I’m a believer

Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein says Israel can win the war of ideas.

Netanyahu, Edelstein (photo credit: Courtesy)
Netanyahu, Edelstein
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Stacked high on the shelves in the waiting area outside the office of Minister of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein are brochures of all sizes and in various languages, containing facts about the State of Israel.
Thanks to the information contained in that literature, in just several minutes, one preparing to meet with the minister can get a picture of the work Edelstein has been involved with since being tasked by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 2009, just a month after forming a government – with launching an official body responsible for identifying and implementing ways to change Israel’s image around the world.
Despite what he calls many “bureaucratic obstacles along the way, particularly just after the ministry’s inception,” and despite other shortcomings, Edelstein is convinced that Israel has made tremendous strides over the past several years in making its case to the world.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post from his Givat Shaul office, Edelstein repeatedly and humbly stresses that while he is extremely satisfied with any role he has played in improving the country’s public diplomacy initiatives, he believes the true credit goes to the “millions of Israel’s friends around the world, who stand up for her, time and time again.”
With all of the government bodies out there charged with explaining Israel’s positions – the Prime Minister’s Office, the Government Press Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the IDF Spokesman’s Office, and others, at the end of the day, who is ultimately in charge of getting out the message on behalf of the country?
As part of the lessons learned from the past, including the Second Lebanon War, and the resulting State Comptroller’s Report demanding better coordination in messages emanating from Israel, coordination mostly goes through the Hasbara headquarters in the Prime Minister’s Office. Whether it’s weekly meetings or conference calls – more or less we are getting to a stage where, as [British naval war hero in the late 18th and early 19th century] Admiral Nelson used to say, “Every man remembers his duty.”
To be clear, from time to time things do fall between the cracks, and sometimes there is tension between offices. We at this ministry view ourselves as responsible – not in deciding how the government reacts to international developments, but in building the infrastructure for our messages, and for getting friends of Israel, including the Diaspora Jewish communities, involved in presenting Israel for the way it really is, and not in the way our enemies want us to look.
If a pro-Israel activist either here or abroad is looking for information, what is the most important resource your ministry can offer?
We definitely offer a lot via our first website, called “masbirim Israel” (www.masbirim.gov.il), a resource which includes many facts and figures about Israel. There is our new website, which unfortunately took a long time to develop because of bureaucracy, which is www.hasbara.gov.il, and while currently it is still only in Hebrew, we have plans to open the site in many languages very shortly.
This site provides information in real time. In addition, we moved the Government Press Office (the GPO, which is now under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy) after 22 years to a new state- of-the-art facility in the Malha Technological Park where most foreign bureaus are located. I sincerely hope there will be a real flow of information from the GPO, which will soon include the ability to access all archived GPO photographs on Israel taken in the past 64-plus years, for free on the Web for non-commercial use.
So the word “hasbara...”
[The minister is quick to cut the question off] Is a bad word. We use the words “public diplomacy” and this is not just semantics. The word “hasbara” conjures an image of someone shouting at a Palestinian representative and a Palestinian shouting back and whoever shouts the loudest is the winner. I think the world is terribly tired of these scenes.
In today’s topsy-turvy world someone who wears a suit and tie and is called “minister” or “ambassador” is much less relevant in public diplomacy than someone who has a cup of coffee with you in an airport. So what we’re trying to do is recruit as many Israelis and friends of Israel as possible to get involved in this public diplomacy effort, and what this does is neutralize those who say that government officials making Israel’s case are really just spouting their personal political views.
As far as building a very broad consensus of citizen activists, I think that these people can definitely contribute a lot just by presenting Israel the way it really is.
Israel is often portrayed as just being about the conflict, but by getting involved back and forth with these topics we miss the opportunity to present ourselves as a hitech country, a developing society, a democracy, full of culture – you name it.
We at the ministry are trying to put our money where our mouth is. Most of our projects are centered on trying to reach the goal of bringing people to Israel, especially opinion makers – not politicians but Hollywood celebrities and TV personalities. It’s enough to have a look at their social media accounts when they get home – when a celebrity has hundreds of thousands of followers and when he, for example, tweets on how wonderful all aspects of the country are, I think that’s a very powerful message.
We also bring talk-radio broadcasters here from the United States, who are usually already pro-Israel, and while some question the point of this, I say that it’s important not to forget and to strengthen your base of support.
But even those who are on our side still have what to learn. I recently accompanied a popular talk-radio host along with other foreign journalists on a tour of Samaria. After a visit to the Barkan Industrial Park, this radio host was astounded to see that Jews and Arabs work together. He didn’t know that existed.
In addition, we also send representatives abroad, for example our recent “Faces of Israel” campaign, where activists visited young people in more than 10 countries showing them how diverse our society really is.
At first they might think this is some kind of Zionist propaganda campaign, but when an Israeli immigrant from Ethiopia is on campus having a beer with a student from that country, or they see an Arab or a Druse proud to be Israeli – they get a different picture of the reality which is obvious to us, but isn’t to people around the world. And remember these youngsters on campus – in 20 years from now, they will be the leaders of their communities.
After hearing you just say that hasbara is “a bad word,” I was going to ask, doesn’t the term imply a defensive mentality?
Yes, the word hasbara is a defensive term. I said bad, but what I meant is I don’t always have to explain that I’m not guilty. We are the only democracy in the region, and I hate saying that because I wish there were 20 other democracies here in the Middle East, but that’s not the situation.
We can talk about other issues and I don’t feel like we need to always explain why we reacted for example to Hamas. That’s why I feel that we need to be active in showing people the real Israel, and how Israelis really live. We are not a country of wars, but of hi-tech startups, medical development and culture.
In fact people were shocked (because of potential ramifications for me politically), but I was the first one last summer to talk about how the social protests did a lot of good for our image abroad. This was great to show young people around the world, that young people here in this country have the same issues and concerns just like them.
Back to the new website and your other social media strategies, what is being done via the Internet to get out Israel’s message?
We have people here at the ministry working on this full time. We have a new webmaster updating the site (Hebrew) in real time, and as I said, with other languages coming soon. And we have people actively utilizing the social network. We have over 200,000 subscribers to our email updates, and we are using Facebook – both the ministry and me personally. I am always putting things up on my page. Also we’re on Twitter and use all other available facilities possible so that those who want to single out Israel and try to show that we are the worst evil on earth can’t reach their goal.
What would you single out in particular as the ministry’s single greatest success over the past three years?
It’s very difficult to take credit for this or that, but I always say in our battle that there is no knockout; we are working all the time. In general, and even recently, I read articles about successes in the Israeli government in fighting BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) campaigns, but no one says “thanks to Yuli Edelstein we have all these successes,” but we are proud to be part of this effort and the change of atmosphere.
I would also say that particularly in Israel, since we opened this office there has been a growing awareness of the importance of Israel’s public diplomacy efforts. For example, take the Reut Institute (a Tel Aviv-based government think tank), who may not be the most affiliated with today’s government, but when they issued a report about the successes of the Israeli government in fighting delegitimization, you can see our accomplishments.
In terms of specifics, there is a whole list. Israel’s success in thwarting the Palestinian bid for statehood in the United Nations – again it’s not me personally, but we were part of the effort – is one example. Since the Marmara [Turkish flotilla], they have been unsuccessful in any other such attacks on Israel – knock on wood – whether the second flotilla, or the “flytilla.”
But we had it tough. The concept in the minds of those Israelis, even those dealing with the issues, was “now there is a ministry and they’ll do the job.” It’s not a question of having a billion dollars for this ministry, which we obviously don’t have. You [friends of Israel], need to help do the job. The job is to change the atmosphere.
We can’t compete with petrol dollars, but we have enough friends around the world, and Israelis traveling, and together we can change the atmosphere.
Lastly, we were in a situation – like a soccer team that keeps losing, they go into their next match and already know they can’t win – that was the attitude of many Israelis – that “the whole world is against us, there is nothing you can do.” So why am I bringing this up?
For example, the Palestinians started a Facebook page called “the third intifada” which called for violence and the destruction of Israel and it already had 250,000 likes, so I wrote a letter to [Facebook creator] Mark Zuckerberg, and people laughed at me, but after three days the page was removed – not because they got scared of me, but because it contradicts their values, the same way Facebook doesn’t want pornography on it, they also don’t want political violence.
A month later, there was a similar story with an anti- Israel Apple application. So I turned to Steve Jobs and within three days they removed the application. Once again, it’s not because I scared them, but when you bring to their attention that a group is promoting violence and hatred and anti-democratic ideas through their network, they react.
These are examples of how when we organize ourselves properly. The same occurred with the “flytillas” when we worked with foreign governments and the anti-Israel activists [attempting to fly into Israel] were arrested in Paris, Athens and London, before they even got on the planes, this shows what happens when there is a change in atmosphere and you take the initiative, and understand that there is a fair chance of success.
What then needs to be improved from your perspective in the ministry?
There is a long list of things we can improve on. While I said that there is good coordination with all the ministries, that could be even better. Also our budget is less than that of a small company’s public relations budget. I hope the budget increases and our staff grows, so that we will be able to activate millions to do the job.
As far as real public diplomacy is concerned, by definition it should be unaffiliated, meaning non-governmental, as in, the public doesn’t need to know the government is behind certain efforts. Therefore we can use more non-conventional methods – such as the use of satire or humor. Here we still have to find the proper coordination between our government ministry and the modern world, in order to combat campaigns directed against us.
With the improvements over the last several years, bottom line, can Israel win this war of ideas?
It can, on two conditions: First, if we believe that we can, and I think there has been a change of atmosphere in this regard, but we still need improvement. There are still too many people who raise their hands too easily in defeat. Second, if we have an infrastructure of millions of people who can share the truth about Israel. Everyone can contribute with very little effort.
And the reason I believe we can win is simple: in my three years here, I’ve never had to lie. We are selling a very good product called the State of Israel. It just unfortunately has been marketed in the wrong way on many occasions. We don’t have to lie, we just have to get Israel’s message out to as many people as possible, and in the modern world this is possible. That’s why I believe we can win.