Fighting the PR war

Nachman Shai’s ‘Hearts and Minds’ examines how Israel can work on its public image.

Nachman Shai (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Nachman Shai
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Is Israel the victim of bad PR? If it worked harder at presenting a positive image to the world, would tides change in its favor? Zionist Union MK Nachman Shai’s newest book, Hearts and Minds: Israel and the Battle for Public Opinion, puts this theory to the test.
Just over a month ago, Israel celebrated the opening of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, where the world’s greatest power officially recognized our country’s capital. But over the border in Gaza, people marked the day differently, continuing their weekly violent riots at the border. A Hamas-supported invasion attempt raged, with rioters throwing firebombs and shooting at IDF soldiers and into Israeli towns in the Gaza periphery.
The international news told a different story. They juxtaposed the smiling faces of the embassy opening’s attendees with the Palestinians killed at the riot. “Daddy’s Little Ghoul,” the front page of the New York Daily News read, next to a photo of US President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump. “55 slaughtered in Gaza, but Ivanka all smiles at Jerusalem embassy unveil,” was the subheadline.
The story many people read wasn’t one of a nation proud of its history, defending its citizens. It was of a callous group of people grinning and cutting ribbons while killing dozens – never mind that it soon came out that the vast majority of those killed were members of terrorist organizations.
Shai’s book, newly translated into English and based on his doctoral thesis, tackles the question of Israeli public relations. He is a Knesset member and a candidate for Jerusalem mayor, but his experience makes him uniquely qualified to write on this topic.
Shai is best known as “Mr. Valium,” a name he earned during his service as IDF spokesman from 1988 to 1991. During the Gulf War, he was the one who went on TV to tell Israelis to stay calm in their sealed rooms, even as Scud missiles fell on central Israel.
His most famous advice? “Drink water,” which he called an attempt to “inject a bit of humor” into what was “a difficult atmosphere.” One of the most compelling sections of the book is when Shai talks about his personal experience as IDF spokesman and how decisions were made to maintain the trust of Israelis, by telling them as much as possible without jeopardizing their security.
Shai was also briefly responsible for directing Israel’s hasbara, or public diplomacy efforts, at the outbreak of the Second Intifada, and he recounts the challenges of operating in a system that doesn’t have uniform messages. Senior ministers in thenprime minister Ehud Barak’s government could not even agree on whether or not to blame then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat for the violence, with then-foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami refusing to give Israeli missions abroad a report on Arafat’s direct involvement in terrorism.
“Unlike the chaos on the Israeli side, the Palestinians had a small number of spokespersons who adhered to uniform hasbara guidelines in their public appearances,” Shai wrote.
The book goes far beyond his personal experiences, and provides a comprehensive overview of Israeli public diplomacy. The book includes a brief academic overview of the relationship between soft power – culture, values, peaceful foreign policy – and hard power – military and economic – to create “smart power” for the state. Those who insist bad PR is Israel’s biggest problem may learn that policy has a lot to do with how a country is portrayed, and even the best spin doctors can’t fix everything.
Shai ends the book with a policy prescription for one of Israel’s current major public diplomacy problems: the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. He says that the counter is “diplomatic measures, such as discourse with the Palestinian Authority and steps towards a two-state solution.” This, of course, does not address the fact that the founder of the BDS movement Omar Barghouti thinks there is no legitimacy for a Jewish state to exist and therefore a two-state solution would not satisfy its hard-liners if one of the states resembles the State of Israel.
Much of the book focuses on history, reviewing wars and major events in Israeli history and discussing whether or not the government paid attention to global public opinion and what structures were in place to explain Israel’s position.
One in-depth case study examines the shooting of 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura in 2000, which became a symbol of the Second Intifada. Israel’s response “proved disorganized and contradictory, with very different statements coming from various sources,” Shai writes. The IDF first took responsibility, then an investigation showed the army wasn’t at fault, but the footage went viral, a court case raged in France and the matter never quite went away.
It was, Shai writes “a test case for the impact of the media, the impressions it creates and Israel’s response to them.”
There’s something a bit depressing about seeing history repeat itself. Over and over the government doesn’t invest enough in public diplomacy, doesn’t anticipate PR disasters, or rushes to give an immediate response that it must later retract.
The book is also instructive, offering different models of how Israel can move forward. Anyone involved in representing Israel’s case abroad would find this book to be an asset, with ways to learn from the past and reflect on the future.