Savir's Corner: The ‘Hasbara’ Syndrome

To say that Israel today is not popular internationally or that it suffers from a bad image is an understatement.

Beit Shemesh resident erects Israeli flag 370 (photo credit: picture credits - Menachem Lipkin)
Beit Shemesh resident erects Israeli flag 370
(photo credit: picture credits - Menachem Lipkin)
To say that Israel today is not popular internationally or that it suffers from a bad image is an understatement. In last year’s annual BBC poll on the international popularity of 16 countries and the EU, Israel ranked almost last, with only Iran, North Korea and Pakistan lagging behind us; it is hard to believe that countries such as Russia, South Korea, India and China are more liked than Israel.
In the United States, 43 percent express a positive view of Israel, 41% a negative one. In Britain, 66% have a negative view of Israel.
A country that came into being with tremendous world support for the dramatic homecoming of the Jewish people and its successful and unique nation-building process. The world was on the side of David, surviving against all odds, and rebuilding its ancient homeland, a modern, integrated country, bound to its historical and cultural roots, reviving its ancient language, creating a modern, democratic society, with a modern economy, culture and army.
The year 1967 was the historical watershed.
David became Goliath, the great moral cause of the new Israel was being questioned, as we became over night the rulers of almost 3 million Palestinians. This deteriorated, as we became enamored with the occupation and as the settlements, on a land not anymore ours, came to be perceived, by a post-colonial world, as colonial outposts.
Since then our image has deteriorated on a slippery slope: an image of an occupying power, not respecting basic human rights, a strong military power vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Lebanon and its civilian population.
The image of sovereign Israel also gradually deteriorated, from admiration of the social progress of the kibbutzim and of the vibrant democracy, to sharp criticism of a state where secularism gives in to religious political forces, with Middle Age doctrines about the role of women, a state where racism toward Arabs is rampart, etc.
These images have led us to be totally isolated in the family of nations as expressed at the UN, with only the US, Germany and perhaps Micronesia supporting us; in many countries our generals are accused of war crimes, and our academia boycotted.
Some see it as if we are losing a beauty contest (“So what if we are unpopular!”) – a wrong and dangerous perception.
For a relatively small state like Israel, our international image and legitimacy is of great importance.
Our economy, our defense capacity, our room for maneuver are to a large degree a function of our international standing. If we want to be part of globalization and to reap its fruits, we must be a respected member of the family of nations; if we must act in self-defense, we need at least a degree of international legitimacy.
A bad image of a delegitimized Israel is therefore dangerous to our national security.
And what is the remedy for this predicament? According to official Israel, in past years as well as today, it is hasbara – a Hebrew word, often pronounced in Israel with an American accent as most of it is targeted at the United States. Furthermore, there is no exact English translation. It derives from “lehasbir,” to explain. No country in the world, except for us, has an explanation policy, let alone an explanation minister.
This notion lies deep in our mythology about ourselves – we have “to explain,” meaning that the truth is on our side, we just have to explain it and we will be understood. And if the audience does not “understand” then traditionally there are three possible explanations: the hasbara was not good enough because the messenger was not truly convinced of the gospel; the non-Jewish audience did not “get it” because of anti-Semitism; or the Jewish audience did not “get it” because of “Diaspora mentality.”
And yet we have had some brilliant PR agents and propagandists, starting and starring our current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – Mr.
Hasbara. Bibi truly believes that a good speech, emphasizing the right core messages, is a remedy for every predicament. His last “talks like a duck” speech at AIPAC was a propagandist masterpiece, that got the audience engaged in a virtual fitness program of endless standing ovations, but it did not stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or give us the political space to act on it ourselves. At most he succeeded in insulting the ducks.
Bibi is only a symptom of our Hasbara Syndrome – when a lieutenant-colonel brutally beats an unarmed Danish protester, the country laments the damage to hasbara and not the moral predicament; when we send rescue missions to international disaster areas, such as Haiti, the focus is on the hasbara dividend more than on the tragedy.
It is high time that we understand some basic facts of modern-day international relations and public relations in regards to three key areas: • Some things just cannot be “explained.” Take the settlements in the West Bank, to which the whole world, without a single exception, are opposed. If we enlisted the greatest hasbara, PR experts in the world, from Arthur Finkelstein to Coca- Cola’s PR agency, they would not be able to convince a single soul that 300,000 settlers in the West Bank strengthen Israel’s security.
With all of our efforts to convince the world otherwise, the settlements are universally perceived as a provocation against the Palestinian people, if not the Arab world as a whole.
They are, in the minds of all governments including that of the United States, an obstacle to peace, internationally illegal, a symptom of an occupation, and against the basic interests and values of a post-colonial world – not even one hundred Bibis and Finkelsteins can convince the world otherwise.
• The world is relatively wellinformed in this era of information and technology revolutions.
Through the various Internet news outlets, Wikipedia, worldwide traditional media and social networks, people generally are more informed than before – and they are skeptical of governmental messages, which in today’s information glut are, in any case, a drop in the ocean.
• What matters is not public relations or hasbara, but policy. When Israel had an active peace policy, be it under Begin, Rabin, Peres and in part Sharon, our actions spoke louder than any hasbara. We had far better international standing and it impacted our trade relations, brought about economic growth and strengthened our national security against external threats.
As to the future, it is imperative that we divorce ourselves of the notion that good hasbara is a remedy for bad policy. Good policy sells itself; not necessarily popular policy, but policy that can be rationally described as serving our interests of peace and security, as well as the values that we share with the Americans and the international community.
We can then engage not in hasbara, which is nearly synonymous with propaganda, but in what is known in the modern and the new media world as public diplomacy, engaging through traditional and new media about how great Israel is, which indeed it is, despite its leadership.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.