Israel’s public image today is dismal. As Elie Wiesel once joked, “Jews excel in just about every profession except public relations, but this should not surprise us: When God wanted to free the Jews from Egypt, he sent Moses, who stuttered.”
However, today the problem is not that its leaders are stuttering, rather that they are stalling to show leadership toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. In doing so, they are sending a message to the international community that the country does not care what the world thinks and that it does not want peace.
The public relations problem is not due to a lack of attention. The entire world is watching Israel closely, but it does not like what it sees.
In recent weeks, the world community has witnessed near-daily vandalism by settlers against Palestinian property in the West Bank, the passage in the cabinet of a “loyalty oath” aimed at marginalizing minorities, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s obnoxious speech at the UN and the government’s continued refusal to halt settlement construction to improve the environment for peace negotiations, despite unprecedented offers from the US to encourage it do so.
This is not to mention a range of public blunders by the government in the past year, from Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s insulting behavior toward the Turkish ambassador to the harsh blockade of the Gaza Strip, since eased, viewed by the international community as collective punishment.
All of this has served to undercut public relations campaigns regarding the very real threats to the country’s security, its genuine contributions in computer and health care technologies or its leadership in humanitarian relief efforts in times of crisis in places like Haiti. As a result it is becoming more and more isolated each day, and is increasingly appearing to be the obstinate party keeping the peace process from moving forward.
FACED WITH increasing criticism and delegitimization campaigns, Israelis are becoming resigned to the belief that nothing they do will improve their public image. A poll conducted and published in August by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute indicated that 56 percent of Israelis believe that “the whole world is against us,” while 77% believe that no matter what Israel may do to try to resolve the conflict, the world will continue to be critical.
These are disconcerting statistics with significant implications for the country’s public relations, and more importantly, for its policies. The perception that its policies and public relations simply do not matter to the world leads it to ignore policies which should be advanced and to neglect communicating its message when and where it matters most.
But Israel cannot simply complain about the discriminatory treatment it receives and make hardly any effort to explain itself. The decline of relations with Turkey offers a prime example. Between 2005 and 2009, Israel’s efforts to explain to the Turkish public the onslaught of Hamas rocket attacks appeared to be few and far between. As the Turkish public became increasingly critical, Israel dismissed the trend as a sign of the influence of the new Islamic-rooted AKP party in its rise to power, not the result of poor PR (or policies).
As a result, rather than seeking to mend relations, adapting policies
and improving communications, it ignored its longstanding ally, and even
worse, insulted it. Instead of using quiet diplomacy to address Prime
Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s verbal attacks while focusing on a
well-orchestrated PR campaign to change the Turkish public perception,
Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador to have him seated on a lower
chair in front of the press. Following the flotilla affair, the failure
to explain itself and to continue to drag its feet in providing
information to the commission appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban
Ki-moon further damaged its image.
Many of the PR blunders today are derived from the disunity of the
governing coalition. Let’s face it: Avigdor Lieberman, charged with
serving as Israel’s messenger to the world, is a man who 60% of Israelis
according to a recent Yediot Aharonot
poll believe is the politician “most responsible for the increased
extreme nationalist and near fascist tendencies” in the country. His
speech at the UN, which was subsequently rebuked by Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu, exemplified the mixed messages Israel has been
sending to the international community, and the division within its
In fact, disunity in the coalition is significantly damaging PR in two
important arenas: in New York, where outreach and communications with
the American Jewish community is critical, and at the UN, where Israel
faces an onslaught of criticism and delegitimization on a daily basis.
Netanyahu and Lieberman have been unable even to agree who should serve
as consul general in New York or ambassador to the UN. As a result,
interim diplomats are currently filling each post. If the prime minister
and foreign minister cannot even agree on the messenger, how can they
ever agree on a cohesive, positive message, not to speak of a
constructive policy? And without that message, the country’s image is
THE COMBINATION of the public’s disillusionment that peace efforts will
ever improve its global image and the disunity within the government
further exacerbates historic public relations woes across the globe. But
Israel is also inept at PR at home.
A recent poll showed that Israelis continue to oppose the Arab peace
initiative. While 56% reject the plan, 57% of Palestinians polled
supported it. That the majority of Israelis do not recognize the
opportunity posed by the initiative as a historic repudiation of the
Arab League’s “three no’s” at the 1967 Khartoum Conference is an
indictment of the government.
Instead of marketing the plan as a genuine vehicle for negotiating an
end to the conflict, it has largely ignored the effort, and the public
has followed suit. As a result, the global community gets a clear
message: the Palestinians – and Arab states – are pursuing peace, while
Israel is not. This failure is more than just one of public relations,
but of the government’s responsibility to pursue and advance all
possible efforts to end conflict and provide the country with the
security it requires.
Some may argue that public relations have in fact, never been better.
Netanyahu is viewed by many as a master of PR as is Ambassador to the US
Michael Oren. But Netanyahu’s and Oren’s mastery of the English
language cannot overcome the black eye to Israel’s image that Lieberman
provides. And without a government that has a positive message, one that
embraces efforts to secure peace and aggressively communicates with its
allies in times of agreement and differences, that image will continue
Contrary to the public’s indifference to global opinion, Israel’s dismal
public relations are dangerous for the prospect of peace and for
In fact, to effectively counter the impact of these campaigns, Israel
should send the global community the kind of concerted, positive message
which it is sorely lacking.
Many around the globe believe that Netanyahu can change the dynamics of
the peace process at any moment if he wished. The world knows that
should he genuinely wish to achieve a peace agreement, he has Kadima
waiting in the wings, ready to enter the coalition to support him. The
fact that he has not done so in itself sends the world a negative
message: He does not really want peace. The world concludes that
Netanyahu would rather stick with Lieberman and stall the peace process
than bring Tzipi Livni into the coalition and seek to conclude it with a
lasting peace agreement.
Should Netanyahu finally decide to bring Livni in, and make a genuine
effort to end the conflict, he could dramatically improve Israel’s image
and live up to his reputation as a master of public relations rather
than a demagogue.The writer is professor of
international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He
teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.