Israel's weakness in 'soft power' is hurting its image - opinion

Over the decades as Israel’s international standing waned, military force came to occupy an outsized portion of its national security strategy. 

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators attend a protest following a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in London, Britain May 22, 2021. (photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators attend a protest following a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in London, Britain May 22, 2021.

Soft power” is a function of a state’s ability to achieve its national security objectives through the appeal of its culture (arts, science, economy), the moral authority of its ideals (human rights, equality, democracy), and the quality of its domestic and foreign policy rather than by coercive means. The more universal a state’s values, the greater its soft power.

In its early decades, Israel enjoyed great soft power. The horrors of the Holocaust created international sympathy and support for the Jewish people. Israel’s heroic early years were the subject of books, movies and songs. The pioneers who reclaimed the ancient land and the kibbutz came to epitomize Zionism’s attempt to build a new and just society. The dramatic ingathering of the exiles is the story of a legend. Israeli democracy was highly regarded and Israel was hailed as a “light unto the nations.”

Jews around the world cheered, cried and rejoiced upon Israel’s rebirth and celebrated its achievements, with the warm support of many gentiles. Israel’s military victories were a source of international admiration and a balm for the souls of Jews worldwide, who saw in them the ultimate revenge against the Nazis. Israeli development projects, especially in agriculture and water, were deeply appreciated models in many developing countries.

The seemingly never-ending occupation, however, and especially the settlements, have fundamentally transformed Israel’s image. Israel is widely regarded today as an aggressive occupying power, bent on denying Palestinian rights. Nearly six decades after the Six Day War, Israel has utterly failed to convince the international community of its claim to the West Bank.

Israel’s image has been further tarnished by questions relating to the quality of its domestic policies and democracy, including the recent judicial reforms, the excessive prerogatives of the ultra-Orthodox, the status of Israeli Arabs, the and rise of the radical Right.

 Israelis march in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, February 25, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Israelis march in Tel Aviv during a protest against the Israeli government's planned judicial overhaul, February 25, 2023. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

Over the decades as Israel’s international standing waned and the Arab refusal to make peace or even negotiate left Israel with little choice, military force came to occupy an outsized portion of its national security strategy. 

Moreover, force seemed to work. Egypt and Jordan made peace, and even Syria and the Palestinians conducted advanced negotiations. For a variety of reasons, however, Israel is reaching the limits of the efficacy of military force. It can continue to defend itself successfully and buy time, but there is no military solution to Palestinian nationalism, the Hezbollah and Hamas threats, or the Iranian nuclear program.

In the interim, Israel has downplayed its soft power or undermined it through some of its policies. The Palestinians, who have repeatedly rejected dramatic peace proposals; have never presented a peace proposal of their own; and are governed by a dictatorship in the West Bank and a theocracy in Gaza, have wielded “soft power” very effectively and are winning the war for international opinion. 

Does Israel have any soft power left?

In practice, Israel still enjoys considerable soft power. The epic story of the early decades may have faded, but Diaspora Jews still harbor a deep sense of affiliation and caring for Israel. Christians around the world view Israel as the Holy Land and the realization of divine scripture. Many still buy Jaffa oranges, an outdated symbol of Israeli agriculture, or fly El Al, long a fully privatized company, out of a sense of identification. 

Today, multinational corporations and scientists from around the world flock to the “Start-Up Nation,” seeking the technological creativity they cannot find elsewhere. Israeli arts and science enjoy an international reputation. Israel’s chaotic democracy still stands out in a dark sea of Middle Eastern authoritarianism.

These sources of soft power are the indispensable basis for much of Israel’s “hard” power, especially in the US. 

American support for Israel derives from the pro-Israel lobby and Israel’s strategic importance but stems overwhelmingly from its soft power, the shared values that are the basis for the broad identification of the American public as a whole. Without this sense of identification, American support would not have remained as high as it has for decades. American and European leaders’ opposition to the judicial reforms was so strong, precisely because they feared that Israel itself was undermining the normative basis for their countries’ relationships with it.

Soft power is of limited efficacy as a direct instrument of policy. It is hard to sway other countries just out of a sense of warmth and identification. Nevertheless, no country should be more attuned to soft power than Israel, whose right to a national homeland and subsequently to an independent state  in Palestine was approved by the League of Nations (July 24, 1922) and the UN (November 29, 1947) and whose American support stems largely from it.

Furthermore, Israel has successfully concluded many deals with foreign leaders and officials over the years because, in situations in which they could have adopted different decisions, identification with Israel was the determining factor.

Israel will not be able to fundamentally alter its international standing without resolving the West Bank issue, or at least achieving significant progress. Nevertheless, there are a number of important changes that Israel can make to improve its strategic circumstances – all of which are related to its soft power.

The use of force must be subject to clear political objectives including the war of the narratives. International standing, images and delegitimization campaigns have a significant and even decisive impact on the outcome of policy initiatives, especially those that involve military action. Too often Israel wins the battle but loses the narrative. Israel must position itself so that it is always perceived as the side actively pursuing peace and accommodation, not the obstacle. The Jewish Diaspora must come to be seen as a vital national security partner and asset which greatly expands Israel’s capabilities beyond its indigenous ones and must be treated accordingly.

Israel is a world leader in some of the primary issues of international concern today, including food security and agriculture, water, the environment and global warming, migration, poverty and entrepreneurship. The state must do more to leverage its expertise in international organizations. Israeli aid programs (“Mashav”) are a pittance and should be increased. 

An Israel-Diaspora “Jewish Peace Corps” would expand Israeli involvement in these areas and deepen Israeli-diaspora ties, especially among the young. Israel should also continue to provide emergency assistance in times of crisis, as it has so successfully done, notably in Haiti, Turkey and Ukraine.

The Palestinians miss virtually no opportunity to present their case in every possible international forum, with a long-term cumulative effect. Together with the US and others, Israel should target a few select and less politicized international organizations, such as the IAEA, in which a sustained effort can be made.

The writer is a former deputy national security adviser in Israel. He is a senior fellow at The Miryam Institute and a senior researcher at INSS. He is the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy, as well as Israeli National Security: A New Strategy for an Era of Change and Israel and the Cyber Threat: How the Startup Nation Became a Global Superpower. Twitter: @chuck_freilich