A new public diplomacy paradigm

In a misguided attempt to suggest how this problem can be rectified, more than half of the editorial focused on expanding and strengthening the Foreign Ministry.

February 15, 2016 20:34
4 minute read.
US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville

US President Barack Obama delivers remarks at the Islamic Society of Baltimore mosque in Catonsville, Maryland February 3, 2016.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The recent Jerusalem Post editorial entitled “Explaining ourselves” (February 5) accurately identified the sorry state of Israel’s response to the anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism sweeping the world. Progressive deligitimization threatens to become an existential threat to the State of Israel.

In a misguided attempt to suggest how this problem can be rectified, more than half of the editorial focused on expanding and strengthening the Foreign Ministry, a solution that is likely to yield only minimal benefit. The editorial said that Israel has too few foreign missions and “those that do exist are woefully undermanned.” The editorial then observed that this situation is frustrating for Israel’s diplomats, “the people who received training in the art of diplomacy and are therefore the best qualified to take up Israel’s case abroad.”

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The editorial concluded by recommending “doubling the number of missions manned by professional diplomats.”

Unfortunately, this approach ignores the fundamental distinction between traditional diplomacy and the public diplomacy techniques that are essential to representing Israel in today’s world. Those trained in “the art of diplomacy” are not public relations experts.

For the most part, they talk to each other and to foreign diplomats, often behind closed doors. This is very different from public diplomacy which utilizes mass or social media to communicate with private citizens of other countries.

The skills necessary for behind the scenes interaction with other diplomats do not easily transfer to more public means of communication.

Even those few diplomats who have an aptitude for and interest in such work are likely to be moved to other jobs just as they develop the necessary expertise and contacts to make a real impact.

It is commonly urged that one must clearly recognize a problem before a solution can be found. That is one of the main objections to US President Barack Obama’s stubborn refusal to utter the words “Islamic extremism.”

For this reason my participation in Haifa University’s recent conference on “Strategies for Dealing with the Challenges of Israel’s Public Diplomacy” produced some hope but also great disappointment. The conference brought together international experts in the fields of media, law, academia and diplomacy.

The goal was for the experts to identify the shortcomings of Israel’s current approach to public diplomacy and then recommend how these shortcomings could be remedied.

The disappointing statements came from veteran Foreign Ministry officials. The now retired senior diplomats took the position that representing Israel to the world was a “public good” and therefore should be left to the government.

They evinced no sense of urgency, and did not recognize that the government has utterly failed in this area. In reality, had official public diplomacy achieved some success over the past several years, the conference would not have been necessary.

One of the major problems is that the government has dispersed its public diplomacy efforts among numerous ministries and actors. There are spokespeople from the Prime Minister’s Office, the IDF, the Foreign Ministry and the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry (to name just a few) – often issuing inconsistent policy statements. How can we possibly expect the world to understand who we are and what we stand for when we can’t even make a consistent presentation? What is needed is a dedicated agency – independent of any of the ministries or the government of the moment – whose sole responsibility is the dissemination of the truth of what Israel stands for and what it is doing. This is not a ministry of propaganda (a la Goebbels) but an agency of communication. The agency would be similar to the US Information Agency (USIA) which worked to counteract Soviet propaganda during the Cold War, contributing to the downfall of the Soviet Empire.

The agency must be both independent and well-funded, with the ability to contract with outside firms when necessary. It must have access to information from the government, and must receive the government’s full cooperation, but should not be controlled by whatever party happens to be in power at any given time.

Pouring more money and human resources into a failed strategy (as suggested by the editorial) will simply compound the problem.

Israel must speak with one full-time voice, expert in getting our message across.

This is a matter of both money and expertise.

The success of the Palestinian PR onslaught, supported by tens of millions of dollars, in gaining the world’s sympathies for their cause is all too apparent. Israel must fight fire with fire. We have the truth on our side, but we must use every modern technique at our disposal to disseminate that truth to the world.

The author, a retired US diplomat, served in the Office of Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. He is a Fellow at Bar-Ilan University’s Center for International Communication, and co-founder of the Zichron Project, an organization dedicated to developing creative approaches to Israeli public diplomacy.

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