DIPLOMACY: Runaway hyperbole one of the problems with Israeli discourse

The hyperbolic tone of Yair Lapid and Avigdor Liberman’s conference in the Knesset to "save" Israel’s standing abroad illustrates part of the problem.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid at the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid at the Knesset
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Judging by the turnout in the jam-packed State Control Committee room in the Knesset Monday afternoon, the joint appearance by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman was the best show that day in parliament.
Indeed, it was standing-room only as party faithful and journalists jammed into the not-overly large room and vied for seats and a chance to see this oddest of political couples – both wannabe foreign ministers, if not prime ministers – bash the foreign policy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the man who holds the job they both covet.
On display was not only political theater but also one of the characteristics – some might argue one of the problems – of Israeli discourse: runaway hyperbole.
In Israel no problem can be just that: a simple problem or issue that can be dealt with or handled without yelling that the sky is falling. Everything is taken to its extreme conclusion.
If some haredi men on a bus force women to sit in the back, this can’t just be a localized issue that can be taken care of, it must signify Israel is on the fast track to a theocratic regime like the one in Iran.
If a controversial law such as the NGO transparency bill begins meandering its way through the Knesset, the legislation’s opponents can’t just oppose it merely as an ill-advised measure that will cause the country more harm than good, they must show that it is nothing less than a threat to democracy.
And if Netanyahu has sharp differences with President Barack Obama over the Palestinians, Iran and the region, this cannot be seen as legitimate policy differences between two leaders who see the world through fundamentally different glasses, it must be conflated to mean there is a crisis and rupture with the entire United States of America.
That same penchant for the extreme, for hyperbole, for overstating things, was on ample display at the Lapid-Liberman gathering in the Knesset.
The title to what was billed by both parties as an “emergency” meeting set the tone: “Fighting for Israel’s international position in the world.” And the subtext was simple: The government is not fighting for Israel’s position in the world.
It is not doing so both because it has no coherent foreign policy, and because it has clipped the wings of the Foreign Ministry to such an extent – by curbing budgets, closing representations abroad, taking away authority – that the foreign service is simply a bird that can no longer fly.
“I have recently had meetings with British, Italian, French and Hungarian foreign ministers, as well as with the German national security adviser and EU’s foreign policy chief,” said Lapid, who has of late fashioned himself a shadow foreign minister, going abroad and presenting Israel’s case. “From what is happening on the field, I can tell you that official Israel is not there,” he said.
“We are in a situation where grave harm is being done not only to the Israeli foreign service and foreign policy, but to Israel’s national security,” he warned. “The deterioration is dramatic.”
“Our international situation has never, since 1948, been as bad,” he claimed. “And what makes the situation even worse is that the government does not admit it and tries to say everything is okay.”
Liberman, who was foreign minister from 2009 to 2015 – with about a year’s absence in the middle to deal with legal issues – was not to be outdone.
“The Foreign Ministry is not anyone’s private possession, including the Netanyahu family, and it is not possible to take it and destroy it,” he said.
“What is happening today is not only absurd but an attempt to take the foreign service and simply destroy it,” he thundered.
And that is where the hyperbole, the exaggeration, comes into play. There is much to criticize about the Foreign Ministry, about its slim budget, even about its effectiveness, but to argue that it is not there, to ignore the fact that every day in some 106 missions around the world Israeli diplomats are having meetings similar to the ones Lapid held, just paints a distorted picture.
To say that Israel’s international situation has never been worse is gross overstatement. Never? Really? Not in 1956 when US president Dwight Eisenhower contemplated using force to expel the IDF from Sinai? Not in the days leading up to the Six Day War when Israel felt completely alone? Not in the aftermath of the 1973 war when US president Gerald Ford threatened a reassessment of ties, even as the Arab world used its oil weapon to drive a wedge between Israel and many of its friends? Not following Sabra and Shatilla and the First Lebanon War in the ’80s? Not at the outset of the second intifada, or after Operation Cast Lead, or during Operation Protective Edge? Never? The problem with overexaggeration is that when politicians overstate, people tune out, dismiss it as just more political rhetoric – even though there might be some validity in the arguments.
Should Israel be doing more, allocating more, to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and pro-Palestinian propaganda? Sure. But to say, as some of the speakers at the Lapid-Liberman event did, that it is doing nothing is simply incorrect.
Should Netanyahu paint the outlines of a diplomatic horizon in order to more effectively block the Palestinians from trying to get the world to impose a solution on Israel? Quite possibly. But to say, as Liberman did, that he has just burned relations with Berlin, in addition to the problems in ties with Washington and London, is overheated rhetoric.
Germany just recently sent to Israel yet another state-of-the-art submarine, the British just passed an anti-boycott regulation, and Vice President Joe Biden is on his way here next week to underscore the US’s strong support for Israel.
Yes, at the same time there was criticism in Berlin this week that Netanyahu misrepresented the words of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during their meeting last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron had some harsh words about Israel’s control of Jerusalem last week, and large differences with the Obama administration on many issues endure.
But to highlight only the latter, without mentioning the former, or underlining the former, without mentioning the later, does a disservice to reality. And it’s generally always good to keep things real.
Between the two poles of “Israel’s situation has never been worse” and the opposite pole that it has never been better – a pole represented by Netanyahu’s waving a study this week saying that Israel is the eighth-most powerful nation in the world – there is a large middle ground, and in that middle ground Israel is not maneuvering half bad.
Are there problems? Certainly.
But it is not only problems, and that is where Lapid and Liberman dropped the ball on Monday.
Elections all over the world are marked by hyperbole, by those in power saying everything is great, and those out of power – wanting to get in – saying everything is miserable.
Israel’s last election provided a perfect example of that, with the candidates painting a horribly dire picture of Israel’s reality – no jobs, no money, no friends, threats all around.
And then Netanyahu came in and – swoosh – won the election again.
Why? Many reasons, one of which is that the gloom and doomsday picture that the opposition candidates – Lapid, Liberman, Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, especially Livni – were selling did not match the reality most of the public was bumping up against on a day-today basis.
That same overheated penchant was on display on Monday by two opposing party heads, whose rhetoric was election mode, even though no election has yet been called.
Lapid derided the budget of the Foreign Ministry, though when he was finance minister from 2013 to 2014 the ministry was not swimming in increased budgets. Liberman castigated the government for speaking with different voices on key issues, even though he went to the UN in 2010 and gave a speech to the General Assembly that directly contradicted Netanyahu’s stated policies.
There are problems with scarce budgets, underpaid diplomats and a foreign policy message that is not always clear, let alone coherent, but when politicians with vested interests paint a picture that is all black, the message is muffled.
Lapid and Liberman were joined at the meeting by representatives of the Foreign Ministry who spelled out the ministry’s difficulty in terms of budget, working conditions and manpower; representatives of Jewish organizations who spoke of the need for a strong presence abroad and how to fight the BDS movement; and a smattering of MKs from Yesh Atid (Meir Cohen, Ofer Shelah), and Yisrael Beytenu (Oded Forer).
Kulanu MK Michael Oren, a former ambassador to Washington, was the only coalition MK who appeared, showing up just long enough to say his piece and leave.
But his piece was interesting and went to one of the cruxes of Israel’s image problem abroad – a lack of sensitivity here to how things will be interpreted over there.
“When I fought against BDS , there were two incidents that were the most damaging and poisonous during the five years I was in the US,” he said, mentioning the play Return to Haifa and the documentary The Gatekeepers.
Oren said Return to Haifa, based on the book by Ghassan Kanafani, spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, compared the establishment of the state to the Holocaust and the “Nakba,” and its run in Washington was funded by the Foreign Ministry.
In this play, he said, the Israeli characters are cast in a particularly negative light. “I fought half a year against this play,” he said.
The second incident was the screening of the The Gatekeepers, a highly critical documentary of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, featuring interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
That film, he said, lacked any historical context, such as Israeli peace offers in 2000 and 2008, Israeli withdrawals or the uprooting of settlements from Gush Katif in 2005.
What the documentary did have, he said, “is a former Shin Bet head [Carmi Gillon] saying that Israel is causing unbearable suffering to millions of Palestinians every day, something that is a complete lie; and another Shin Bet head [Avraham Shalom] saying that the Israeli occupation in Judea and Samaria is similar to the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II.
“I had to explain [to the Americans] how former heads of the Israeli FBI, that’s the way the Americans see it, see Israel like the Nazis,” he said. “I saw good American Jews who support Israel leaving a screening and saying that they would never support Israel again.”
Oren said that what these incidents taught him was a “lack of understanding – that did not start just in the last year but many years earlier – about how our internal debate is seen abroad. This is not an issue of coalition or opposition.
It is our obligation as MKs, as public representatives, to sow deep into the Israeli awareness that we are not alone in the world, and that what is said here is also heard abroad, but in a very different manner.”
Israel’s internal political debate is one of extremes. The Israeli public, at a subconscious level, understands that, and can distinguish between the real and the wildly exaggerated. The foreign audience – not as acquainted with Israeli reality – lacks the capacity to make those distinctions.
How ironic that such a salient point was made at a meeting notable for its hyperbole.