Israel needs compelling stories, not just facts, to win the PR war - opinion

Just as Zionist pioneers were tree-planters, not firefighters, Israel’s defenders must be visionary, not reactive. We need Zionist poetry, not just defensive Israeli prose.

'Long live the Intifada': Palestinians and pro-Palestinian supporters protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza amid days of conflict between the two sides, in Brooklyn, New York, US, May 15, 2021.  (photo credit: RASHID UMAR ABBASI / REUTERS)
'Long live the Intifada': Palestinians and pro-Palestinian supporters protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza amid days of conflict between the two sides, in Brooklyn, New York, US, May 15, 2021.
(photo credit: RASHID UMAR ABBASI / REUTERS)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has wisely decided to relaunch the Public Diplomacy Directorate.

“After years of neglect that hit Israel in the international arena,” he explained, the directorate “will respond to the lies spread about Israel online and present it to the world as it really is.”

True, Israel must coordinate its PR messaging. But the problem runs much deeper than inconsistent messaging. Good PR requires compelling stories, not just better briefing books.

During May’s Gaza conflict, Israel’s spokespeople were embarrassingly unprepared. The most dramatic misfire came when Israel destroyed the 12-story building housing the Associated Press office, Al Jazeera and other news organizations. As reporters denounced this “shocking and horrifying” attack on a free press, AP reported that the military spokesperson “refused to provide evidence backing up the army’s claims, saying it would compromise intelligence efforts.”

Lost in the press indignation was the fact that Israel telephoned a warning an hour earlier. Instead, AP’s president and CEO claimed, melodramatically, “We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life” – as if the AP, rather than IDF morality, saved lives.

An explosion is seen near a tower housing AP, Al Jazeera offices during Israeli missile strikes in Gaza city, May 15, 2021. (credit: ASHRAF ABU AMRAH / REUTERS)An explosion is seen near a tower housing AP, Al Jazeera offices during Israeli missile strikes in Gaza city, May 15, 2021. (credit: ASHRAF ABU AMRAH / REUTERS)

Everyone knows that modern warfare is fought on the airwaves, not just the battlefield. And every journalist’s lens magnifies any threat to reporters anywhere as assaulting democracy everywhere. Not having convincing proof at the ready that Hamas intelligence hid in that sensitive building was inexcusable. It took days for Israel’s explanation to come out, but the stench lingers.

Such bumbling led one former general to say: “Israel won on the ground because it fought the next war, while Hamas fought the last war; unfortunately, Israel lost in the media, because it fought the last war, while Hamas fought the next war.”

So, yes, Bennett and his team should prepare for the next war while managing the mini-battles erupting weekly. Even most Diaspora Zionists have not heard of Eli Kay, the 26-year-old South African immigrant murdered in cold blood in November by a Hamas terrorist, or of Yehudah Dimentman, the 25-year-old yeshiva student and father of a toddler ambushed by terrorists two weeks ago.

BUT THIS war is more complex – and many government PR-types are often too defensive and reactive. Israelis usually address PR problems technocratically, like exam questions – assuming that “if we get the right answer, the world will see us in the right way.” Government spokespeople especially often lack the passion and ideological vision many of us Diaspora-born advocates inject.

Just as Zionist pioneers were tree-planters, not firefighters, Israel’s defenders must be visionary, not reactive. We need Zionist poetry, not just defensive Israeli prose.

Many Israelis mistakenly believe that this is a war about facts and figures. In fact, the fight revolves around identity, ideology and worldview, making it about what Israel is, not just what Israel does. The Bash Israel Firsters will never be convinced, no matter how accurate our historical interpretations or current events updates are.

An effective public relations strategy starts with accurate information and intelligent framing, but it requires other elements, too.

Israel must address different audiences with nuanced and customized messaging – from Israel’s most ardent Jewish and non-Jewish supporters, to liberal yet still supportive Jews, to often disengaged but instinctively sympathetic Americans, to other Westerners, to often hostile reporters. Israel must stop obsessing about anti-Israel fanatics, be they Jewish or non-Jewish, who frequently run the conversation, pulling resources from more receptive audiences.

Each audience needs to hear a more compelling story about Israel – with the day’s relevant facts or explanations fitting into a larger narrative arc. Sometimes the story will be reacting to Palestinian terrorism or some internal Israeli squabble. But more often, the story should emphasize Israel’s status as the only Jewish state in the world, as the only democratic state in its region, and as one of the few surviving, thriving, progressive Western states. We spend too much time worried about the stories “they” tell about us – overlooking the stories we don’t tell well about ourselves.

Consider, for example, the two most underappreciated stories of the last two years:

The Abraham Accords have triggered tremendous excitement among Israelis and many Arabs, while eliciting yawns in America. This breakthrough showed that the unrealistic go-for-broke strategy needs to be replaced by a more systemic, step-by-step approach – going from “Peace Now” to “Peace More.”

And today’s broad-based coalition disproves the assumption that all 20th-century democracies are paralyzed and dysfunctional. Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid built this government by playing the 70-30 game, focusing on the 70% that united them, not the 30% that separated them. That’s a recipe for national strength and democratic success.

Zeroing in on Israel’s relationship with key democracies, especially the United States, the Bennett government should add a third pillar to the AIPAC line that Israel and America are united by shared interests and shared values. Addressing our shared challenges, too, will allow Israel’s representatives to speak more humbly, acknowledging occasional problems, failings or misfires. It also automatically reinforces Israel’s identification with other Western democracies that are struggling with systemic problems today, ranging from political polarization and hyper-partisanship to technological addiction and social media-fed demoralization.

Finally, the most effective public relations emanates from internal strength and national pride. If Israelis feel good about themselves and about what they are doing, that will never convince the haters, but it will reassure the fence-sitters while inspiring our fans. So, more than public diplomacy, Israel needs a Zionist reset, a reminder of who we are, why we are here, and why we do what we do – and remain proud of it.

The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was recently published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.