Bibi Deserves a 'B'

Netanyahu may have a black belt in PR, but breaking the deadlock in perceptions requires acknowledging that the game has changed since he roamed the UN halls as ambassador.

marco greenberg
Marco Greenberg
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marco greenberg
Marco Greenberg

The overwhelming consensus among Israel supporters is that the speech by Benjamin Netanyahu last week before the UN General Assembly was brilliant, even downright Churchillian. And if the chief objective of the prime minister was to rebut Holocaust deniers and the damning UN report on this past winter's military incursion in Gaza, then his persuasive oratorical skills earned him an "A."

If, however, the premier had broader and loftier aims - to move largely biased global news consumers away from any ongoing perception of Israel as an "intransigent occupier"; to work to end the 60-year diplomatic rejection of the Jewish state by too much of the world; to demonstrate that he is a leader with a positive plan for peace; and to convince the fence-sitters that now is the time to take action against Iran - then Netanyahu fell short of the mark.

What could he have done differently?

From a communications point of view, Netanyahu first needs to update and to tailor both his delivery and his content to a worldwide audience whose members live on the Web, have collective attention deficit disorder and are allergic to history lessons. After all, it was he who quipped that most TV viewers don't remember what they had for breakfast. The real prize should be capturing more of the middle ground, where people see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the ultimate stalemate, in which both sides are to blame.

Netanyahu may have a black belt in PR, but breaking this deadlock in perceptions requires acknowledging that the game has changed since he roamed the UN halls as ambassador back in the 1980s. In order not just to fit in with the times, but also to put the Ahmadinejads in their place, Bibi needs to boost his own likability and frame Israel's position in a way that makes its policies, even if they are not always worthy of support, at least more understandable.

This starts with attitude and tone, and while it may be exasperating to face the hypocrisy and double standard of the UN, Netanyahu spent too much valuable time on two issues (Holocaust revisionism and Gaza investigations) better relegated to Jewish organizations and Israel Defense Forces spokespeople. Moreover, he let his anger spill over into his delivery, making his remarks sound strident, which can only feed into negative stereotypes about Israel.

How about changing speeds and inflection, and offering some genuine hope and cautious optimism, if not a little humor, in place of more browbeating and scolding? For example, when Netanyahu referred to the UN Human Rights Council as a "misnamed institution if there ever was one," he effectively showed just how far a little subtlety and irony can go.

Appearance also counts for a lot, especially when more people are watching than reading. For that reason, Mr. Prime Minister, you need to lose the comb-over, as well as some weight. On less formal occasions, you should loosen the tie, or maybe leave it at home. And while you're at it, drop the arrogant Abba Eban-like pronouncements regarding "my people." Instead, renew yourself as in days of old! You're the former commando and diplomatic sex symbol. Why concede the photo ops to a shirtless Sarkozy or Obama playing hoops? That could be you, too!

In terms of substantive content, Netanyahu missed out on several opportunities to increase the chances of a favorable response to his exhortation, "Say yes to a Jewish state." Steps in the right direction should have included: expanding his passing reference to the rights of women, gays, minorities and political opposition into being the ultimate litmus test for freedom today and thus arguably making it the most compelling distinction between Israel and its enemies; painting a future picture of how peace can finally provide the economic prosperity Palestinians deserve and transform the Middle East; and detailing conciliatory steps he is willing to take today to rejuvenate peace talks (his reference to two free peoples living in peace was the only line that actually got applause).

In short, he should have aimed for both the headlines and the high ground. Speaking of which, instead of showing German blueprints from the 1940s, imagine the effect of formally doing something at the UN that Israel has always been willing to do, although too few realize it: namely, to hold up signed letters stating that the government of Israel hereby extends diplomatic recognition without any preconditions to each and every one of the 18 Middle Eastern states with which it still has no diplomatic ties, coupled with Israel's commitment to a secure two-state solution with the Palestinians. Letters to the effect that, "We recognize you, you recognize us and then everything is on the table." Rather than just combating ugly revisionism, the headlines and blog posts could read: "Israel's Bold Move." Or, "Arab States Reject Israel's Olive Branch." Or "Bibi Offers Carrot and Stick to Neighbors."

To put the icing on the cake, the premier could have continued to surprise and do the unexpected, even in small ways. He could, for example, have included a few words in Arabic rather than just in Hebrew, departed from his prepared text to comment on the timing of the Palestinian representative's walking out during his speech, and finally expressed appreciation for the Obama administration's efforts to broker a peace.

There is no cure-all, and it's easy to second guess, but, yes, better public relations could do much both to improve Israel's standing in the too-antagonistic international community, and to show that the true intentions and motivations of the Islamic Republic of Iran are beyond reasonable doubt. Israel can always use a dose of support like that in the court of public opinion, especially if it pursues a military option to counter the nuclear threat from Iran.

Marco Greenberg is a communications strategist who most recently served as managing director of the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. He is also a former press officer of the Israel Mission to the United Nations.



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