Why does Israel keep losing the public diplomacy battle?

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As Israel’s image in the world keeps deteriorating, her supporters need to start using innovative methods to promote the nation’s positive image.

Israel’s international image has taken a severe blow in the past few years. With numerous public diplomacy crises happening continuously, Israel’s advocates worldwide must be starting to ask themselves what they are doing wrong. If failures steadily occur, there must be something wrong with the actual base strategy we are using – and we must change it.

Let us first look at some of the recent failures in public diplomacy: firstly, the BDS movement.

Working since 2005 to boycott, divest and implement sanctions against Israel, it has recently gained strength, and successfully convinced artists and public figures to join their boycott of Israel. Their latest supporter was none other than celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking.

The flotilla incident is also still being interpreted by many as an aggression on Israel’s part, even after the Israeli advocacy community has quite convincingly demonstrated that soldiers acted in self-defense.

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Arrest warrants have been issued against some of the most dovish politicians, such as Tzipi Livni, who refrained from visiting London in 2009 after a UK court issued an arrest warrant.

Israel keeps getting accused of war crimes and massacres. Protests against Israel are taking place all around the world, and human rights groups regularly criticize the Jewish state. Several initiatives aiming to lead to the marking and eventual boycotting of settlement goods are rapidly gaining ground in Europe.

The failures of Israel’s public diplomacy can best be summarized by looking at the Global Peace Index, an annual peacefulness ranking of the world’s nations. Israel has continuously dropped in the rankings. In 2012, Israel was considered less peaceful than countries such as Syria and Libya.

As a Zionist who understands Israel’s cause and its positive influence on this world, my first reaction when thinking about all of these failures is frustration, followed by an attempt to blame the natural bias that the world seems to have against the Jewish state. However, those of us who aren’t content to simply complain and want to find solutions must ask ourselves: Why is it that Israel keeps losing the public diplomacy battle? What are we doing wrong? What strategy can help us win this battle?

ISRAEL’S CURRENT strategies in public diplomacy can be summarized into two different schools of thought: the defensive school and the positive school.

The defensive school is an essential component of any public diplomacy strategy. According to it, Israel needs to dedicate resources to refute the claims made by the nation’s enemies.

The focus of this school of thought is on contradicting Israel’s critics. For example, if they claim that Israel is an apartheid country, people who adhere to this thought process will invest resources in explaining why it is not an apartheid country. Again, this defensive component must exist in any public diplomacy strategy, so the only question is how significant a part of the strategy it should be.

The main problem with giving this component too large a part in our public diplomacy strategy is that while it is an important component, it is nowhere near sufficient. When acting defensively, Israel never sets the agenda. Israel’s enemies set it, and Israel can only respond to it.

Also, the most powerful claim Israel can make using this strategy is to contradict the claim made by our enemies. For example, if Israel’s enemies claim that it is an apartheid country, its most powerful claim according to this strategy is: “Israel is not an apartheid country.” If Israel enemies claim that it is an occupying force, it’s most powerful claim is: “Israel is not an occupying force.”

If Israel were to use this strategy to its fullest extent, the most the state can gain is to convince its audience that it is not an apartheid country and not an occupying force. Saying that “we are not horrible people” is by no means an argument which is convincing enough to change someone’s mind, or to convince anyone to start supporting Israel! Furthermore, in the likely event that we will not be completely successful in convincing people of our arguments, the spectrum of international public opinion will always lie between believing that Israel is an apartheid country and believing that Israel is “not horrible.” This strategy might be essential, even vital. However, it is not enough, and by using only this strategy, we have lost the public diplomacy battle before it even started.

The second school of thought in Israel’s public diplomacy tries to rebrand Israel by linking it to the state’s many great achievements. A prime example of this strategy can be seen with in the latest video produced by the Foreign Ministry.

The video, named “Created in Israel – Part of your life,” tries to show the things which Israel has developed that have become a part of our daily lives. Thus, the video shows how Israel developed cherry tomatoes, flash drives and instant text messaging. It ends by reminding us that supermodel Bar Refaeli was also “created” in Israel.

Aside from the fact that I question the justification of spending public funds to get what amounted to around 100,000 views (many of which, if not most, came from Israeli news websites that reported about this video because it featured Bar Refaeli), a much more important question needs to be asked: Does this rebranding have an actual chance of succeeding? While speaking about Israel’s achievements makes all of us who are already Zionists proud of these achievements, I doubt that it has the potential to convince the neutral observer.

The neutral observer hears all day long about the conflict in the Middle East, about the Israeli “occupation,” about the claims of Israeli apartheid. When coming to decide who he should support, Israel or the Arab world, the fact that Israel developed cherry tomatoes is not going to influence his decision.

Does anyone actually believe that the development of flash drives can convince someone to support a state that is supposedly a warmongering apartheid state? Of course not! Therefore, while these videos play very well within the pro- Israel community, their effects outside of these circles are minor and almost nonexistent.

Our whole strategy has to be different. Ask yourselves: Why do you support Israel? Many of you will feel the immediate instinct of connecting your support to your Jewish identity.

However, putting aside your Jewish identity, why are your feelings for Israel still positive? I imagine your answers will not be because Israel is not an apartheid country or because Israel created cherry tomatoes. Rather, your answer will be based on the historical rights of the Jewish people, on Zionism as the movement for the liberation of the Jewish people, or on other ethical arguments. These arguments rely on universal values such as historical justice, freedom and liberty.

These are the arguments that need to be made in order to win the battle of public diplomacy.

The rebranding that Israel needs is not as the creator of instant text messaging, but as a symbol of freedom in this world, as the consequence of historical justice being done.

We should claim: If you believe in freedom and liberty, you should support Israel. If you believe in historical justice, you should also support Israel! As mentioned previously, according to the first school of thought, the spectrum of international public opinion will always lie between Israel being an apartheid country and Israel not being an apartheid country. With this strategy, we are broadening this spectrum and including within it also people who will have positive sentiments about Israel.

Also, unlike the second school of thought, we are not limiting ourselves to technical achievement but are talking about ethical issues. Our enemies are always talking the language of values: military occupation, apartheid and war crimes. The only way to win this battle is by talking about ethics and values.

The only way to win the public diplomacy battle is to change our strategy, to stop focusing on defensive measure or on technical achievements, and to start talking about the great universal values which Israel represents. When people will hear both sides of the ethical debate relating to the conflict, they will be able to see that values and ethics are on Israel’s side. However, as long as we do not work to promote our ethical arguments, we will keep losing in this battle, which continues to increase in importance.

 

First Published in Jpost: http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/A-FRESH-PERSPECTIVE-314893