Fresh out of Foreign Ministry, Ayalon joins private ‘hasbara’ field

Former deputy FM's "The Truth About Israel" will put out weekly videos on the major issues of the day.

July 12, 2013 00:05
Former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon.

Danny Ayalon 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Move over, StandWithUS. Look out, Israel 21c. Make way, The Israel Project. Yet another private hasbara (public diplomacy) initiative was launched recently to spread “the truth” about Israel.

Indeed, this one is actually called “The Truth About Israel,” and is headed by former deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon. The mission statement on its website defines the organization as a “nonprofit company to educate and train the public about the facts of Israel in today’s world.”

Asked if the world really needed another private hasbara organization vying for the same donor dollars, and whether it would not be better to work through the existing frameworks, Ayalon said that just as there were many and variegated organizations working to delegitimize Israel, “we also want a network of hasbara organizations that will be interlinking.”

One Israeli official working in another hasbara apparatus had a somewhat different take.

“It’s a Jewish thing,” the official said. “Call it the breakaway synagogue syndrome. Everyone wants to be synagogue president; everyone thinks their shul offers something different.”

According to Ayalon, however, the different hasbara organizations have different focuses, different audiences and different purposes. StandWithUs concentrates on campus, The Israel Project focuses on journalists, Israel 21c stresses “start-up Israel,” CAMERA and Honest Reporting focus on combating media bias.

Ayalon said his organization – which will put out weekly videos on the major issues of the day, presenting facts and giving Israel’s advocates the tools and information to combat misconceptions and misreporting – will be a “force multiplier that can be used by all the others.”

The idea, he said this week during an interview in a Jerusalem hotel, was an offshoot of three short videos he did while at the Foreign Ministry – “The Truth about the West Bank,” “The Truth about the Jewish Refugees” and “The Truth about the Peace Process” – and a fourth one, called “The Magic of Jerusalem.”

Ayalon narrated those simple, pared-down, graphically clever videos that presented bare facts about the issues in the titles. They were popular, together garnering some 1.5 million views on YouTube.

Unceremoniously left off Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu candidates list in the last election, and then a central prosecution witness in the breach of trust case against him, Ayalon said that when he became deputy foreign minister in 2009 he understood that the problem with hasbara was that at a certain point in time Israel simply abandoned the effort.

According to Ayalon, at the outset of the Oslo process in 1993, the underlying thesis was that hasbara was passé, and that if you had “good policy” – i.e. a peace process – you did not need hasbara. But if the policies were bad, this argument ran, even the best hasbara would not work.

Israel, he said, largely just walked off the playing field.

But the other side, the Palestinians, stayed on the field, and while Israel gave up presenting basic facts to shape the debate, the Palestinians – despite the peace process – kept plowing ahead with their narrative and their anti-Israel rhetoric.

Ayalon said this hit home when he was part of the Israeli delegation at the UN in 1993, and the Palestinians refused Israel’s request – made at a time when the sides were talking peace – to bury the 20 anti-Israeli resolutions they annually raised in the world body.

“They did not give up,” he said.

“And we didn’t understand. So we are playing catch up, having to explain why we even exist here, and our rights here.”

And that is essentially what Ayalon’s videos do: present basic facts.

“Hasbara should not be reactive, but proactive, going back to the basics of Jewish rights here and the justice of the cause,” he said.

Ayalon said social media has made this easier, because it is possible to reach people without the traditional filters of reporters, editors and producers.

Just make a video, upload it, push “send,” and then – of course – hope people will actually watch it.

The formula for Ayalon’s videos are relatively simple. Take an issue in the news that is impacting on Israel’s image, analyze how it is being perceived abroad and the different misconceptions, and then present Israel’s position – or at least Ayalon’s perception of Israel’s position.

For instance, this week’s edition dealt with US Secretary of State Kerry’s attempts to resume talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

“The Palestinians continue to present a tough stance with the uncompromising demand for Israel to agree to a full withdrawal from Judea and Samaria to the 1967 lines, before the negotiations begin,” Ayalon said in the clip. “World newspapers blame the two sides for raising obstacles in the negotiations, but highlight the issue of Israeli settlements.

“It is worth asking, what is the purpose of negotiations if the results are dictated in advance. Anyone who has bought or sold a car or an apartment knows that the price of the transaction is determined at the end of the negotiations of the two parties. The status of the settlements will also be determined as part of the negotiation process.”

Ayalon said the purpose of the videos, uploaded in both English and Hebrew, is to give millions of Israelis, Diaspora Jews and Israel supporters the information and knowledge to dispute Israel-bashing arguments.

Asked whether this type of activity was not better performed by the Foreign Ministry, Ayalon said that while the ministry has the best manpower for this job, it simply does not have an adequate budget.

He said he will have a $1 million to $2 million annual budget, while the entire annual budget inside the Foreign Ministry for hasbara is $10m.

Ayalon said he realized his videos would not convince those opposed to Israel, but that they were geared toward “empowering the base” – Israel supporters abroad and Israeli businessmen and tourists going abroad – with the tools to deal with the anti-Israel arguments they will likely encounter.

The Israeli official involved in hasbara quoted above said that while the new effort was “praiseworthy,” it was a case of preaching to the converted.

“He is speaking to the enthused supporters on the Right,” he said. “The enthused supporters on the Left won’t use this material, and it won’t convince those who are not already on our side.” And that, he added, is where the true effort was needed.

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