Above The Fray: The real problem behind Israel’s dismal PR

Contrary to the public’s indifference to global opinion, Israel’s terrible image abroad is dangerous to the prospect of peace and security.

Lieberman with headphones 311 (photo credit: AP)
Lieberman with headphones 311
(photo credit: AP)
Israel’s public image today is dismal. As Elie Wiesel once joked, “Jews excel in just about every profession except public relations, but this should not surprise us: When God wanted to free the Jews from Egypt, he sent Moses, who stuttered.”
However, today the problem is not that its leaders are stuttering, rather that they are stalling to show leadership toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. In doing so, they are sending a message to the international community that the country does not care what the world thinks and that it does not want peace.
The public relations problem is not due to a lack of attention. The entire world is watching Israel closely, but it does not like what it sees.
In recent weeks, the world community has witnessed near-daily vandalism by settlers against Palestinian property in the West Bank, the passage in the cabinet of a “loyalty oath” aimed at marginalizing minorities, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s obnoxious speech at the UN and the government’s continued refusal to halt settlement construction to improve the environment for peace negotiations, despite unprecedented offers from the US to encourage it do so.
This is not to mention a range of public blunders by the government in the past year, from Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s insulting behavior toward the Turkish ambassador to the harsh blockade of the Gaza Strip, since eased, viewed by the international community as collective punishment.
All of this has served to undercut public relations campaigns regarding the very real threats to the country’s security, its genuine contributions in computer and health care technologies or its leadership in humanitarian relief efforts in times of crisis in places like Haiti. As a result it is becoming more and more isolated each day, and is increasingly appearing to be the obstinate party keeping the peace process from moving forward.
FACED WITH increasing criticism and delegitimization campaigns, Israelis are becoming resigned to the belief that nothing they do will improve their public image. A poll conducted and published in August by Tel Aviv University and the Israel Democracy Institute indicated that 56 percent of Israelis believe that “the whole world is against us,” while 77% believe that no matter what Israel may do to try to resolve the conflict, the world will continue to be critical.
These are disconcerting statistics with significant implications for the country’s public relations, and more importantly, for its policies. The perception that its policies and public relations simply do not matter to the world leads it to ignore policies which should be advanced and to neglect communicating its message when and where it matters most.
But Israel cannot simply complain about the discriminatory treatment it receives and make hardly any effort to explain itself. The decline of relations with Turkey offers a prime example. Between 2005 and 2009, Israel’s efforts to explain to the Turkish public the onslaught of Hamas rocket attacks appeared to be few and far between. As the Turkish public became increasingly critical, Israel dismissed the trend as a sign of the influence of the new Islamic-rooted AKP party in its rise to power, not the result of poor PR (or policies).
As a result, rather than seeking to mend relations, adapting policies and improving communications, it ignored its longstanding ally, and even worse, insulted it. Instead of using quiet diplomacy to address Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s verbal attacks while focusing on a well-orchestrated PR campaign to change the Turkish public perception, Ayalon summoned the Turkish ambassador to have him seated on a lower chair in front of the press. Following the flotilla affair, the failure to explain itself and to continue to drag its feet in providing information to the commission appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon further damaged its image.
Many of the PR blunders today are derived from the disunity of the governing coalition. Let’s face it: Avigdor Lieberman, charged with serving as Israel’s messenger to the world, is a man who 60% of Israelis according to a recent Yediot Aharonot poll believe is the politician “most responsible for the increased extreme nationalist and near fascist tendencies” in the country. His speech at the UN, which was subsequently rebuked by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, exemplified the mixed messages Israel has been sending to the international community, and the division within its coalition.
In fact, disunity in the coalition is significantly damaging PR in two important arenas: in New York, where outreach and communications with the American Jewish community is critical, and at the UN, where Israel faces an onslaught of criticism and delegitimization on a daily basis. Netanyahu and Lieberman have been unable even to agree who should serve as consul general in New York or ambassador to the UN. As a result, interim diplomats are currently filling each post. If the prime minister and foreign minister cannot even agree on the messenger, how can they ever agree on a cohesive, positive message, not to speak of a constructive policy? And without that message, the country’s image is suffering greatly.
THE COMBINATION of the public’s disillusionment that peace efforts will ever improve its global image and the disunity within the government further exacerbates historic public relations woes across the globe. But Israel is also inept at PR at home.
A recent poll showed that Israelis continue to oppose the Arab peace initiative. While 56% reject the plan, 57% of Palestinians polled supported it. That the majority of Israelis do not recognize the opportunity posed by the initiative as a historic repudiation of the Arab League’s “three no’s” at the 1967 Khartoum Conference is an indictment of the government.
Instead of marketing the plan as a genuine vehicle for negotiating an end to the conflict, it has largely ignored the effort, and the public has followed suit. As a result, the global community gets a clear message: the Palestinians – and Arab states – are pursuing peace, while Israel is not. This failure is more than just one of public relations, but of the government’s responsibility to pursue and advance all possible efforts to end conflict and provide the country with the security it requires.
Some may argue that public relations have in fact, never been better.
Netanyahu is viewed by many as a master of PR as is Ambassador to the US Michael Oren. But Netanyahu’s and Oren’s mastery of the English language cannot overcome the black eye to Israel’s image that Lieberman provides. And without a government that has a positive message, one that embraces efforts to secure peace and aggressively communicates with its allies in times of agreement and differences, that image will continue to suffer.
Contrary to the public’s indifference to global opinion, Israel’s dismal public relations are dangerous for the prospect of peace and for security.
In fact, to effectively counter the impact of these campaigns, Israel should send the global community the kind of concerted, positive message which it is sorely lacking.
Many around the globe believe that Netanyahu can change the dynamics of the peace process at any moment if he wished. The world knows that should he genuinely wish to achieve a peace agreement, he has Kadima waiting in the wings, ready to enter the coalition to support him. The fact that he has not done so in itself sends the world a negative message: He does not really want peace. The world concludes that Netanyahu would rather stick with Lieberman and stall the peace process than bring Tzipi Livni into the coalition and seek to conclude it with a lasting peace agreement.
Should Netanyahu finally decide to bring Livni in, and make a genuine effort to end the conflict, he could dramatically improve Israel’s image and live up to his reputation as a master of public relations rather than a demagogue.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.