How did we get here? How is it possible? Consider the irony that after all these
years Jews have become better soldiers than speakers, better at brute force than
Israel has won the military battles, but lost on the
battlefields of public diplomacy and world opinion, where it struggles to keep
up with its enemies, who, over the decades, have managed to make their narrative
of the conflict the dominant one in the world.
Even the most sympathetic
voices often assume that the root cause of the conflict is Israel’s so-called
“illegal occupation” and the denial of the democratic and national aspirations
of millions of Palestinians. Many people grudgingly acknowledge that it is
difficult to negotiate with extremists such as Hamas, whose human rights abuses
and terrorism are well known, but nevertheless see Israel as having the moral
responsibility, as well as political and military power to solve the
What is the way forward? The situation seems so dire that many
have given up hope, attributing the lost narrative to anti-Semitism,
fatalistically asserting that no matter what Israel does, the justice of its
cause will never be seen, much less acknowledged. Whilst there is certainly some
truth in this, I strongly believe, speaking from personal experience, that to
accept the lost diplomacy and public relations battle is a terrible strategic
Living and working in South Africa, which is a country that has
a natural sympathy for the Palestinian cause, given the shared history of the
ANC and the PLO, it has been my experience that aside from a small percentage of
hardened antagonists, the vast majority of people are fair-minded and open to
hearing Israel’s side of the conflict, provided it is rationally argued and well
Reclaiming the narrative requires a radical revolution in
Israeli government philosophy and policy.
The Iron Dome, the main
celebrity of the latest Gaza war, epitomizes the kind of paradigm shift that has
to take place. The Iron Dome has become the newest symbol of Israel’s creativity
and strength in establishing itself as the regional super-power with armed
forces which inspire the admiration of friends and the trepidation of
Israel now needs what one could call “Iron Dome diplomacy.” The
same kind of brilliance, resources and creativity that have dazzled the world
with the Iron Dome, needs to be harnessed to dazzle the world in the realm of
diplomacy and public relations. A paradigm shift is needed. Israel must invest
the time, strategic thinking, financial and human resources necessary to create
diplomatic and public relations capabilities to match its military
Some things have improved, like the recent proactive cyber
campaign during the Gaza war. “Pillar of Defense” was a much better name than
“Cast Lead,” which must surely go down in history as the worst public relations
name for a military operation to protect Israeli citizens, but which made it
sound aggressive and even brutal.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has
become Israel’s most effective public spokesman to the world, and the government
now has its own dedicated public relations ministry.
But this is merely
tinkering with the system.
What is needed is a paradigm shift to “Iron
Dome diplomacy,” which requires a comprehensive and integrated strategy to
persuade world opinion of the justice of the cause of the State of
In broad strokes, it requires the Israeli government to, firstly,
build a communications organization to rival the IDF in budget, human resources
and strategic thinking. Teams of the best and the brightest must be assembled to
create a worldwide dazzling and sustained communications campaigns in all print
and electronic media, in a scientific manner testing messaging through polls and
focus groups in key countries across the world.
“Iron Dome diplomacy,”
secondly, requires developing a comprehensive and proactive plan to create and
strengthen international alliances with leading people and organizations in all
areas of society, such as government, business, religion, academia and media.
This means Israel must develop an organization, on the same level of excellence
as its security forces, which can proactively reach out to these groupings in
important countries, and engage with them through meetings, seminars and trips
Proactive and systematic analysis of the dynamics of a
particular country to identify prospective allies and adversaries and to develop
appropriate programs to interact with them is crucial.
An example of what
is not “Iron Dome diplomacy,” is that recently a multi-party delegation of South
African MPs who were planning to visit Israel were informed by the Israeli
government that they could not host them due to the upcoming elections. Although
the visit was later postponed because of the war, the decision to allow the
delegation to be hosted by those hostile to Israel demonstrates a complete lack
of commitment to defending and improving Israel’s global reputation.
the heart and soul of these ambitious operations, whether creating media
campaigns or diplomatic alliances, must be the conviction of the justice of the
cause of the State of Israel. The belief that – accepting the obvious frailties
of human error – the Jewish people and state have morality on our side, whether
in terms of our biblical and historical rights to the land of Israel, or the
numerous peace-making efforts over the decades, including Israeli attempts to
create a Palestinian state through a negotiated settlement, only to be rebuffed
time and again.
The conviction in the morality of the IDF needs to be
conveyed through examples which demonstrate that Israel’s armed forces behave
with more restraint than any military in the history of human civilization.
Israel’s disproportionate contribution to human development needs to be spoken
about and expanded upon. Israel’s humanitarian efforts, and especially using its
creativity in technology, medicine and science, should be dramatically increased
to help alleviate human suffering around the world, which fulfills the mitzvot
of kindness and Kiddush Hashem, builds alliances and goes to the essence of the
global debate around the morality and justice of the cause of the State of
This paradigm shift would be a revolution philosophically and
historically. In Israel’s early years its leaders realized that a Jewish state
in the Middle East would only survive if it had powerful military capabilities.
Public relations and diplomacy, by contrast, were traditionally regarded as an
afterthought at best, and un-Zionistic, at worst. For many of these leaders,
leaving behind the exile to create a new kind of Jew and a free and independent
country was expressed in the famous words of former prime minister David
Ben-Gurion: “It doesn’t matter what the gentiles think, but what the Jews
Israel now needs a new way, one which is rooted in our eternal Torah
principles. The Sages of the Talmud instruct us to implement the moral and
strategic imperative of “darchei shalom” – good relations between the Jewish
people and the nations of the world. This is not merely an abstract ideal but a
practical halachic principle: any action taken to avoid causing hatred towards
Jews from the nations of the world, what the Talmud calls “eivah,” is governed
by the laws of “pikuach nefesh” – the mandate to save life, for which most other
mitzvot are suspended.
The Halacha’s wisdom is particularly relevant in
today’s political climate, which requires Iron Dome diplomacy and public
relations to shoot down the barrage of lies and defamations that are just as
lethal to the future security of Israel as suicide bombers and terrorist
rockets. Negative attitudes towards Israel are actually life-threatening, to
Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Crucial military and policy decisions are made due to
Israel’s poor diplomatic standing in the world. Safety of soldiers and civilians
is compromised because Israel not being able to deploy appropriate military
strength for fear of world reprisal. Because of its weak public image, Israel is
forced to fight under constraints that no other country in the recorded history
has ever had to contend with.
Powerful international forces seek to
delegitimize and demonize the State of Israel. This campaign presents an
existential threat to Israel. Having grown up in South Africa during the height
of the international sanctions and boycott campaign, I can tell you that a
country treated as a pariah struggles to survive.
Apartheid South Africa
at the time was a very strong country from a military and economic point of
view, and yet the sustained pressure of sanctions and boycotts broke the morale
of white South Africans and, thankfully, contributed to the eventual demise of
the apartheid regime.
The international boycott movement directed against
Israel seeks to draw the false and libelous analogy between South Africa and
Israel. And even though it is a campaign based on lies and hatred, nevertheless
it has a chance of succeeding, and needs to be fought with the same
professionalism, comprehensive strategy and determination as any military battle
would require. It is a matter of “pikuach nefesh” – life and death.
writer is chief rabbi of South Africa.