Public diplomacy challenges await Netanyahu's far-right government

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: New government poses a public diplomacy challenge even before being sworn in.

 Pro-Israel advocates gather in Los Angeles at an IAC-organized rally in May which was part of the organization’s nationwide campaign supporting Israel.  (photo credit: IAC)
Pro-Israel advocates gather in Los Angeles at an IAC-organized rally in May which was part of the organization’s nationwide campaign supporting Israel.
(photo credit: IAC)

Some of the diplomatic fallout from the likely new government became apparent months before the election this month. Prominent members of the US Congress warned presumptive prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu against appointing extremists to his cabinet; the foreign minister of the UAE reportedly followed suit.But foreign relations are not only government-to-government. The war for public opinion has always been important for Israel, something that Netanyahu is acutely aware of. His memoir, Bibi: My Story, repeatedly emphasizes that support for Israel among everyday Americans is essential to good relations between the countries, and that can be extrapolated to any democracy.

Now that Netanyahu is likely to form a governing coalition that includes figures who were once on the fringe, extreme Right, and that wants to make sweeping changes relating to sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, as well as religion and state, experts on public diplomacy and people working on the ground to advocate for Israel are sounding the alarm.

“Israel’s public diplomacy has always been weak and never matched the challenges that Israel faces in the court of world public opinion,” said Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert on public diplomacy at Bar-Ilan University and senior research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “Now, it’ll be more difficult because of the emerging image of the new government.... It doesn’t matter who the people are – the image is already of an extreme rightist government.”

Gilboa listed some of the likely coalition’s agenda as having potential to spark confrontations with Washington and European capitals: settlement expansion and legalization, reforms that could weaken the independence of the judiciary, crackdowns on the Arab minority.

“Israel always insists we are the only democracy in the Middle East. If you try to compromise major principles and tenets of democracy, then that will be a challenge,” Gilboa said.

 South African demonstrators and BDS activists hold placards during a protest in May 2021 outside the Israel Trade offices in Sandton, SA, following a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence (credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS) South African demonstrators and BDS activists hold placards during a protest in May 2021 outside the Israel Trade offices in Sandton, SA, following a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence (credit: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS)

Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Israel’s public diplomacy, similarly said that Israel “wants to be in the family of democratic states in the world.”

Israel has often pointed to rulings by the Supreme Court and its independence in major international debates over matters like the West Bank security barrier and should be cautious not to “undermine trust,” Shai said.

When speaking to Diaspora groups as a member of the outgoing government, Shai often pointed to its diversity, including nine female cabinet ministers, an Arab party, a gay minister and a minister with special needs, but the new coalition will have fewer than 10 women and none of the other categories.

Shai pointed out that this likely government is different from right-wing coalitions in the past in that there is no “internal balance.” Not only is there no centrist party in the coalition, but few moderates remain within the Likud.

“Jews, mainly Americans, but in other countries as well, are liberal and fight for human rights and minority rights, because they themselves are a minority,” Shai said. “In a democracy, the majority rules but considers the needs of the minority. That’s not what this government plans to do.”

Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians “creates very sharp dilemmas for Jews around the world” who face expectations to defend Israel, “and the Palestinian issue is eating away at support for Israel,” Shai said. “There’s a gap, a question of how we rule over another nation without giving them political rights for 50 years. International institutions like the UNHRC are constantly criticizing Israeli policies on these matters, and we don’t always have satisfactory answers.”

Shai also warned that some of the changes in matters of religion and state that parties in the likely government hope to make – rolling back recognition of non-Orthodox conversions for purposes of aliyah; not allowing people with one Jewish grandparent to move to Israel; no longer maintaining an egalitarian section at the Western Wall – “will distance us in an indescribable way from Reform and Conservative Jews.... Orthodox Jews are only about 10% in the US.”

That, in turn, will hurt Israel’s relations with foreign governments because Jews often play a “mediating role,” Shai said.

Gilboa expressed concern about Netanyahu’s “baggage” from the Obama years and his opposition to the Iran deal that increased tensions in his relations with Democrats and US Jewry, most of whom vote for Democrats.

Shai said he doesn’t expect some kind of mass abandonment of Israel by Diaspora Jews, but he said some Jews will hold back and be less proactive when it comes to relations with the Jewish state.

“They will be more careful,” he said. “Maybe they won’t go to rallies or events or sign petitions, because they feel Israel doesn’t respect their values. It will take time to see what changes.”

Beyond Diaspora Jewry, Gilboa’s research shows that two-thirds to three-fourths of Americans have consistently supported Israel since 2000, but over the years, that support became less bipartisan. Support from Democrats went down, and was replaced by more pro-Israel Republicans.

Now, Republicans control the House of Representatives, but the Senate and the executive are still controlled by Democrats.

“Many in Israel think that Republicans in the House could block or prevent [US President Joe] Biden from adopting any anti-Israel policies, but this has to be put in perspective. Biden is the president, and he has much more freedom of action in foreign affairs compared to domestic,” Gilboa pointed out.

“The challenge is how Netanyahu... can conduct public diplomacy to improve relations.... The main challenge of Israel is to restore bipartisanship,” he said.

Israel is “entering a difficult period,” Shai said. “It will be hard. I don’t know how Israeli hasbara [public diplomacy] will work out on this matter. We all try to explain it, but it’s not that simple.”

THEN THERE are the people working on the ground to advocate for Israel through various organizations.

Arsen Ostrovsky, CEO of the International Legal Forum, didn’t anticipate a difference with the new government.

“I don’t see any drastic impact with respect to engagement in Israel advocacy,” he said. “Our detractors and enemies don’t have much regard if it’s a left-wing or right-wing government. They object to Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state. Israel has had governments of all political persuasions in the last three decades, and the one constant has been Palestinian terror, rejection, and its [Palestinians’] enablement in the West.”

Ostrovsky pointed out that during the departing government, which included parties from across the political spectrum, there have been BDS campaigns, apartheid allegations and accusations coming from the UN, while the Abraham Accords and unprecedented engagement with the Arab world came when Netanyahu was in office.

Israel will always have to contend with diplomatic, security and legal challenges. That will not change, irrespective of which kind of government is in power,” he added.

Backlash from Israel's potential government  is already felt

However, on college campuses, which have long been a battleground for Israel advocates, the impact of the likely change in government can already be felt, even before the government is sworn in.

Julia Jassey, CEO Jewish on Campus and a University of Chicago senior, said a backlash is “already starting, with the kind of association of Zionism with racism and colonialism being heightened by a government that doesn’t inherently change the fabric of the country or its history, but stands for things that give more fodder to the accusers. It will get worse once the government takes power and actions are taken in that line, but we already see that rhetoric.”

Jassey said that Jewish students in Europe and in the US have had different responses.

Even before the election, the European Union of Jewish Students released a statement saying that “the rise of the far Right and their potential participation in the next Israeli government will further and embolden [antisemitic] statements and will have a direct effect on Jewish students in the Diaspora.” This week, the UK’s Union of Jewish Students voted to approve a statement saying that they “feel compelled to vocally denounce the potential inclusion of far-right ministers within the next government of Israel.... If we as a community call out the far Right in Britain and elsewhere, we must not turn a blind eye to the far Right in Israel.”

In the US, however, Jassey said there is more concern on campuses about being accused of dual loyalty, and feeding into such claims by commenting on Israel’s government.

At the same time, she said, “we advocate for Zionism, and the idea of what Zionism means is always misrepresented. People might think that a show of support for Israel and Zionism is a support for a government that has said racist things about Palestinians and is taking us away from a peaceful future.”

Jassey said she’s heard from Israelis who discouraged her from speaking out, because she is in the Diaspora, though she has many relatives in Israel.

On the flip side, they don’t know what it’s like to live in the Diaspora and be held accountable for a government you can’t control,” she said. “As a Jewish person, it does reflect on the community.

“It doesn’t mean we won’t defend the right of Israel to exist and have fair, democratic elections. Like with any other international issue, we will have opinions about it, and standing up for Zionism and a hope for peace does not mean defending this government,” she stated.•