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As Israel’s image sinks, whither Israeli PR?

More post-flotilla criticism: Theresa McDermott, an Edinburgh postal worker who was a member of the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, speaks at a Boycott Israel demonstration in Edinburgh, June 5, 2010.  (Richard Milnes / Creative Commons)

More post-flotilla criticism: Theresa McDermott, an Edinburgh postal worker who was a member of the Free Gaza Movement flotilla, speaks at a Boycott Israel demonstration in Edinburgh, June 5, 2010. (Richard Milnes / Creative Commons)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — In the war of public relations for Israel, the past few weeks have been full of setbacks.

Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla sparked countless angry editorials, demonstrations and condemnations. The assassination in Dubai in January against a Hamas operative by agents using fake passports — widely believed to have been Israelis — resulted in the expulsion of Israeli diplomats from the countries whose passports had been faked. Even leading musicians have canceled performances in Israel in recent weeks, citing political circumstances.

These developments have brought Israel’s growing image problem into sharp relief.

The fear is that Israel is subject to a growing tide of delegitimization that, if unchecked, could pose an existential threat. The nightmare scenario has the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement gaining more traction and anti-Israel opinion moving from Western campuses to governments, followed by a lifting of the protective American diplomatic umbrella.

More than ever, Israel needs an efficient PR machine capable of undermining the would-be delegitimizers and getting across the Israeli narrative.

That begs the question: Who is running Israel’s PR — in Hebrew, called hasbara — and why have they not been more successful?

The public face of Israel, the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Barak government, wins few points on the international stage. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely perceived as uninterested in making peace, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is seen as a racist bully and Defense Minister Ehud Barak is seen as not doing enough to press for more peace-oriented policies.

Another problem is the large number of agencies within the government dealing with public relations. To name just a few, there is a directorate for PR in the National Security Council, and PR divisions in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces.

They are not always coordinated. For example, the Foreign Ministry’s quick response team and the IDF spokesman’s office argued over who should present the initial Israeli version of what happened aboard the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish-flagged ship that greeted Israel’s commando raid with violence. As a result, the Israeli account did not come out for about 10 hours after the incident, a lacuna the Turks and other detractors were able to take full advantage of.

Israel’s “rebranding" strategy also seems to have had little success.

For years, a Foreign Ministry team under Ido Aharoni has been trying to improve Israel’s image by branding it as a fount of "creative energy," emphasizing Israel’s high-tech and scientific achievements, burgeoning economy, entrepreneurial zeal, energetic lifestyle, and vibrant diversity of opinion and culture. The core idea behind the campaign is that stressing Israel beyond the conflict would deflect attention from its negative image as an occupying power.

Not only has the campaign failed to achieve its main goal, but politics has penetrated nonpolitical realms. Musicians such as Elvis Costello, the Pixies and indie rocker Devendra Banhart have canceled concerts here, citing politics. The Madrid gay pride parade banned an Israeli float sponsored by the city of Tel Aviv, citing the raid aboard the Mavi Marmara.

Earlier this year the Reut Institute, a nonpartisan Tel Aviv-based think tank, issued a comprehensive report analyzing Israel’s delegimization problem and the tools needed to combat it. The report argued that the time has come for the government to take the delegitimization challenge as seriously as it does the military threats facing Israel.

In its report, presented to the Cabinet in February, Reut pointed to an increasingly effective alliance between Islamist rejectionists and radical left-wing groups in the West whose common goal is to destroy Israel by isolating it politically and economically, ultimately forcing a one-state solution with a Muslim majority. The delegitimizers are particularly active in places like London, Madrid and the California Bay Area, which Reut called hubs, where they form grassroots networks of activists, NGOs and fellow travelers against Israel. The tipping point in their work would be a growing international consensus for a one-state solution, the report said.

"Perhaps the existential threat to Israel is not yet around the corner, but as we know from history, state paradigms collapse exponentially,“ Eran Shayshon, one of the authors of the Reut paper, told JTA. “Suddenly a few things happen to create an irresistible momentum, as happened with the Soviet Union or with apartheid South Africa.”

In order to meet the challenge, Reut proposes a complete overhaul of Israel’s foreign service. It argues that instead of an outmoded diplomacy geared toward handling states and continents, the new focus should be on the hubs where the delegitimizers are particularly active and where dozens of additional diplomats should be deployed to engage as many people as possible among the decision-making elites.

In addition, Reut recommends building anti-delegitimization networks worldwide based on Jewish and Israeli groups abroad, including NGOs. The main goal of the multifaceted campaign would be to prevent delegitimization spreading from the fringes to the mainstream.

According to the Reut paper, the aim is to drive a wedge between bona fide critics of specific Israeli policies and promoters of delegitimacy, thereby winning over the nonpartisan political center and creating a "political firewall around Israel."

So far, there is no sign the government intends to adopt any of this. While pro-Israel NGOs from Jerusalem to New York are involved in trying to diffuse deligitimization campaigns against Israel, some PR experts argue that the problem is more a question of government policy than organizational structures or efforts.

Israel will continue to suffer on the PR front unless it launches a major peace initiative, this school of thought says. That is one of the reasons Barak has been urging Netanyahu to come out with a new peace initiative, carefully coordinated with and backed by the Americans.

Such an initiative almost certainly would not impress the delegitimizers, but it probably would give Israel a better chance of stopping the erosion of its international standing by driving a wedge between them and the rest of the international community.

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