Public diplomacy in Israel – is it a lost cause?

In recent years the debate over Israel’s efforts in public diplomacy, or hasbara, has been a recurring topic on the agenda of the Jewish state and its supporters around the globe.

Pro israel demonstration (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro israel demonstration
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In recent years the debate over Israel’s efforts in public diplomacy, or hasbara, has been a recurring topic on the agenda of the Jewish state and its supporters around the globe.
The discourse has been fueled mainly by the perception that our struggle to gain sympathy among foreign audiences has been a recurrent failure. There is a widespread consensus that whenever a development in Israel, Gaza or the West Bank hits the international headlines, our detractors easily gain the upper hand simply because of the asymmetric nature of the conflict.
For the average John Doe – who is no Middle East expert, who has never visited the region, and is only mildly interested in what happens in this little corner of the world – what matters, essentially, are numbers and images.
And most times, numbers and images play against us. We are the ones with a powerful army, reliable infrastructure and hi-tech defense systems. So in the eyes of an external observer the damage and casualties we suffer cannot compare with the crushing statistics, or with the vivid pictures of dead bodies and wrecked buildings.
Any attempt to portray Israel as a victim – of rocket fire, of terror tunnels, of terrorist attacks, etc. – will crumble in the face of disparities that are so large. Only a few people will look beyond these seemingly eloquent figures, trying to understand the nuances of a conflict that is far more complex than it appears.
How do you beat these odds? The truth is – you don’t. Paradoxically, Israel’s overwhelming political and strategic advantage on the ground directly translates into a similarly overwhelming disadvantage in terms of image. And unfortunately, no public diplomacy campaign will ever change that.
On a positive note, however, there are several ways in which Israel could improve its PR effectiveness.
One of them would require a shift from a reactive and event-driven approach, to long-term strategic planning. Israel’s public diplomacy is often guided by the tendency to either rebut accusations, or to respond in real time to the unfolding of events. Yet regardless of their questionable effectiveness, these tactics merely serve the myopic purpose of showing that there is another side of the story.
What Israel needs is strategically crafted messaging aimed at specific audiences, which is the opposite of the one-size-fit-all communication that is prevalent today.
This would involve, for instance, targeting the interests of a certain audience in order to arouse its curiosity. It could also mean translating messages into more languages.
A second crucial issue that could be addressed is the use of social media – which need to be used as social media and not merely as an extension of press offices. The key feature that makes these platforms so powerful and popular is their capacity to provide information in real time to an extremely wide audience. By their nature, they bypass the editorial process that characterizes traditional outlets.
They tear down the filters, delivering a raw (yet not necessarily accurate) version of what is happening, without the influence of external actors such as government censorship or news editors. They are the quintessential manifestation of 21st-century communication – serving a generation that demands to see (not just to know, but to see) exactly what is happening all the way to the other side of the world, right now, at their fingertips.
By posting nicely tailored images with captivating graphics, carefully edited videos with subtitles, or well-framed slogans, Israeli institutions engaged in public diplomacy restore all the filters that social media usually try to eliminate.
At that point, it does not matter whether the message they are delivering is accurate or not, or whether the argument they are trying to prove is convincing or not. All that matters is that their message is not effective. For example, between looking at the picture of dead bodies in a wrecked building on one hand, and at an infographic explaining why that building had to be bombed on the other, there is little doubt about which of the two will be more impressive, and therefore memorable, in the eyes of our John Doe.
Finally, the third and certainly most effective way to enhance Israel’s PR does not involve public diplomacy. Rather, it comes from tourism. The most typical comment that people share when they come to Israel for the first time is that they “did not expect it to be like this.” Whether they explore the alleys of Jerusalem’s Old City, or sit in a café in Tel Aviv, or hike the hills of the Galilee, or sunbathe while floating on the Dead Sea, most first-time visitors are amazed by the fact that the Israel that is usually portrayed by the international media, has very little to do with the reality they witness with their own eyes.
That is when they will start questioning beliefs they considered an unshakable truth until their arrival to Israel. It is when they will start looking beyond the headlines and the gruesome images, and search for complexities and nuances. Likely it will also be when they begin taking seriously Israel’s public diplomacy efforts, instead of discarding them as cheap propaganda.
The best part about this is that there are several Israeli and international institutions and nonprofit organizations applying these principles to their brilliant advocacy activities. Perhaps it is time the government begins to implement similar policies.
The writer is a student of International Security Policy at the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University in New York.