'Israeli public diplomacy leaves much to be desired'

Jewish State harms itself by not being more cooperative or forthcoming, experts in town for conference on Israel's Global Image Crisis say.

Public Diplomacy Conference 311 (photo credit: Meshoolam Levy)
Public Diplomacy Conference 311
(photo credit: Meshoolam Levy)
Israel has allowed its enemies to frame the public debate by failing to be forthcoming or cooperative enough with outside observers, an expert on public diplomacy said Monday.
Prof. Nicholas Cull, director of the University of Southern California’s Masters Program in Public Diplomacy, used the examples of banning press and Western observers from the battle in the Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield in March 2002, and the refusal to cooperate with the Goldstone Commission as examples of Israel shooting itself in the public diplomacy foot.
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“If you look at [Judge Richard] Goldstone’s retraction of his report, he says that the reason for the inequality in its claims is that the Israeli government isn’t cooperating. So I think that a lot of ground is being lost [by Israel] just because the explanation or coverage isn’t being provided.”
Cull said that the Goldstone op-ed was “a public diplomacy gift for Israel,” but added that the most important part was “the line where he said if the Israeli government had cooperated in the first place, the result would have been different.
“I hope that in this whole excitement, the culpability of the Israeli government in the misrepresentation of Cast Lead is borne in mind, because to some degree this is a problem of their creating.”
When asked if good diplomacy can ever be a substitute for good policies, Cull said that “good policy is enhanced by good public diplomacy, and good policy which no one talks about might as well not happen. Bad policy can be made a little better by good public diplomacy.
“For me, public diplomacy begins with listening, and the first duty of public diplomats is to listen. In a world where your ideals, values, and culture are what make you attractive, having a general curiosity and openness about others is attractive. So public diplomacy begins with listening, and listening to things you don’t want to hear.”
Cull said he “didn’t want to focus just on the negative,” and praised the Israeli delegation’s presentation at the 2010 Shanghai Exposition, saying that it correctly made an effort to present Israel as a country with a lot to offer the Chinese, the object of that particular instance of public diplomacy.
“I was very impressed by the Israeli contribution to the Shanghai Expo,” he said. “It didn’t present Israel as a conflict state, but presented Israel as a state of hi-tech, branding Israel as not only the country of Ben-Gurion or Moses, but of Einstein.
“The Chinese are interested in Israel in terms of what it can do for them. The bottom line of public diplomacy has to be what my country can do for the rest of the world, what it can do for this person or that person. Instead, a lot of Israel’s public diplomacy focuses on what the world owes Israel, or what public diplomacy can do for them.”
Cull’s comments came while he was in Israel to take part in a two-day conference at Bar-Ilan University on Israel’s Global Image Crisis.
The conference is co-sponsored by Bar-Ilan’s Center for International Communication (CIC), and the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Diplomacy in Los Angeles.
In a statement released Monday, Bar-Ilan said the conference “is aimed at creating awareness about the importance of modern public diplomacy and significantly improving Israel’s ability to plan and carry out public diplomacy and communications strategies.”
Cull wasn’t the only USC Trojan on hand for the conference.
Prof. Philip Seib, director of the university’s Center on Public Diplomacy, also took part, saying that Israel’s public diplomacy did leave a bit to be desired, especially when it came to international broadcasting.
“International broadcasting is a very competitive world; and in spite of the rise of social media, the fact is that to reach a significant audience you still need TV,” he said.
Seib mentioned the examples of Russia Today and Al- Jazeera, and said “Israel isn’t playing on this field. I’ve never seen IBA [Israel Broadcasting Authority] anywhere. I went to look at it online, and it’s a good product, but you have to reach an audience.”
He said Israel had to find the budget and the message it wanted to get across, and focus on places where its public image is not positive, instead of just “preaching to the choir,” where approval for Israel is high, like in the US.
He added that Israel had to drop some of its rigidity and defensiveness when it came to public diplomacy.
“Just being here a couple of days, everyone seems very defensive. [There is] this feeling that if you don’t agree right down the line with Israeli policy, there must be something wrong with you, and that becomes counterproductive. There’s a rigidity.
“I might disagree with elements of Chinese policy, but that doesn’t make me anti- Chinese. I disagree with elements of Israeli policy, but that doesn’t make me anti- Israeli; and I think if you want to do public diplomacy, flexibility, rather than rigidity is crucial.”
He disagreed with the commonly held contention in Israel that the Palestinians have the upper hand in public diplomacy, saying, “Honestly, I’m not sure that the Palestinians do get their view across well. To some extent, they are portrayed as victims; I think their public diplomacy is well organized but I don’t know if they really get it across well. To the Arab world and Western Europe, yes, but in the US it doesn’t get much attention.
“I think, frankly, also when you say the Palestinians’ message is partly the Israeli non-message, there is a void of public diplomacy coming out of this region and neither side does a great job.”
British journalist Melanie Phillips also attended the conference, telling the participants: “My view is that the single most important reason why Israel has been so successfully demonized by Israel’s Arab enemies and their supporters and delegitimized in the West is not just that Israel’s media communications are deficient – which they are – but its entire diplomatic strategy is fatally flawed, and has effectively conceded the field to Israel’s enemies.”
Phillips accused Israel’s enemies of “a wholesale inversion of truth and lies so that rational discourse itself becomes impossible. Attack is represented as defense, and vice versa; the victims of ethnic cleansing are presented as the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing; and so on.
“There are many reasons why this has come about. But the principal reason I am concentrating upon today is that Israel has allowed it to happen. It has done this by persistently behaving as if it were the guilty party.”
Philips recommended that Israel adopt a new strategy and “go on the attack” by asserting that “Israel’s case is that of law, justice and truth, and that those who deny it stand for illegality, aggression and lies.” Israel must “delegitimize the delegitimizers,” she urged.