Such a lovely idea: Encourage Israelis to act as ambassadors for our misunderstood and misrepresented little nation.
“Are you going overseas? Hosting people from abroad?,” asks the Ministry of Public Diplomacy’s new masbirim – “explainers” – Web page. Well then, it gushes, you too can become “ambassadors for Israel” and “together, we’ll change the picture.”
The campaign, backed by expensive advertising in the local media, is designed to offset “the vast sums of money available to Arab countries for propaganda,” our esteemed new Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein has declared, by conscripting ordinary Israelis to fight the PR fight, armed with “tools and tips to help them deal with the attacks on Israel.”
Somewhat contradictorily, however, Edelstein is also advising our new massed ranks of citizen-spokespeople to avoid discussing international politics. “Talk about your life, your neighbors, make your life sound normal,” he advises. “Tell people about going to a concert with your wife.”
Easy to imagine that working, isn’t it? Picture the scene. Our well-meaning, patriotic Israeli vacationers in, say, London these past few days, get onto a Tube train packed with tight-lipped commuters absorbing their daily headline diet of “Outrage over Mossad hit in Dubai,” “Scandal of forged British passports” and “War threat as Israel designates Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb national heritage sites.”
“Here’s our chance,” enthuses Moshe to Malka, and sits down with a confident grin between a middle-aged businessman reading The Independent
and a young advertising-type flipping through The Guardian
“Sorry to disturb,” Moshe manages in his halting English, smiling at the gents on either side of him. “But I am from Tel Aviv and I want to tell you that Israel is much nicer than you are reading. Let me tell you about my good neighbors. No? Ok, see my wife Malka over there? Well, we went to a very excellent concert together at the, er, Heichal Hatarbut
hall last week. Beethoven, Richard Strauss and Brahms. Excuse me? Sir? Please...?”
The Brits wouldn’t so much as dip their dailies to acknowledge the sabra attempt at conversation. Remember, they don’t even talk to each other.
OF COURSE it’s easy to scoff. And everyone’s a critic. But really, our new ministry and its new minister, created as a function of coalition arithmetic rather than in recognition of a strategic need that does genuinely exist, should stop deluding themselves and the rest of us about the nature of the challenge, and instead start meeting it properly.
For the past two-and-a-half years, an experienced Israel-advocate, not a citizen neophyte, has been doing his best to advance the last such half-hearted effort to improve Israel’s image: the great national rebrand.
And, what a shock, Ido Aharoni recently reached the inevitable conclusion that even Maxim magazine photo shoots of bikini-clad Israeli female soldiers don’t do the job. The way the media works today, Aharoni acknowledged in an interview with this newspaper a couple of weeks ago, “doesn’t allow enough time for presenting the facts.” As he further elaborated to a gathering of tourism professionals, the world’s perception of Israel is completely dominated by the Arab-Israel conflict, and even if people support Israel ideologically, that doesn’t translate into a positive image.
THE FACT is (and yes, it is possible that I may have mentioned this once or twice in past columns), Israel doesn’t get a fair shake in much of the international media and is being relentlessly bashed in a “lawfare” campaign of delegitimization.
If Operation Cast Lead prompted the last outbreak of local handwringing at the unfairness of all this a year ago, when much of the world bought the Hamas big lie about Gaza coming under unjustifiable Israeli assault, then Dubai provides a more recent case in point. Unlike any other intelligence operatives trying to save innocent lives the world over, Israel’s alleged secret agents are, at best, expected to travel on their own passports under their own names to their dangerous missions, the better to ensure their capture. But ideally, they are not meant to travel at all, because self-confessed murderers, working for a Hamas government avowedly intent on destroying Israel, should be allowed to go freely about their business of importing missiles to fire from Gaza at the civilians of Israel without having to fear for their personal safety.
As confirmed by Western attitudes to the 2006 war with Hizbullah, Cast Lead, the Dubai controversy and uncountable other conflicts everywhere else on the planet, the free world still refuses to internalize the nature of the Islamic extremist enemy, with its death cult imperative to kill and be killed.
But sending good-natured Israelis into the public diplomacy battlefield, to talk about how delicious Jaffa oranges are, how their nephew just went to work for this amazing new hi-tech start-up or how much the Israel Philharmonic has improved of late, is to use entirely the wrong troops with entirely the wrong ammunition for the fight. The end result will be no different from the hapless Aharoni’s doomed attempt to disingenuously rebrand Israel as the ultimate hedonist’s tourist paradise with no troubles, guaranteed sunshine and a unique splash of biblical history. And everybody in positions of authority here knows this full well.
OUR ENEMIES failed to destroy Israel through conventional warfare from 1948 to 1973. They failed again through the strategic terrorist onslaught of the second intifada. But they’re doing rather well through “lawfare” – through delegitimization.
Israel will start to make some headway in the long, uphill struggle to reverse the tide and to improve the way it is perceived overseas when, first of all, it starts to take that struggle seriously. When it internalizes that, no, we’re not a “normal” country with which Europe and the West can be expected to easily identify, but rather a lonely, gutsy democracy under relentless attack in a tyrannical region.
Israel will fare better when, before going to war, it prepares the diplomatic and the legal and the media ground as effectively as its prepares its fighting forces. (More than a year after Gaza, rather than thoroughly debunk and outflank the outrageous canards of the Goldstone Report, it is still desperately trying to reassure itself that it has dodged the Goldstone bullet; it hasn’t.) When Israel begins to hit back diplomatically – in the memorable phrase of Canadian human rights activist nonpareil Irwin Cotler, “to delegitimize the delegitimizers.” When Israel begins to reason articulately to people who don’t give a hoot about Israel being demonized that the UN, in its lopsided, indecent obsession with our perceived iniquities, is itself becoming ridiculous and discredited. When Israel begins to make the case, again as Cotler so succinctly puts it, that those guilty of apartheid attitudes in our region are not the Israelis, seeking survival, but those who discriminate against the Jewish state and push for an Israel-free Middle East.
Israel will fare better when it allocates resources to meet the public diplomacy challenge in an orderly, streamlined, strategic fashion: Israel needs a proper hierarchy to unify the disparate ministerial and army mechanisms – today, in addition to the Foreign Ministry’s personnel, the IDF Spokesman’s Office, the Government Press Office and Edelstein’s new fiefdom, we have the apparatus Ehud Olmert established in the Prime Minister’s Office, not to mention a new grouping being overseen by Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon – adding up to what one despairing insider terms “a looming bureaucratic train wreck.”
And official Israel also needs an adequately equipped unit to monitor how it is being presented; resources to research and convey the enemy’s manipulations and deceits; funds for satellite television; funds to revive state radio’s dying foreign language broadcasts.
As things stand, Edelstein’s risible masbirim
initiative is only the latest in a long line of haphazard outreach efforts that have made little impact in the familiar forums where Israel is judged, and incidentally are making little impact, either, in new media.
Shimon Peres has a YouTube channel. Hurrah! Danny Ayalon has a huge Facebook following. Muted hurrah! But the deeper you search on YouTube, the worse things get for Israel, and Israel demonizers are leading the field in Twitter and every other innovative avenue of social networking too.
As with the old media failures – typified by the refusal to properly inform Israel-based correspondents about what was at stake ahead of the Gaza assault, and then the numb-skulled ban on their very entry which saw the war covered for the world by Palestinian stringers – so, too, in new media there is insufficient engagement with potential supporters, insufficient outreach to social networks, blogs and news sites.
Insistently, pigheadedly, Israel chooses not to allocate the funds to adequately replicate AIPAC’s ongoing program to bring rising American politicians to see the reality of Israel firsthand – our very best public diplomacy tool. Politicians from the world over, along with other opinion-shapers, editors, reporters, bloggers and Twitterers – where’s the money to host them here, and to introduce them to all the passions and contradictions of our country? Where’s the effort, in President Barack Obama’s favored terminology, to engage
ALL OF this would be a start. But even then, we should have no illusions. For all our righteous sense that we are so far more sinned against than sinning, Israel is also hobbling itself through incoherence.
While Fatah ostensibly wants peace along the pre-’67 lines and Hamas unequivocally wants us gone, nobody, but nobody, knows quite what it is that we want.
Our prime minister says he has a vision of a Palestinian state, but he is also planting saplings at bombastic ceremonies at West Bank settlements and extending national heritage status to the Cave of the Patriarchs. Even if that makes a certain kind of sense to some of us here, it is plain incomprehensible to most who are not. The Goldstone Report is a strategic threat to Israel but Israel is begging Mahmoud Abbas – who initiated Goldstone by accusing Israel of genocide in Gaza – to please, pretty please, come and talk peace with us. Where’s the clarity?
So, okay, let’s imagine for a moment that those Brits on that train did
put down their newspapers and got talking with Moshe and Malka. When
they’d finished discussing whose sopranos soar higher, how would our
civilian envoys cope with those incoherencies and inconsistencies?
No wonder Edelstein is advising them to stay away from politics.