Learning to state the case

Could it be that Israel's hasbara efforts are getting more proactive and even effective?

JPost talkback add (photo credit: )
JPost talkback add
(photo credit: )
Those who love Israel love to hate the country's efforts at hasbara loosely defined as public diplomacy. The Jerusalem Post's op-ed pages, for starters, would be distinctly thinner without the perennial grumbling about Israel's inability to get its side of the story across and to counter its image, in the minds of many around the world, as an “apartheid state.” The inadequacy is seen as all the more grievous given the graphic horror of suicide bombings and the fact that Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East. But could it be that Israel's hasbara efforts are getting more proactive and even dare it be written effective? In November, the Foreign Ministry, in cooperation with the Jewish Agency, will be launching a month-long e-learning course for “those who want to help [Israel's] global image.” The instructors are the same people who train Foreign Ministry diplomats and the course work is in Middle East history and Israel's diplomatic challenges. It is an enhanced, ready-for-primetime version of a program piloted last year, and it is expected to give 1,000 Israel supporters better tools for “Stating the Case,” as the $60 course is called, when confronted with anti-Israel charges. The ministry's major initiative, however, is to steer the country away from the conflict altogether. The as-yet unnamed project will be unveiled internationally in the next three to six months. Gideon Meir, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for media and public affairs, terms the project “Israel behind the headlines” and describes its purpose as providing a wider perspective on Israel than is currently afforded by the media, which, he says, views the country only from “the helmet of the soldier.” Even Israel has somewhat fallen into this trap, as the word hasbara implies: it's rooted in the Hebrew word meaning “explanation,” and is therefore essentially reactive and pointed in its nature. With market research by a prominent US firm showing Americans fatigued by and indifferent to the conflict here, Israel wants to “rebrand” itself as the “producers of Nobel Prize winners, while the Arabs produce suicide bombers,” in the words of Meir. The ministry has already started working on the project, dedicating a link on the Foreign Ministry Web site to “Israel beyond politics” and sending out weekly bulletins to embassies about Israeli achievements in fields other than battle. The ministry is also bringing international journalists who specialize in topics such as architecture and food to expose them to stories about which they might not have been aware. The government's “growing sophistication” when it comes to hasbara is already paying off, according to Calev Ben-David, the director of the Israel office of The Israel Project, an organization which tries to improve Israel's image by educating the press and public about Israel. The Israel Project conducts polls to assess public opinion about the country and its policies. One of its surveys asked: “Regardless of which side you may support in this conflict, has what you have seen, read or heard about this conflict recently given you a more favorable or a less favorable impression of Israel?” In January Americans were split evenly with 32 percent saying “more favorable” and 32% “less favorable.” In post-disengagement August, the figures had shifted to 45% more favorable and 25% less favorable. “That shows there was definitely a more favorable impression given,” he says. He acknowledges that the withdrawal was, in itself, a more popular Israeli policy than many others, but notes that Palestinians tried to depict it as creating a prison in Gaza and other catastrophes. “The public didn't buy it,” he says, “And the primary credit goes to the efforts by the government.” The Israel Project did its part by providing a positive buzz in the form of an open bar for journalists at the disengagement media camp outside the Gaza Strip. But Ben-David points to the Foreign Ministry “staying on message” in describing the move as a “painful decision for the sake of peace;” the IDF calling up its “best people” to speak to the media in a wide variety of languages; and, perhaps most crucially, the IDF's decision to give the international media virtually unfettered access to the evacuation operation. Ben-David praises the “improvement” he's seen in the government's hasbara efforts in recent years, particularly its “increased awareness that they should be doing things in an organized, scientific way using the [marketing] tools that are used elsewhere.” Ben-David traces the government's “wake-up” call regarding the importance of hasbara to the post-Camp David period when Israel was still offering a peace deal to the Palestinians while defending itself from suicide bombers; yet media coverage and activism was “very against Israel.” Until then, he said, the attitude was that policy alone dictated news content. Even with this newfound awareness, it's taken the government some time to mobilize. And according to Meir of the Foreign Ministry, the public diplomacy budget has been reduced from NIS 60 million at the start of the intifada to NIS 39m., with another NIS 1m. to be slashed in 2006, undercutting claims that the government really gets the importance of the hasbara task. In the meantime, private not-for-profit organizations like Ben-David's have cropped up to pick up some of the slack. “Our successes have provided an example that this focus can work, which has possibly prompted the Foreign Ministry to adopt all these different programs,” said David Brinn, the editorial director of ISRAEL21c, whose stories try to show the positive difference for instance in medical advances that Israel makes in Americans' lives. The privately funded, America-based ISRAEL21c counts 2,500 articles published in Time, the Wall Street Journal, and the like as coming from its PR efforts. Ben-David said it can sometimes be unfair to criticize the government for its limited hasbara efforts, noting it doesn't have the funding or license to provide some of the services such as free booze that private organizations can. “There is a tremendous amount of money and a tremendous amount of [non-governmental organizations] that basically propagandize on the part of the Palestinians,” Ben-David adds, “Nobody says, why isn't the PA doing its job?”
Click here to send us your comments >> Boris Lubetzky, Auckland, New Zealand: Before Gideon Meir, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for media and public affairs embarks on yet another "project" maybe he should first explain why his Ministry did not respond to the following inquiry. On Friday August 19, 2005, an article was published in New Zealand Herald. The author is a UNICEF employee Georgina Newman - communications manager for Unicef NZ. In one paragraph she claims that Israeli forces in Gaza hide explosive devices in toys to attract Palestinian children. I have sent this information with a request to comment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs feedback@mfa.gov.il to IDF info@mail.idf.il and to UNICEF Israel unicefil@015.net.il. Guess what - not one response! What's the point of having "contact us" link? Israel is always asking Diaspora Jews to help in any way we can. And we do, even in the far away New Zealand. We write letters, try to educate the public at large, talk to the politicians trying to explain Israel side of the story. Especially when UNICEF NZ accuses Israel of war crimes. Although two months past since this article appeared whoever reads this letter will help tremendously by contacting MFA, IDF and UNICEF Israel and demanding explanation for their poor performance in the public relations area. And if you wish to contact UNICEF New Zealand regarding Georgina Newman's claim you can do so by writing to UNICEF New Zealand - 2helpkids@unicef.org.nz and to Director General of UNICEF NZ - Dennis McKinlay - dennis@unicef.org.nz. Dave Goodman, San Diego, CA: The continuing failure of Israel to act in its own interest is illustrated by charging $60 for this training, which obviously should be offered free of charge. Have you noticed that Israel needs more supporters? Not all of us can afford these fees. I personally have been denied a scholarship to the pilot program in spite of volunteering hours each week in support of Israel. Michael Dar, Israel: There has never been any clear policy regarding "propaganda" in Israel. Everything has always been taken for granted, (again that well known stupid and arrogant Israeli attitude: "Everything will be all right - hakol yehiye b'seder!) and our so-called leadership never really understood the importance of it. Also how can we explain Israel's case when an evergrowing number of Israelis accept and even promote the so-called Palestinian narrative of events, lies and propaganda. How can we furthermore pretend being the only Democracy in the region when the whole state apparatus, en block, as in a conspiracy, dictatorship, overlooks and disregards the legitime results of democratically held free elections? Something is rotten and stinks! What is the difference between Algeria and Israel, in that respect? As far back as in 1982 I suggested, amongst many other things that "Propaganda" be placed under military authority (no longer in the hands of socialist-leftist political public sevants) and be turned instead into a special elite unit. That "Galei Tzahal" would be turned into some kind of "Voice of America" broadcasting all over the Arab-Muslim world presenting forcefully our just side of the story and wage an effective psychological warfare. But who am I to be listened to?