Public Diplomacy: Shaping the image

David Saranga rebranded Israeli hasbara, helping the world see past footage of war, conflict.

By E.B. SOLOMONT
August 20, 2009 19:27
Public Diplomacy: Shaping the image

hasbara david saranga 248 88 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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In an ironic contradiction in terms, diplomat David Saranga is what one would call prolific on Twitter. Never mind the 140-character limit, Saranga tweets daily, again and again, apparently not stopping even after his official term as the media liaison at the Israeli Consulate in New York just ended. On Wednesday, he was still posting away, linking to articles from Israeli newspapers, J Street and others. But for Saranga, technology defines his four-year term as consul for media affairs, a tenure that began with demonstrations outside his office, with protesters opposing the evacuation of Jewish settlements. Four years later, the issue of settlements factors prominently in the current tension between the Israeli and American governments. "There is a difference in approach between the Obama administration and Israel, it's clear," Saranga recently remarked. To be sure, Saranga's departure coincides with a maelstrom involving another Israeli diplomat, Nadav Tamir, chastised over a withering memo suggesting US-Israel friction was eroding American support for Israel. "He did what he was expected to do," Saranga said during a meeting at a Manhattan coffee shop, where he sipped an iced frappuccino. Though Saranga denies support for Israel is eroding, he said that "we Israeli diplomats perceive as our job to be the voice and the eyes of Israel abroad." It was not Tamir's fault that the cable was leaked to the media, he said. "In retrospect, he might not have thought what might be the consequences of sending it to the large list of people in the ministry." But with many wondering about the veracity of Tamir's report, Saranga said it was not wholly inaccurate. "Yes, in certain groups of American society, you can find discontent with the policy of the Israeli government. On the other hand, there are different groups that feel very content with the policy of the Israeli government." Diplomats are charged with representing and advocating for Israel, he said. "Nadav Tamir, he didn't criticize the Israeli government, not at all. He brought a reflection of what he hears and sees where he functions," Saranga said. In New York, Saranga said he observed a more conservative, right-leaning Jewish community. "I don't think if he were based here, he'd write the same report, not at all." But there is also a wide spectrum, and in four years he said both sides have grown more extreme. "At the end of the day, it's the right of the Israeli government to execute the policy defined as the right policy," he said. "This is what democracy's all about." Among non-Jewish Americans, Saranga said, there is a "fatigue" in public opinion regarding the Middle East. "People are fed up with the conflict This is a risk we are running, because if Americans will perceive Israel as a remote place where people are fighting between themselves, it's not something good for us." Still, he pointed to public opinion polls that show most Americans support Israel. "The support for Israel goes much beyond what is the government right now." Maintaining that support will be among his successor's challenges, he said. A TEL AVIV native with a business degree from Hebrew University, Saranga is a career diplomat whose previous postings included Romania and Spain. Before moving to New York, he served as deputy spokesman of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, where he defended Israel as the International Court of Justice deliberated the security fence. In New York, he made headlines for inviting Maxim to Israel and during Operation Cast Lead, holding the first-ever press conference on Twitter. The event was covered by mainstream media and by technorati, who linked to the press conference and Saranga's messages defending Israel. Indeed, part of Saranga's focus in New York has been on rebranding Israel, to show a side other than the Middle East conflict. By his own measure, it is working. Last year, The New York Times published three stories about Tel Aviv, including two cultural stories. As part of the rebranding, in June Saranga helped throw a Tel Aviv-style "beach party" in Central Park, hauling tons of sand to the middle of Manhattan at a cost of $200,000. Was it money well spent? "The era when public diplomacy used to be done with propaganda is over. It doesn't work," he said. Indeed, the New York Consulate's public diplomacy budget amounts to $100,000 annually. "You can't run PR of a country like Israel with no budget." TO BE SURE, the New York office is a plumb assignment and is perceived as important because of its reach among news outlets. From Saranga's point of view, the media are both a resource and a challenge. Broadly, the media oversimplify things, and in general focus only on conflict. No one gets the story right all the time. "The media are not objective," he said. He said the Arab media, though increasingly pluralistic in the past decade, still bring Israeli officials onto their shows to criticize them or air extremist ideologies. But he called the European media "extremely biased," citing stories that, in the name of human rights, attack Israel. If he has harsher words for European news outlets, it is because, he said, "I'm expecting much more from the European media... these are democracies. They know better." By contrast, he praised the American media for being credible, with some exceptions. "Part of them are not objective, but they are very professional," he said. "Do you want to ask me about The New York Times?" Recently, he said, the paper has taken a more critical approach toward Israel, and columnist Roger Cohen's pieces have sometimes contradicted themselves. But asked whether the coverage could reflect dissatisfaction with the Israeli government's policies, he responded: "At the end of the day, The New York Times was not elected to run Israel's policy." "The Israeli government was elected by the Israeli people because the Israeli people believe this is the right government right now, period," he said. His passion evident, he said the media are Israel's means of bringing its message to different audiences. You can have a dialogue with someone you don't agree with, he said. Still, for the past four years Saranga has worked to relay Israel's message without conventional media by embracing technology like Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Twitter, which counts more than 7,000 followers. "You reach a more sophisticated audience, and you shape the message in the way you want it," he said. "All of a sudden, I can have a dialogue with public opinion." He said the message is more personal and audiences are more receptive this way. He said he created his personal Twitter handle to continue Israeli advocacy - something he is not about to cease. "I've been a diplomat for 15 years, and this is what I want to continue doing," he said.

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