Hasbara, public diplomacy and propaganda

We get so carried away in presenting our case that listening to us is sometimes exhausting, depressing, boring, and annoying.

Sabra (photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
(photo credit: AMIT BAR-YOSEF)
I am often asked, “Why doesn’t Israel do a better job in presenting its case?” In other words, “Why does Israel fail so miserably with hasbara?”
Hasbara literally means “explanation,” but it has become the Israeli term for a broad range of activities aimed at disseminating positive information about Israel, and promoting positive attitudes toward it. Public advocacy and Israel advocacy would be better terms, but hasbara is still widely used by the public.
Hasbara is Israel’s main “soft-power” tool, aimed primarily at external audiences, unlike the negatively perceived “propaganda,” which is directly internally. It is the bad guys who engage in propaganda, promoting their goals and narratives by fabricating facts, manipulating the media and deceiving everyone into thinking that they are the good guys. Hasbara is what we - the good guys - do, in order to explain how good we really are, and expose how bad the bad guys are.
For instance, explaining that Jews have been living in the Holy Land for 3,000 years and have a right to their ancient homeland – this is hasbara, but when Palestinians say that the Jews are foreigners and the Temple never existed – this is propaganda.
But it is usually not that simple. Hasbara poses many challenges.
The first is we rarely have an argument over facts; we dispute interpretations and narratives. The second is ignorance. Everyone thinks he understands Israel and the Middle East. Some know-it-alls have never even visited here. The third is bias against Israel. No matter what we do, we will be victims of hypocrisy, distorted favoritism, double standards and discrimination.
The fourth is our complex strategic environment. There’s no easy solution to the dispute with the Palestinians – if there is one at all – for reasons ranging from religious convictions to security considerations. Although we fight for our very existence, as long as we are in a position of power and dominance, and the Palestinians are seen as the underdogs, there’s no way we can be perceived positively.
The fifth is that our adversaries use deceptive propaganda. That is extremely difficult to counter while acting within democratic and Jewish moral principles. And lastly, we must admit that sometimes the problem isn’t explaining the policy, but the policy itself.
Nuances of language reflect deep differences in narratives, which demonstrate the challenges we face. The world refers to Judea and Samaria as the West Bank. The lands in dispute are called the occupied territories, although they were never owned by those who now claim them.
The fact that checkpoints stop suicide bombers doesn’t prevent them from being criticized as though they were an arbitrary method of making Palestinian lives miserable.
The security fence, which has dramatically reduced terror attacks, and which consists of 97 percent fence and 3% wall, is known worldwide as “the wall.” Riots with hundreds of people hurling rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails, are conveniently referred to as “peaceful demonstrations.”
With the baseless accusations of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, our enemies cynically exploit popular ignorance to demonize Israel.
So how should we go about explaining ourselves? How can we make our international interaction more productive?
The combination of the challenging reality, our unique nature and our frustration over feeling disliked and misunderstood hinders our ability to explain our policy in a palatable way. We get so carried away in presenting our case that listening to us is sometimes exhausting, depressing, boring and annoying.
For instance, we all believe that Iran should never possess a nuclear weapon, which would pose an existential threat to Israel. But we sound like a broken record, and even our friends are tired of hearing it. The world literally sees Iranian leaders smiling and Israeli leaders frowning.
Some of the greatest hasbara failures are of our own making.
We bolster acts of vandalism by calling them “pricetags” and make them seem like a major threat to regional stability, overshadowing daily violence and terror. I also find Israel’s declarations on intended settlement construction provocative and pointless. We’re not gaining points or teaching anyone a lesson. If you want to build – build, don’t talk. Another banal, reactive policy is our habit of “responding” to rocket fire by attacking “terror infrastructure” the next day, instead of being proactive.
New media has become a significant tool for hasbara. Since this is perceived as the realm of the younger generation, it is usually managed by junior staff with insufficient experience. This sometimes results in amateurish and even childish posts on behalf of national institutions, missing the point or presenting an attitude that is not appropriate.
I find some posts arrogant, pompous, superfluous and gloating. When describing the threats to Israel, there is a tendency to overdramatize. When describing our actions, there is an overtone of vanity. The Israel Air Force, for instance, follows a policy of highlighting lethality and tends to downplay touchy-feely issues. This may be effective with some audiences but wrong for others.
The secret is to understand the target audience and shape the message accordingly. For instance, I believe that the IDF is the most moral military in the world. But I also think that our friends and allies are sick and tired of hearing us constantly reiterate this.
We should stop categorizing everything in black-and-white terms and simply tell the Israeli story, as it is, with the good and the bad. People don’t like to hear too many accusations, complaints and threats aimed at the other side. Self-justification and self-glorification are just as annoying.
We must accept that we will never be popular and supported by everyone, and that even when our friends criticize us, they are still our friends. Not every criticism is delegitimization of Israel and not every accusation is anti-Semitism.
Having said all that, there are times when we need to stand up for what is right and put up a fight.
It is important to emphasize that my observations refer mainly to diplomatic relations, military-to-military cooperation and personal interactions. Dealing with international and local media entails additional challenges and considerations.
Here are my top 10 hasbara tips:
1) Enough with Iran! (Convey the point and move on). And for heaven’s sake, use the word “existential” sparingly.
2) Be timely and relevant. No one cares about 12-hour-old news, when the other side’s lies have become the perceived reality.
3) Determine the target audience and engage partners with respect, professionally, and at eye level.
4) Don’t talk too much. Refrain from lecturing and preaching. Stick to facts and figures, backed by documented proof.
5) Operational organizations should focus more on showing the “what” and “how” and leave the “why” to policy- makers. The IDF does not need to justify every policy, only to implement it.
6) Balance threats and defense with softer issues. Sometimes it’s better to talk about drip irrigation than Iranian nuclearization.
7) Demonstrate modesty. We’re not perfect. Talk about our weaknesses, flaws and mistakes.
8) Address internal challenges, not only external threats.
9) Demonstrate our values and morals by personal and organizational example, not with slogans.
10) Relax. Smile. The fate of Israel is not going to be determined by one conversation.
The writer is a former pilot in the IAF, founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd. and project manager at CockpitRM.