Tide of Delegitimization

Observers maintain that the government does not comprehend the enormity of the delegitimization threat and hasn’t fashioned a strategy to meet it.

This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on March 1, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.
In the first two weeks of March, events marking Israel Apartheid Week were held on campuses in over 40 cities worldwide. A month earlier, Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., was shouted down at the University of California in Irvine. And last December, Kadima opposition leader Tzipi Livni canceled a visit to London, where a warrant had been issued for her arrest on war crimes charges. The common denominator in all three developments was a stepped-up public campaign to portray Israel as a racist state and serial violator of international law, with no right to be heard and no right to exist.
The delegitimization strategy is not new. But it is growing more insistent. And the danger is that if allowed to go unchecked it might achieve a critical mass that could seriously jeopardize Israel’s existence as the state of the Jewish people.
In comparing Israel to white supremacist apartheid South Africa, the delegitimizers have found the perfect tool for a potentially lethal two-pronged attack: If Israel is based on segregationist principles, it deserves to be spurned by the international community; and, if applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the South Africa solution, one man-one vote in a single unitary state, would mean the end of the two-state model, Israel and Palestine, and the end of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people. In other words, getting the Israel-apartheid analogy to stick is a formula for Israel’s dismantlement.
The delegitimizers emphasize the ethnicity of the conflict and argue domination of one group over another; they also point to symbols like the security barrier between Israel and the West Bank, which they call the “Apartheid Wall,” insinuating that it was built for segregationist reasons. The Israeli narrative maintains that the barrier was built to keep terrorists out of Israel’s cities after a murderous campaign of Palestinian suicide bombings; that Israel is an embattled state fighting for its life, maintaining democracy in difficult circumstances and perversely discredited by enemies as a means of destroying it. In the Israeli view, the attempts at delegitimization are nothing less than war by other means.
Indeed, Israeli analysts argue that for some time now the guiding assumption for many of the country’s inveterate foes in the Arab world and the West has been that while Israel cannot be defeated on the battlefield, it can be brought down the way supremacist white South Africa was: through an incremental erosion of its legitimacy, backed up by an ever widening campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS). Some BDS advocates claim that their goal is to force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territory in service of the two-state solution. Skeptical Israelis, however, argue that in most cases their true motives are quite the contrary, designed to destroy the Jewish state by undermining the two-state paradigm.
Over the past decade, the delegitimizers have had a number of high profile successes, the most notable of which were the 2001 Durban anti-racism conference which targeted Israel, and last year’s United Nations Human Rights Council’s Goldstone Report which made allegations of Israeli war crimes in Gaza. Both energized an ongoing campaign that has been making inroads in academia, trade unions, churches, the media, the U.N. and international legal forums.
Worse: In recent years the challenge to Israel has been exacerbated by the “new media,” through a glut of malicious anti-Israel blogging on the Web and the use of social networking to mobilize anti-Israel activities.
The danger for Israel is the potential spread of delegitimization from fringe to mainstream opinion, and from there to decision-makers and government policies. And the question is: To what extent are Israel’s decision-makers and civil society ready to meet the challenge?
Some astute observers maintain that the government does not fully comprehend the enormity of the threat and has yet to fashion a coherent strategy to meet it. For some time now the Reut Institute, a non-partisan Tel Aviv-based think tank, has been making the case for a paradigm shift in thinking about delegitimization, and is urging the powers that be to relate to it with the same seriousness as they do to the military threats Israel faces.
In a paper presented to the 10th annual Herzliya Conference on national security in early February, Reut warned of the ripening of a common strategy between Islamist rejectionists – like Hamas, Hizballah and Iran – and an increasingly effective and coordinated alliance of Islamist and local delegitimizers in the West. According to Reut, both aim to bring Israel down by weakening it politically and economically, and ultimately forcing a one-state solution with a Muslim majority. Paradoxically, the rejectionist strategy is to force Israel into maintaining the occupation – which “overstretches” it economically and politically – to which the Western-based delegitimizers seek to add boycotts, divestment and sanctions, and arguments for the one-state solution.
Both the rejectionists and the delegitimizers work assiduously to undermine the two-state paradigm, which they see as a means of extricating Israel from its international predicament as an occupying power. The delegitimizers are particularly active in places like London, Madrid and the California Bay Area, which Reut calls “hubs,” where they form grass-roots “networks” of activists, NGOs and fellow travelers against Israel. According to the Reut Report, the “tipping point” in their work would be growing international consensus around the one-state solution.
“Perhaps the existential threat to Israel is not yet around the corner. But as we know from history, state paradigms collapse exponentially. Suddenly a few things happen to create an irresistible momentum, as happened with the Soviet Union or with apartheid South Africa,” Eran Shayshon, one of the authors of the Reut Report warns.
Late last year, Shayshon made a case study of delegitimization activities in London. During two visits in November and December, a small Reut contingent conducted more than 60 interviews with journalists, international jurists, politicians, human rights activists and members of Jewish and Muslim communities.
They found that the so-called “Red-Green Alliance” between radical left-wing British delegitimizers and Islamist groups in Britain is far more organized and institutionalized than first thought. They also discovered what Shayshon calls the “smoking gun” of direct contact between the radical British left and rejectionist organizations like Hamas, Hizballah and Islamic Jihad at gatherings like the annual Cairo Anti-War Conference.
To combat the growing threat, Shayshon argues that the country’s decision-makers need first to internalize the fact that Israel is facing a challenge with potentially existential repercussions. That means the delegitimization problem should be addressed in the National Security Estimate. It also means a thorough overhaul of Israel’s Foreign Service. Shaped in the 1950s, Israeli diplomacy is geared to handle states and geographic areas, not “hubs” and “networks.” In Shayshon’s view, the new focus should be on the “hubs,” like London, Madrid and the Bay Area, where dozens of additional diplomats should be deployed to engage as many people as possible in the decision-making elites on a one-to-one basis.
The main goal should be to prevent delegitimization spreading from the fringes to the mainstream. “We need to drive a wedge between bona fide critics of Israeli policy and the promoters of delegitimacy. This distinction is very important. Genuine criticism of Israel may sometimes be harsh and even unfair, but it is legitimate; delegitimization is not. We are talking about fringe political forces whose strength depends on their ability to harness mainstream critics of Israeli policy. And we need to create a solid firewall against delegitimacy,” Shayshon tells The Report.
Another major Reut recommendation is to build anti-delegitimization networks based on Jewish and Israeli groups abroad, including NGOs. They would be better equipped than government agencies to confront and discredit the delegitimizers. “It takes a network to fight a network,” Shayshon says.
Despite the problematic marketing connotations, Shayshon is also strongly in favor of ongoing moves to “rebrand” Israel as a fount of “creative energy,” emphasizing its high-tech and science, burgeoning economy, entrepreneurial zeal, energetic lifestyle and vibrant diversity of opinion and culture. Skeptics argue that to sophisticated Western ears this sounds suspiciously like a transparent stratagem to divert attention from problem areas like occupation and conflict. No, says Shayshon, whereas in the world of commerce people often try to market a poor product through brilliant branding, with Israel, it’s just the opposite.
“Israel is an excellent product with terrible branding. Anyone who comes here will immediately see it is not an apartheid state. We need to close the perception gap, by showing people what Israel really is,” he avers.
Partly because of Israel’s poor branding – to some extent a function of the stigmatizing work of the delegitimizers – supporting the Palestinian cause has become a trendy thing to do. As a result, progressive, enlightened forces, who should ostensibly be on the Israeli open society side of the equation, often tend to side against it.
“For example, there was a gay parade in Toronto last year against ‘Israeli Apartheid.’ At a time when homosexuals are hanged in Tehran and homosexuals from Gaza flee to Tel Aviv, which will host the global gay parade in 2012, you get gays siding with the darkest fundamentalist forces against Israel. It’s absurd,” Shayshon declares.
For the past nine years, the rebranding project has been in the hands of the Foreign Ministry, and, starved of funding, has made little headway. Shayshon argues that the time has come to declare it a national project and to allocate the much larger budgets that entails.
Some aspects of the problem, though, are not subject to governmental treatment. Indeed, one of the key delegitimization battles is being waged in the arena of human rights, spearheaded by high-profile non-governmental organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, whose often harshly critical findings on Israel add fuel to the delegitimizers’ fire.
Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, an Israeli NGO that closely scrutinizes their work, points to what he sees as an inherent anti-Israel bias among many of the leading human-rights NGOs, for which he argues there are clear historic roots. After the Cold War ended, he says, the NGOs turned to local conflicts, of which the Israeli-Arab was the most visible. There, Arab control of U.N. human rights mechanisms gave them easy access and created a symbiotic relationship. Israel’s occupation of Arab territory made it an obvious target for a strong post-colonial ideology, which, in some cases, was exacerbated by residual European anti-Semitism. All this, says Steinberg, came pouring out at the Durban anti-racism conference in 2001. “There were 1,500 NGOs there, and the only specific condemnatory language they adopted was on Israel. They talked about using human rights claims and the sanctions process to isolate Israel as an apartheid state,” he tells The Report.
NGO monitor was founded in the wake of the Durban conference and the government’s failure to deal effectively with NGO criticism of Israel. Its modus operandi has been to expose NGO bias and error, “naming and shaming” the perpetrators and their sponsors. A recent case was the exposure of Marc Garlasco, a Human Rights Watch “military affairs expert” who provided material for the Goldstone Report, as an inveterate collector of Nazi memorabilia with limited military credentials. Initially suspended by HRW, Garlasco left the organization in March. “They have been forced on the defensive, and I think we will see over time a more careful approach. Over the past six months, for the first time, HRW has been focusing more on Hamas than on Israel,” Steinberg asserts.
That, though, is only a small victory in a larger campaign Steinberg believes Israel is losing, partly because the government has no idea of how to deal with “soft power,” like NGO and other stigmatization of Israel, and is quite oblivious to the seriousness of the delegitimization threat. “They don’t understand how the media, the Internet and the international system work when it comes to ‘soft power.’ So they are easily targeted,” he claims.
Moreover, according to Steinberg, things are only getting worse, and the grim possibility of Israel receiving South Africa-style BDS treatment is growing. “It’s like a disease that has been neglected for too long. If you look at what’s happening in Europe, where there is more and more mainstream questioning of Israel’s legitimacy, and a growing willingness on campuses to besmirch Israel, Israel Apartheid Week, and the silent boycott of Israeli academics, it does have a long-term debilitating effect. And given the tensions with [President Barack] Obama, it could spread in the United States too,” Steinberg contends.
    For some Israeli experts the campaign to delegitimize Israel is a manifestation of a new form of global anti-Semitism. According to Manfred Gerstenfeld, chairman of the Board of Fellows at the right-tending Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, after Christian religious anti-Semitism and Nazi racial anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism entered a third phase, targeting Israel.
“The basic premise of anti-Semitism is that Jews constitute the largest evil at any given time. And in its third phase, it is the State of Israel that embodies all evil,” he asserts. In his view, the campaign to delegitimize Israel parallels the total global war against the Jews waged by anti-Semites in the 20th century – the only difference being that the Nazi war against the Jews was centralized, whereas in the post-modern world of the 21st century, the war against Israel is a highly fragmented affair, fought by countless groups of different sizes. “In the modern era of the 20th century, there was one huge chimney, the German Nazi party, spreading its poison all over the world; in post-modernity the poison is spread by the exhausts of millions of cars,” he elaborates. “It’s highly fragmented and therefore successive Israeli governments, not having made the effort to understand the phenomenon, have had so much difficulty combating it.”
Gerstenfeld, who has been active in combating anti-Semitism internationally, believes the best way to counter it is through selective tough reaction. “There must be no free anti-Semitic lunch,” he counsels, adding that the best way to achieve this is to “focus all your forces on a few of your enemies. Most people are cowards. If you take down one, another thousand will be afraid.”
Critics of Israel argue that blanket accusations of anti-Semitism are often used to stifle debate about problematic Israeli policies. In other words, that labeling people as anti-Semites is an ad hominem tactic designed to discredit whatever they have to say. Israeli critics of the delegitimizers retort that their denial of anti-Semitic bias is often a ruse to disguise the fact that their goal is not criticism of Israel, but its dismantlement.
Gerstenfeld, who also monitors anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli phenomena in academia, edited a 2007 book called, “Academics against Israel and the Jews.” In this and later work, he shows that the situation on campuses in Europe and America is not all doom and gloom.
The most instructive example is the failure of academic boycott moves in the U.K. against Israeli scholars, students and institutions. In 2007, Britain’s University and College Union (UCU) rescinded a boycott resolution after more than 400 American University and College presidents declared they wouldn’t work with institutions that boycott Israeli academics.
That, however, was not the only tough response against the would-be boycotters. Indeed, the boycott moves spawned a string of legal, moral and organizational counter-moves. In 2002, Ronnie Fraser, a lecturer at Barnet College in London founded the Academic Friends of Israel; in 2005, a second anti-boycott organization called Engage, incorporating Jewish and non-Jewish academics, was established; the 2006 report by an All-Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (sic) chaired by Labor MP Denis MacShane included a chapter on campus anti-Semitism; in 2007, Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the prestigious Russell Group of the 20 largest U.K. universities wrote: “We reject outright the call for an academic boycott. It is a contradiction in terms and in direct conflict with the mission of a university;” and attorney Anthony Julius, representing members of the UCU, threatened to sue the organization under the terms of the U.K. Race Relations Act if it went ahead with boycott plans.
The anti-boycott backlash peaked in July 2008, when, during a visit to Israel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown launched the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership, a new academic exchange program, known by the acronym BIRAX.
Similarly, perceived anti-Israel bias on campuses in the U.S. led to the emergence of several pro-Israel bodies, for example StandWithUs in 2001, the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and Campus Watch in 2002, and the International Academic Friends of Israel (IAFI) in 2003.
StandWithUs, which helps organize pro-Israel campus activities and provides students with relevant material on Israel and the Middle East, was particularly active on campuses worldwide during Israel Apartheid Week. The argument it made was that apartheid analogies are not applicable to Israel, but, that, on the contrary, elements of apartheid-like discrimination can be found among Israel’s Arab neighbors. It produced a booklet entitled “Middle Eastern Apartheid Today,” highlighting gender discrimination, persecution of minority religions and the hounding of gays in Muslim countries. “Our mission is not to have a dialogue with the people promoting Israel Apartheid Week. It’s to make sure that the poison they are secreting regarding Israel doesn’t spread,” StandWithUs Jerusalem director Michael Dickson tells The Report.
With over 60 staff worldwide, StandWithUs is active on hundreds of campuses across the globe, and holds leadership courses in the U.S. and in Israel. It has distributed over a million copies of its basic PR booklet, “Israel Primer 101,” which has been translated into Hebrew, Spanish and Chinese. “What we are confronting is a drip-drip effect of delegitimizing Israel. That’s a process that’s been going on since Oslo and I don’t think it peaks or troughs with the peace process. It’s ongoing and that’s why we need to keep countering it,” says Dickson.
Not all specialists in the field agree with Dickson’s assumption that when it comes to combating delegitimization, it doesn’t matter what the government does. Hirsh Goodman, head of the Bronfman program in Information Strategy, at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), argues that Israel’s image has been dogged by a persistent failure to respond in real time to bogus or exaggerated allegations of military wrongdoing – for example, in Jenin 2002, Kana 2006, or in the Goldstone Report 2009. Goodman, a former editor of The Report, is currently working with government officials to counteract today’s instant dissemination of images from the battlefield by shaping responses based on real time intelligence. “We don’t want policy makers to make a mess of things then rely on hasbara (PR) to clean it up. We’d like to see an end to hasbara,” he tells The Report.
A related problem with which Israeli media experts are grappling is what Noam Lemelshtrich-Latar, dean of the School of Communications at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center, calls “cyber advocacy.” He argues that to fight anti-Israel propaganda on the Web and through social networks, government PR is not the answer. Instead, he says, the government should work with NGOs and academic institutions. It should give them information and support, and let them work with the social networks, mediating between the government and the people.
Lemelshtrich-Latar suggests doing this through a new media operationscenter, operated by an NGO or Research Institute, which steers wellclear of propaganda and allows for many differing Israeli narratives.But he is pessimistic that his proposed model will be adopted. “Thepoliticians are working against it. They like power. They like control.The last thing they want to do is share power with others,” he tellsThe Report.
But clearly in the fight for mainstream support, Israel is hampered bythe perception of the current government as less peace-oriented thanits predecessors. While peace moves will not help Israel with thehard-core delegitimizers, they could be crucial in driving a wedgebetween the delegitimizers and the mainstream. As much as rebranding,instant battlefield responses, sophisticated Web structures and astronger presence in the hubs of delegitimization, Israel needs genuineand credible peace messages.   
This article was published in The Jerusalem Report on March 1, 2010. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report, click here.