the op-ed that Liberman’s dismissive response prompted him to write.
For the BDS movement is the vanguard of the delegitimization effort against the Jewish state, and in many ways the flagship of the endeavor. To ignore, deny or belittle the potential it has for corroding the fabric that binds the Zionist enterprise together is, in many ways, a dereliction of diplomatic duty.
The fact that Hayet did not serve in an IDF special forces unit does not detract from the validity of his comments – as some unkinder responses to his article claim.
Indeed, his diagnosis of the BDS comprising an existential threat and his comparison between the dangers posed by the accelerating denigration of Israel and the Iranian nuclear program are eminently appropriate.
It is a parallel I have invoked myself previously on several occasions.
HIV analogy (revisited)
Thus, several months ago I wrote: “While I do not wish to downplay in any way the danger of the Iranian nuclear program, the dangers inherent in Israel’s abysmal [public diplomacy] performance outstrip virtually any other threats that confront the Jewish state… While the former is more tangibly kinetic, the latter… is no less lethal… In many ways, it would be apt to liken the danger of the Iranian bomb to one of being run over by a truck, and the dangers inherent in Israel’s [public diplomacy] catastrophe to those of being afflicted by an HIV virus that destroys one’s immune system.”
This breakdown in Israel’s national “immune system” is becoming more and more apparent as the current round of doomed discussions with the PLO staggers on. Elsewhere I remarked: “Much like an HIV victim who has lost his/her ability to resist disease, so Israel seems bereft of its capacity to resist political pressure, no matter how pernicious or perverse…” Today even Israel’s existence as the nation-state of the Jews, the essence of its raison d’etre and the fundamental rationale for its establishment, has been declared “a final-status issue” to be settled in negotiations, contingent on Palestinian consent…
HIV analogy: The wrong ‘cocktail’
Liberman was not the only senior Foreign Ministry figure who seemed to misread the diplomatic battlefield at the conference.
During one panel discussion, Israel’s congenial consul-general, Ido Aharoni, suggested that, as a diplomatic strategy, Israel focus on presenting its impressive achievements, rather than grapple with its daunting problems.
This of course has an appealing ring to it.
However, while promoting the numerous positive aspects that Israel has to its credit should indeed play a part in the way it presents itself to the world, this is hardly an effective approach to combating the assault on Israel’s legitimacy and countering the dangers that flow from it. For as the perceptive Dr. Shifftan deftly points out in the introductory excerpt, it is an approach in which the responses do not address the charges – and therefore will be of little avail in rebuffing them.
After all, Israel is not maligned in international forums because it is accused of having poor medical care, shoddy irrigation systems, underdeveloped technological achievement, unattractive women, backward agricultural practices or uninviting tourist attractions.
Accordingly, focusing on dispelling such assumed “misconceptions” is hardly likely to stem the tide of vicious vilification of Israel and the Zionist vision of a sovereign nation-state for the Jewish people in its ancient homeland.
For that a far more muscular strategy is required (see my “Intellectual warriors, not slicker diplomats,” February 14, 2013).
The Conference’s contribution
Beyond its organizational and media success, if all the 2014 Jerusalem Post Conference achieves – even unintentionally – is to expose the grave misunderstandings of those charged with the conduct of Israel’s foreign policy and spur public brisk discussion of how to remedy these deficiencies, it will have made an enormous contribution to the long-term strategic well-being of the nation.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.net) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategicisrael.org)