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Hasbara advocacy370.(Photo by: (Courtesy Israel Campus Beat))
A Fresh Perspective: Israel’s public diplomacy window of opportunity
The recent restructuring of the government’s hasbara (public diplomacy) body opens a window of opportunity that can revolutionize Israel’s PR strategy Public diplomacy has become an essential aspect of Israel’s strategy in its battle against delegitimization. As Israel’s enemies focus their energies and resources out of the battlefield and inside various initiatives such as the BDS movement or the flotilla incident, it might seem odd that Israel’s latest coalition agreement closed down the Public Diplomacy Ministry and transferred its authority to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Does the growing importance of hasbara not warrant an expansion of the ministry’s activities rather than its closing down? In fact, closing the Public Diplomacy Ministry is a courageous move by Israel’s decision-makers, putting the state’s long-term interests before personal, short-term political gains. The ministry did not function properly; it was a bureaucratic body that employed talented people but did not seem to get anything done.

In this article, I will demonstrate how this window of opportunity needs to be exploited correctly to revolutionize the way Israel does public diplomacy. To do so, I will go over various principles which should guide the State of Israel’s strategy to enable more efficient public diplomacy.

Less bureaucracy, more initiative A few hours after the Mavi Marmara attack on Israel, when I was frustrated by the state’s lack of response, I started an online campaign to bring out Israel’s side of the flotilla story. My campaign reached hundreds of thousands of people who became involved in spreading the Jewish state’s message. Together, we managed to start bringing a proper response to the accusations leveled against the courageous soldiers who took part in this mission.

Shortly thereafter, a top public diplomacy activist in Israel emailed me and said, “You have done more for Israel’s public diplomacy than most officials and organizations.” A few days later, the Public Diplomacy Ministry recruited me to manage its social media response. I led this campaign from my bedroom with only a computer at my disposal.

I write this now not to give myself credit for work done over three years ago. Rather, I write to bring to the surface a more fundamental question: Why was I able to successfully organize a campaign spreading Israel’s message with such limited resources, while the state, with its massive resources, was unable to do so? The answer is simple: bureaucracy. That’s right.

My success had nothing to do with my own personal skills but with the structure in which I was working. I was my own boss, working on a private initiative, while those working in the ministry dealt with the heavy considerations of the state. Every official message from Israel is under scrutiny. Every Facebook post requires approval from communication and diplomatic experts and even legal advisers. All that was required from me was typing up a paragraph and hitting “enter.” All I needed to post something on Facebook was to write it up and post it.

This story illustrates a necessary change to Israel’s public diplomacy strategy. Instead of managing public diplomacy, Israel needs to start supporting private public diplomacy initiatives.

Israel is blessed with a network of millions of supporters around the world and thousands of people willing to give time and energy to promote its cause. However, these people often need resources which they are unable to get in order to properly act.

After the flotilla, I understood the need for innovative public diplomacy organizations, and I decided to dedicate my life to leading such an organization. I wrote a thorough business plan in which I made a compelling case for the demand for what my organization had to offer. I explained why I was the right person to lead this effort. I even started implementing the stages that did not require funding and was incredibly successful! I gathered over 30,000 members in just a few months – unheard of back then in Israel’s advocacy world.

Unfortunately, however, I was unable to find support for the initiative. The business plan stayed a written document and never became a reality.

Until today, no one has answered the needs I had mapped out in the business plan and the main loser remains Israel’s public diplomacy.

Of course, it is entirely possible that one would believe that my initiative did not deserve to become a reality. I strongly disagree with such a position, but I am hardly objective. That being said, what is striking is that I was never turned down when trying to establish this project. No one decided that my business plan wasn’t worthy after looking at it. That would be legitimate.

The problem was that no one looked at my business plan. No resources in government were allocated for financing such important projects and no structure existed to link innovators to other possible sources of financing such as philanthropists. Today, activists will receive no support to further their initiatives unless their initiatives are government-run or they personally know philanthropists willing to invest in their ideas. Most highly qualified activists do not fall into one of those categories.

To strengthen Israel, the government must move away from managing the country’s public diplomacy and instead, move toward investing in individual activists.

Less “credit,” more action There is one reason which explains why such a strategy was impossible to implement in the previous structure of the Public Diplomacy Ministry.

While working on the response to the Mavi Marmara incident, I met with high-ranking members of the ministry. As I explained before, they eventually recruited me to manage their social media response to the flotilla crisis.

I agreed because I believed our combined resources would benefit Israel. However, to my great disappointment, I realized I was recruited for “credit” purposes. I received no assistance throughout this important campaign. Instead, one official asked me bluntly: Can we describe your campaign as one led by the ministry, and take credit for it? I must make something clear: Many people who worked in the Public Diplomacy Ministry are incredibly talented and are definitely motivated to help Israel. They chose to work in the ministry out of ideals and many could be making a lot of money in the private sector. However, the ministry’s previous structure forced them to look for credit rather than actions.

Heading the ministry was a politician seeking reelection, and in such a small ministry, the minister’s political goals shape every decision.

The minister wants results he can show his electorate to then get reelected. He cannot go to his electorate and speak about the great things individuals have done and then explain that the ministry simply helped these individuals achieve their goals. Financing does not sound as good as managing projects. Therefore, the very structure of the ministry made it hard for it to focus on giving resources to activists and focused it instead on how it can get credit for the work of others.

This was a recipe for disaster.

In its new structure, the previous ministry is now a department in the Prime Minister’s Office. The prime minister has enough responsibilities and thus does not need to worry about getting credit from that specific department. Those talented people working in that office can now focus on helping activists accomplish their goals rather than seeking political gains for the minister.

Public diplomacy must come from the public The paradigm shift required in Israel’s public diplomacy management can be summarized in one simple sentence: Public diplomacy must come from the public.

The individual activists are talented and passionate and the government should support these activists and incentivize innovation.

The government should move away from only managing projects and dedicate some of its resources to funding and supporting activists’ projects.

The recent restructuring of Israel’s hasbara bodies gives the government a unique window of opportunity to reshape its public diplomacy strategy and tip the scale in Israel’s favor in the war against delegitimization, which is becoming more important every day.
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