Think Tank: Israel's Poor International Image Not the Fault of Failed Hasbara

Study finds that Israel's advocacy effort has become one of the world's most efficient and productive, but Israel nevertheless suffers from an image problem - which is rather a product of the Israeli government's policies.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Israel's ambassador to the Czech Republic, Yaakov Levy, is envied among Israeli diplomats in other European Union countries. Compared to the stiff criticism and harsh denunciations many Israeli ambassadors face, Levy's life in Prague is paradise. Today the Czech Republic is Israel's closest friend in the EU. Indeed, it was the only one of 27 EU member states to vote against the recent Palestinian statehood initiative at the United Nations.

But 10 days ago, Levy sat down in his embassy office in Prague and drafted a short memorandum titled "Lectures in the Czech Republic: How We've Succeeded in Putting the Settlements on the Agenda." In five short lines, fraught with cynicism and despair, Levy described how the Czech public, which is normally so sympathetic toward Israel, has started to recoil from its polices on the West Bank.

"Over the past two weeks I appeared in nine different forums across the Czech Republic," Israel's ambassador wrote in a message to Foreign Ministry director general Rafael Barak, and to the ministry's Europe and Information branches. "Though the same friendliness and understanding toward Israel remains intact in the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Defense, I encountered - for the first time in four years of appearances - critical questions pertaining to the topic of settlements. This is in connection to the slew of announcements released in Israel about the E-1 topic. We've succeeded!"

Levy is an experienced diplomat and considered a successful ambassador. He devotes considerable time to meetings with journalists and opinion makers, students, academics and of course politicians. And yet, no matter how talented he might be, Levy appeared hapless in his efforts to explain the Israeli government's conduct in past weeks, even in his dealings with a sympathetic Czech public.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his close advisers believe that a more effective presentation of Israel's "case," and increased advocacy efforts, will solve a large portion of the country's woes in the international arena. During Netanyahu's past term as prime minister, some of his most powerful moments came during speeches he delivered around the world. But does this mean his contention about advocacy is correct?

According to a new research study conducted by Molad, the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy, the answer is no. Molad acknowledges that Israeli advocacy can indeed be improved, but it refutes the claim that Israel's advocacy campaign is ineffective. In fact, the study says, in the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, Israel's advocacy effort has become one of the world's most efficient and productive in the world - and far more efficacious than the campaigns waged by anti-Israel organizations. While the Molad study notes that Israel does indeed suffer from an image problem, the reason for this, the study argues, does not lie with faulty advocacy.

Molad, established less than a year ago, is a think tank devoted to providing Israel's liberal left with new ideas regarding matters of foreign policy and security, as well as socioeconomic issues. The new study is the first project released by Molad as part of an effort to infuse leftist ideas in Israeli public discourse. This effort, the center believes, will help resuscitate a political camp which is currently on its deathbed.

Israel's advocacy effort is directed by the National Information Directorate, in the Prime Minister's Office. All the other official advocacy entities, and there are several of these - the Foreign Ministry, the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the IDF Spokesman's Office, the Tourism Ministry, the Jewish Agency - are subordinate to the directorate. The National Information Forum, comprising delegates from these various bodies, is in charge of coordinating messages and formulating strategies. The directorate also consults media and marketing experts from both academia and the private sector. And, in addition, the government conducts an unofficial advocacy effort involving hundreds of Israelis and overseas activists, organizations and NPOs, along with non-Jewish supporters; this effort is aimed at delivering Israel's messages mainly in the United States and the EU.

Though Israel focuses its advocacy efforts primarily on the the mainstream media, it does not neglect the Internet. All the official advocacy entities have Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts, and the Foreign Ministry encourages Israeli diplomats overseas to chat and post status updates on social networks. It even employs a special staff devoted to posting pro-Israel replies to articles published in world media outlets.

The Foreign Ministry invests an unprecedented annual sum of NIS 100 million in branding Israel; in bringing over experts, academics and opinion makers; and in organizing pro-Israel events around the globe (including the annual Salute to Israel parade in New York City and the Israeli film festival in Paris).

And so, the central question Molad asks in its study is this: Why, despite this massive advocacy effort, the deployment of multiple entities and the allocation of huge sums of money, is there still a widespread feeling that Israel's advocacy campaign is inferior to that of the anti-Israel campaign, which is viewed as much more sophisticated and effective.

One explanation that has been offered pivots on the "de-legitimization" thesis, a theory which has in recent years gained traction in the security establishment and Foreign Ministry. The authors of the Molad study, however, hold that this is a problematic term. "Under this definition, virtually all human rights organizations that operate in Israel, even those which identify themselves as being unreservedly patriotic for Israel, are liable to be ranked as part of a global, anti-Israel delegitimization campaign," claims the study. "This definition enables the government to disqualify all criticism leveled against its policies, no matter how legitimate such criticism might be, by claiming that the criticism is part of a world de-legitimization crusade against Israel, and therefore is illegitimate."

The other side of the coin

After analyzing Israel's advocacy effort, the Molad study used the same tools and criteria to assess the efficacy of the anti-Israel campaign. What it found was that the various anti-Israel efforts have failed to properly coordinate and unify their messages. The organizations do not operate under the aegis of one overall group; in many instances, they act separately from one another. Unlike Israel, with its National Information Forum, there is not a single anti-Israel group which takes overall responsibility for setting a unified agenda.

Moreover, the Palestinian Authority's role and influence on anti-Israel advocacy is limited. "More than anything," contends the study, "the conduct of these bodies reflects the anti-Israel advocacy campaign's absolute failure to unify organizations and activists in this context around a single, coherent, official message."

"Apart from basic principles," it continues, "these groups lack a common idea or common goal that could consolidate them as partners in one official body."

The study argues that although anti-Israel organizations generally view the Internet and social networks as their primary platforms, they fail to employ a sophisticated, efficient online strategy such as the one deployed by Israeli advocacy experts. Furthermore, the anti-Israel groups almost completely ignore mainstream media outlets - TV and newspaper journalists - the study asserts.

In many cases, it contends, Israel actually enhances the work of anti-Israel organizations. The study points to Israel Apartheid Week, which, in contrast to the lavish coverage meted to it by Israeli media, is really a marginal annual event on university campuses and has negligible impact on discussions conducted at the institutions of higher learning. Just a few hundred students take part in the Apartheid week events, and these receive relatively scant coverage in U.S. media outlets. In contrast, "Israel Peace Week" events on campuses receive relatively ample coverage in the U.S. media.

The Molad study attests to another significant advantage enjoyed by pro-Israel advocates. Public figures associated with Israel and pro-Israel positions are mostly key players in cultural, business and academic spheres; in contrast, most of the figures recruited for the anti-Israel campaign are relatively marginal players; Noam Chomsky and Desmond Tutu have less of an impact than Israel advocates such as Bar Refaeli and Steven Spielberg, according to the study.

What's more, the anti-Israel organizations primarily attract people who have a clear ideological affinity with their goals, particularly from the radical left in the West, and also from Palestinian Diaspora groups. In contrast to Israeli advocacy efforts, the anti-Israel organizations almost completely ignore journalists, television presenters, artists and intellectuals who are prominent in the political center, and who have no necessary ideological affinity with them.

"Funds for anti-Israel advocacy come mainly from private individuals and small business firms, and apart from a small number of artists and writers it is hard to find leading public figures who are unambiguously recruited for the anti-Israel agenda," contends the study.

One seemingly successful effort by the anti-Israel organizations in recent years is the BDS campaign - boycotts, divestment and sanctions. Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello and the Pixies are just some of the international artists who have canceled appearances in Israel in recent years due to pressure from anti-Israel organizations. Many Israeli academics have also suffered the consequences of academic boycotts, and some international firms decided to curtail business engagements with Israeli companies.

Nonetheless, the study argues, the BDS campaign cannot be considered a strategic success for the anti-Israel organizations - groups which are divided among themselves on the merits of the campaign. The study suggest that the anti-Israel organizations recruit opinion makers for the boycott campaign via direct or implicit threats. "Even if this method has notched a few successes, it is limited in terms of its ability to promote the [anti-Israel groups'] goals," concludes the study.

The anti-Israel organizations also lack a positive message underlying their efforts, it states. "They base themselves on a negative, critical strategy founded on claims, self-justification, complaints and threats in a way that reduces partnership and forestalls the creation of a positive image among the wider public," the study asserts. "When the anti-Israel campaign deals with trademark branding, it focuses on efforts to brand Israel as an aggressor state and depict it as a serial violator of human rights."

With all this in mind, the study concludes that "the sweeping criticism leveled against Israeli advocacy is detached from reality - the advocacy problem is nothing but a myth. If Israel suffers from diplomatic isolation and a bad image in the world, the reason for this is not laden in faulty advocacy."

"Instead of dealing with the connection between the policies of Israel's government and the country's image in the world," it continues, "a myth is taking hold, one which stresses an 'advocacy problem' caused by anti-Israel organizations and institutions which exploit double standards and even anti-Semitic tendencies in the international community in order to damage Israel."

The study insists that "inflating anti-Israel propaganda on the one hand, and inflating criticism of Israeli advocacy on the other hand, deflects public attention away from the causal connections between the erosion of Israel's image and of its international status and the policies of its government."

Next week in Jerusalem, the Foreign Ministry will hold its annual conference of the country's ambassadors around the word. During past meetings, former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman regularly upbraided and insulted Israel's ambassadors, the participants of the conference. He claimed that instead of explicating Israel's policies and positions more assertively, and defending "national honor," the country's diplomats cowered and surrendered around the world.

But now Lieberman, facing indictment, has left the Foreign Ministry - and the ambassadors conference this year may serve as a good opportunity to discuss Molad's findings. Ministry director general Rafael Barak would do well to distribute the survey to each ambassador who attends the conference.

Prime Minister Netanyahu draws a red line on a graphic of a bomb at the UN General Assembly in September 2012.Credit: Reuters
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