How Israel should prepare for the numerous challenges on its horizon

From BDS to a re-election that Donald Trump does not win, consider the following scenarios ...

‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’ (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘WHAT SEPARATES American Jews and Israel is, well, everything... [yet] we ought to celebrate those differences, not bemoan them.’
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Israel faces a great danger today: the fact that its international position is the best that it’s been for a decade. The danger is that Israel is not preparing properly for the numerous challenges on the horizon.
Over many years of involvement in Israel’s international relations and communications efforts, it has become clear to me that the public diplomacy battle is not decided in the heat of conflict. It is won or lost in what the IDF calls, the “battle between the battles.” Given the Israeli governmental paralysis, the pro-Israel network’s role in this battle is becoming even more important.
Israel currently enjoys a supportive US administration, and flourishing relations with economic superpowers like India and
Brazil. The European Union, while occasionally condemning Israel, is preoccupied with internal issues. Despite continued rocket fire, Israel’s borders have been relatively quiet.
But consider the following scenario that may unfold over the coming year:
The new EU foreign minister, the Socialist Josep Borrell, decides to focus aggressively on implementing an expansive policy of “differentiation.” The UN Human Right Council publishes its blacklist, giving a major boost to the BDS campaign.
Corbyn’s labour party leads the next UK government, while Podemos, the Iran-linked and BDS-promoting Left Party, becomes a key coalition partner in Spain.
And in a year from now, a representative of the left-wing of the Democratic Party wins the US election, and swings the pendulum of US foreign policy back toward pressuring Israel.
In parallel, Mahmoud Abbas departs and the Palestinian Authority descends into chaos. Rival politicians and terrorist groups, along with Qatar, Turkey, Iran and others, compete for influence. Terrorist attacks spike, and the IDF is forced to expand its operations throughout Palestinian cities, drawing international censure.
At the same time, Israel’s southern and northern borders heat up, leading to a multi-front conflict. Hezbollah’s precision-missile capabilities and use of Lebanese infrastructure will require the IDF to act forcefully against Hezbollah targets in civilian areas.
This, of course, will play well on CNN.
These sobering scenarios may not come about. However, they are certainly plausible. If even some of these potential developments become reality, they could create a vicious cycle in which Israel’s standing and legitimacy are increasingly challenged.
There are times when Israel shoots itself in the foot. The first images from the 2010 MV Mavi Marmara flotilla, which were quickly spread around the world, showed red stains all over the ship, giving the impression of a bloodbath. Only later, when reviewing the Israeli commandos’ head cam footage, did I realize that the paintballs they had fired, as a non-lethal measure, were filled with red paint! Nobody seems to have considered that for PR purposes, this might not have been the best choice.
Nevertheless, Israel’s communications bodies generally perform well during such mega-events. However, Israel’s ability to truly succeed during crises is determined by its investment in the public diplomacy “battle between battles.” This is the continuous effort to increase the legitimacy, support and understanding that Israel enjoys, and to decrease the legitimacy of its enemies.

UNFORTUNATELY, ISRAEL is currently under-investing in this battle. The Prime Minister’s Office’s National Information Directorate (NID), the body charged with coordinating Israel’s public diplomacy, has been leaderless since July. The NID was set up following the PR fiasco of the 2006 Lebanon War in order to coordinate between the messages of the IDF (“Look at how we’re hitting them!”) and the Foreign Ministry (“Look at how they’re hitting us!”)
Other key roles in the PMO are also unfilled or understaffed.
The Foreign Ministry, including its Public Diplomacy Division, is in poor shape. One ambassador told me this week: “As bad as all the articles on the Foreign Ministry’s situation say it is – it’s worse.”
One major issue which must be addressed is the Foreign Ministry’s lack of budget. But this is by far not the only problem. The Foreign Ministry, and Israel’s foreign relations apparatus in general, are in need of extensive reforms.
Additionally, over the last several years, the MFA has relegated the Public Diplomacy Division to a lower level in its organizational hierarchy than political diplomacy. This negatively affects the resources Public Diplomacy receives.
Given the upcoming challenges, it is clear that much more needs to be done in the realm of Israel’s strategic communications and public diplomacy. While the current political uncertainty makes deep reforms difficult, several steps should be taken.
A substantial, one-time budget increase should be granted to the Foreign Ministry, to be used primarily for public diplomacy initiatives around the world. Public diplomacy should be elevated to an equal, if not higher status, in the Foreign Ministry’s hierarchy. Future Foreign Ministry budget increases should be tied to the implementation of internal reforms.
The role of strategic communications in Israel’s national security doctrine needs to be taken much more seriously. In 2013, I worked with the National Security Council to establish a “National Strategic Communications Forum.” The forum’s establishment, sadly, was thwarted by inter-ministry turf wars. There is still a need for a government-wide forum aimed at marshaling all of Israel’s capabilities along with cutting-edge communications strategies for the “legitimacy battle”. 
Many of the gaps in the Israeli government’s current efforts will need to be filled, wrongly or rightly, by the pro-Israel community. The pro-Israel network is a unique asset that the Jewish state enjoys. This network must be empowered.
Empowering this network is the goal of several recent grant programs, such as those initiated by the Strategic Affairs Ministry and the Genesis Prize Foundation. These initiatives should be expanded and made more accessible to smaller organizations, which are often the most creative and daring.
Despite progress made over the last several years, synergy and resource-sharing must still be enhanced within the pro-Israel network, particularly between American and non-American actors.
The positive feelings regarding Israel’s current international position should not lead us to complacency. Both the Israeli government and the pro-Israel community must prepare today for tomorrow’s battles. While the skies above are mostly clear, there are storm clouds on the horizon.
The writer served as chief of staff to Israel’s strategic affairs minister, and is currently a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum, and a strategic communications consultant. Follow him on twitter @fredman_a.


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