Comprehending the incomprehensible – Part I

Into The Fray: The first of a two-part analysis of why Israel is losing the international battle for hearts and minds.

Hasbarah meeting 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hasbarah meeting 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel has made itself defenseless. Israel has vacated the battleground of the mind. Israeli ‘hasbara’ is a JOKE! – British columnist Melanie Phillips, IBA Television, 2011
One of the gravest strategic threats facing Israel is its accelerating international delegitimization. This is developing into a strategic constraint that is increasingly curtailing the nation’s ability to protect itself and its citizens. Even more troubling, it is undermining international recognition of Israel’s right to exercise self-defense, even in the most blatant cases of aggression against it.
Strategic debacle Without wishing to diminish the significance of innate hostility towards Israel and the Jews from many sources in the international system, the present dismal and untenable situation has arisen in large measure because of the abysmal job the Israeli leadership has done in conducting – or more accurately, misconducting – its public diplomacy.
Indeed, Prof. Eitan Gilboa, a well-known authority on public diplomacy, warns: “The lack of an adequate PD [public diplomacy] program has significantly affected Israel’s strategic outlook and freedom of action. Any further neglect of PD would not only restrict Israel’s strategic options, it would be detrimental to its ability to survive in an increasingly intolerant and hostile world.”
Many find it puzzling why Israel – with its proven record of extraordinary achievement in so many other fields of human endeavor – does such a poor job in presenting its case to the world.
An inescapable truth For anyone seeking the principal reason why Israel is losing the public diplomacy war, the answer is difficult to accept, yet very easy to prove.
Israel is losing the battle because it doesn’t want to win.
Or to put it differently: The people charged with the nation’s public diplomacy have a worldview that prevents them from adopting a winning strategy. Indeed, this chronic malaise was aptly diagnosed by Daniel Pipes when he observed: “No one at the upper echelons of Israel’s political life articulates the imperative for victory.” (More on this later).
Although difficult to accept, the lack of will to win is easy to prove. In gauging the motivation of any organization to achieve an objective, one of the most important indicators is the resources it allots for to achieve it.
Clearly, if the objective is considered important, more resources will be allotted, and vice-versa.
Surrender syndrome Israel’s public diplomacy budget is ludicrously small.
Indeed, as one government minister bemoaned: “It is dreadful to hear that Bamba (a snack produced by the Osem corporation), has a promotional budget two to three times the size of the total state budget for public diplomacy.”
This frugality is not dictated by a lack of resources. Indeed, when Israel has desired to achieve an un-budgeted objective, money has rarely been an obstacle.
For example, when billions of shekels were needed for the construction of the West Bank security barrier, that was no problem; when billions of dollars were needed for the Gaza disengagement, that was no problem either.
Likewise, the tens of billions of dollars required for the planned “convergence” (i.e.withdrawal) from Judea and Samaria were not considered an insurmountable obstacle, even though it was clear the money would not be coming from the American taxpayer.
In last week’s column, I pointed out that if a small fraction of 1 percent of GDP were devoted to public diplomacy, this would generate a budget of $1 billion – rather than the paltry sums provided today.
So if the Israel leadership chooses not to allot available resources to assertively promote Israel’s case abroad, to resolutely defend its international image, to explain its operational constraints and security imperatives, to elucidate why certain measures are indispensable for the safety of its citizens, it must mean that – for one reason or another – it does not wish to. There is no other rational explanation.
How can one account for this syndrome of submissive surrender?
The key to the conundrum
This is a conundrum that cannot be deciphered without a firm grasp of the sociological – rather than the political – topography of country in general, and of the priorities and preferences of powerful civil society elites in particular.
Without this insight it is impossible to understand the dramatic and disturbing events that have taken place in Israel over the past two decades. Without it, it is impossible to understand: • Why a country that displays such technotactical brilliance is afflicted by such strategic imbecility; • Why hawkish candidates consistently win elections, but then immediately adopt the failed policy of their defeated dovish rivals; • Why the doctrine of political appeasement and territorial concessions is repeatedly and consistently disproven, but somehow never discredited – and certainly never discarded; • Why the Israeli political establishment has not embraced more appreciatively and mobilized more effectively the huge potential in the support of communities such as the Evangelical Christians across the world, and particularly in the US, as a strategic asset.
None of these phenomena makes any sense unless one understands the decisive role that civil society elites have in setting the direction of the country’s strategic agenda – no matter who gets elected. As will become clear later, understanding this role is also the key to deciphering the riddle of Israel’s dismal public diplomacy performance.
Detrimental, dysfunctional, disloyal Sadly, this is a role that is not only decisive, but also in many ways detrimental, dysfunctional and at times disloyal.
If to some this uncharitable description appears excessively harsh, consider the following examples and decide for yourselves how to characterize the conduct of civil society elites in the media, the academia and the legal establishment, who (a) accuse Israel of being an “apartheid state” and support international boycott and sanctions against their own county, such as Prof. Neve Gordon of Ben-Gurion University, who declared: “Israel today is an apartheid state. I have decided to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement...launched by Palestinian activists.”
(b) portray Israel as a bloodthirsty, intolerant nation bent on the persecution of minorities, such as Prof. Aeyal Gross of Tel Aviv University, who characterized Israel as “a society where shooting at children of the ‘other’ is the norm” and the Israeli public as “indifferent or worse to Israel’s widespread killing of Palestinian youth?” (c) condemn Israeli policies as being on a par with or worse than those of the apartheid regime in South Africa, such as the poet, writer and lecturer, Yitzhak Laor, who alleged that “Israel’s apartheid is worse... more ruthless than that seen in South Africa.... We have to get rid of Zionism. What lies behind Zionism are interests and a huge army hungering to justify its existence.”
(d) condone – and indeed appear to endorse – Palestinian terrorism against Israeli civilians, such as Prof. Oren Yiftachel of Ben-Gurion University, who suggested that “Palestinian shelling from Gaza should be perceived as a prison uprising... suppressed with terror by the Israeli state.”
(e) deny the legitimacy of Israel preventative measures to ensure the security of the country and the safety of its citizens, such as journalist Gideon Levy, who in an article titled “The neighborhood bully strikes again,” written at the outset of the retaliatory Operation Cast Lead, undertaken to quell the firing of thousands of rockets at civilian communities, decried “Israel’s violent responses [which] cross every red line of... morality, international law,” asserting, “What began yesterday in Gaza is a war crime,” and such as Prof. Fania Oz-Salzberger of the University of Haifa, who following the Gaza Flotilla episode, when Israeli commandos were forced to defend themselves against a mob endeavoring to disembowel them, endorsed the international censure of Israel in a hastily published article titled “Ashamed of My Country,” proclaiming that “the almost-unanimous condemnation is spot on. I am ashamed,” and elsewhere asserting that “the true-blue pirates were the uniformed Israeli commandos.”
(f) ignore or obscure the fact that Israel policy towards the Palestinians is not driven by a discriminatory doctrine of racial superiority but by proven security concerns, such as columnist Akiva Eldar, who, in an article titled “Are Israel and apartheid South Africa really different?” dismissed the security realities, declaring: “As far as discriminatory practices are concerned, it’s hard to find differences between white rule in South Africa and Israeli rule,” or such as former attorney-general Michael Ben-Yair, who charged that Israel “enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society engaging in theft.... We established an apartheid regime.”
THIS IS but a small sampling of the assault on Israeli legitimacy from within its own civil society elites. Many examples abound of similar distortions, misrepresentations and exaggerations, of similar half-truths, non-truths and full-blooded fabrications from many other “intellectuals,” whether self-professed radical post-Zionists, or self-proclaimed “liberal” pro-Zionists.
The noxious nexus But more than a expression of the political predilections of those who articulate them, these derogatory attitudes towards Israel reflect a socio-cultural milieu, in which the personal and professional interests of its members impose a code of conformity to political correctness – irrespective of any divergence this may have from the facts. It is a code strictly enforced – not by any formal fiat, but by the consequences of any violation.
No deviation beyond “acceptable” limits is brooked, and any such “delinquency” is likely to have grave repercussions in terms of livelihood, promotion and even social acceptability of the “perpetrator.”
This brings us to the nexus between the role of Israeli civil society elites and government policy in general and public diplomacy in particular. This is a topic which I shall elaborate on in detail in next week’s column (Part II).
In it, I will show how the combination of their unelected positions of power and privilege in the media, academia and legal establishment, on the one hand, and the nature of their personal and professional interests, on the other, confers on these elites both the ability and the motivation to determine the direction of the strategic agenda of the nation.
Naturally, this is a direction that reflects the worldview of the socio-cultural milieu they belong to, and which they can impose on the government no matter who prevails at the polls. This neutralizes voter preferences in the governance of the nation and dangerously undercuts the underpinnings of the democratic system.
This also impinges on the formulation and implementation of Israel’s public diplomacy.
After all, the senior professionals charged with conducting the county’s public diplomacy are drawn from – and interface with – the elites discussed previously.
In effect, this precludes them from adopting any strategy that would undermine their own worldview and dooms Israeli efforts to failure. But more on that next week.
No conspiracy
In closing, it is important to underscore that what is set out here is not a theory of a conscious conspiracy, contrived by some purposely malevolent elitist cabal. Rather, it is the elucidation of a mechanism comprising the accumulated consequences of individual decisions and actions driven by the short-term pursuit of prestige and profit of a group of empowered individuals, and which trump considerations of the long-term interest of the wider collective.
It is essential to understand this mechanism.
Otherwise, it will be impossible to “comprehend the incomprehensible,” to understand why “Israel has made itself defenseless,” why Israel has “vacated the battleground of the mind” and why Israeli hasbara is an ineffective joke.
More important, without such an understanding it will be impossible to formulate any remedies.