Hasbara vs public diplomacy

The Hasbara Ministry has risen and fallen on the degree of cooperation and willingness of all the ministers and their ministries.

June 4, 2015 21:59
Benjamin Netanyahu

Gilad Erdan and Benjamin Netanyahu. (photo credit: MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

On the morning of Tuesday, May 19, 2015, Israel’s public diplomacy awoke form a deep slumber. It had been blissfully reposing for more than two years, since the day Yuli Edelstein completed his term as minister of diplomacy and Diaspora affairs. Has anyone even noticed that no one took over that ministry in the interim? So let’s give a warm round of applause as we welcome his replacement: Minister Gilad Erdan.

I’m all for supporting Israel’s public diplomacy – in fact, I think it’s more important now than at any previous time in our country’s history. I believe we need to invest tremendous time and resources in this area, but only if we’re going to see some true results. If, however, Erdan’s appointment turns out to be just another move in the game of political musical chairs, then I have no interest in playing.

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But before we start talking about the efficacy of this office, a little background on its name: In Hebrew, it used to be called by the archaic name: the Hasbara (propaganda) Ministry, which was later changed to the Ministry of Public Diplomacy.

Throughout the Knesset’s history, prior to Edelstein, only three other attempts have been made to create a hasbara ministry; by Aharon Yariv, Shimon Peres and Moshe Shahal. Each time it was created, it did not survive for long, and every time it was dissolved by the subsequent government. As a result, it never developed into a real ministry with fulltime activity.

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In my doctoral thesis and later in my book, Media War Reaching for Hearts and Minds, I attempt to dig down deep in an effort to understand this phenomenon. I was especially interested in what kind of organizational structure would grant the ministry a higher chance of survival.

My initial premise was that, in this modern technological world, the diplomatic sphere is equally if not more important than the military and economic spheres with respect to relations between Israel and other countries.

And if this is true, then the appropriate resources need to be allocated to ministries and positions in this field.

Israel is currently facing a combination of stresses on so many different levels: political, economic, legal, diplomatic, cultural, and even in the athletic field with the recent FIFA crisis. After failing to defeat us using violent military attacks, the Palestinians have calmly resorted to attacking us on as many other fronts as they can.

That’s not to say that they’ve completely stopped carrying out terrorist attacks. In fact, just last week, a rocket was fired into Israel from Gaza and another Palestinian drove his car into pedestrians standing on the sidewalk.

These types of incidents occur as part of an ongoing campaign to spark unrest among the Palestinian community and to constantly remind Jewish Israelis that they’re not safe. They are mainly designed to keep the Palestinian struggle alive, but with the flame kept down low, as a way to push Israel to make concessions on the diplomatic level.

The international BDS movement was created for this same purpose. Individual BDS campaigns are carried out on American college campuses, in European stores and in street demonstrations in South Africa.

These activities rely on the agility and ease of social networking; they send messages from one to another and spread anti-Israeli lies like wildfire to new audiences.

This is a great threat and a tremendous challenge for Israel. Israeli leaders are busy looking for the solution and part of the solution lies in diplomacy. Israel needs to offer a political platform, to initiate some movement, to prove that it’s ready to sit down and have a serious conversation. But, of course, this is only part of the solution.

The other part is in organizational preparations. While the Foreign Ministry is busy working with other governments through diplomatic channels, every single Israeli citizen should be working as a unique individual to promote public diplomacy.

We need to connect and communicate with other individuals and create a global network that can deal with the many public diplomacy challenges we’re facing.

We need to fight this battle using the same technology that is trying to bring us down, to locate each and every fire and put it out before it spreads.

We have an excellent, toprate Foreign Ministry that employs quality, professional workers. But, we need to create a parallel entity in which all of us are members.

If we want to successfully overcome our enemy, we need to pull together in huge numbers in full cooperation with the Foreign Ministry, but also with other bodies.

This is the main obstacle.

There needs to be an extremely high level of coordination between the various government ministries and the ministers who run them. This requires that these individuals stop worrying about their ego for a few moments (which is hard for all of us) and put their energy into this joint effort.

This might be extra difficult in the current government, though, since the prime minister decided to chop up the Foreign Ministry into parts and has bequeathed sections of it to at least five different ministers.

The Hasbara Ministry has risen and fallen on the degree of cooperation and willingness of all the ministers and their ministries. In most cases, the people who headed the Hasbara Ministry literally and figuratively could not find a place to set up shop, and so the ministry was shut down despite leaders’ angry protestations.

Gilad Erdan is a very talented leader. He is a dynamo who has a good understanding of the dangers Israel is facing. The question is: Does he have what it takes to make the Ministry of Diplomacy a paradigm of perseverance and hard work, or will he let it be sabotaged as his predecessors have.

He may even find himself having to confront the same prime minister who appointed him in the first place, since the National Information Directorate is part of the Prime Minister’s Office. You would think that the director of the National Information Directorate would now need to report to Erdan, but that’s just it – he won’t. So you see, Erdan is setting out on a path that is rife with tough obstacles. Welcome to the world of the impossible.

The author is a member of Knesset.

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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