The Konseptziya About Israel’s Poor Image in the World

State comptroller forgot to ask: If public diplomacy campaign was masterful, would that make Israel’s global image much better?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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An Egyptian boycott activist holds a BDS pin (illustrative).
An Egyptian boycott activist holds a BDS pin (illustrative).Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

One of the most peculiar rituals of the Israeli media is that every few months, when a new state comptroller’s report on the shortcomings of government ministries and agencies comes out, they devote long segments on television and pages upon newspaper pages to the findings. It’s peculiar because the morning after, nothing remains, and there’s absolutely no attempt to follow up on the reports. The same is true of reports issued by commissions of inquiry – 24 hours of blanket coverage and then silence.

It’s like the rush a junkie gets from the moment the needle goes in. Only to be followed by thudding emptiness. This pointless addiction to reports is probably a hangover from the aftermath of the strategic failure of the Yom Kippur War and the report of the Agranat Commission, which accused the political and military leadership of being prisoners of the konseptziya – the concept that the Arabs were incapable of launching a surprise attack. Ever since then, the Israeli media and its consumers seem to feel that as long as they pore over watchdog reports, another konseptziya will not be allowed to take hold. This is of course just another konseptziya.

In the report published last week, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira devoted two entire chapters to the failings of the government, particularly the Foreign Ministry, to improve Israel’s international image through public diplomacy, and in “the diplo-media struggle against the boycott movement and manifestations of anti-Semitism abroad.” The conclusion was damning. The comptroller wrote that the “energetic campaign for (Israel’s) image being waged in recent years by the public diplomacy corps in the international media, and in the countries where Israeli representatives operate, is not successful in disrupting the prominent hostility of elements abroad that cast doubt on Israel’s right to exist as the Jewish nation-state. These (hostile) messages are targeted at the wide public and are trickling in to audiences that in the past supported Israel unreservedly.”

The two chapters contain a detailed dissection of how the Foreign Ministry has neglected the various public battlefields, how the different government media operations fail to cooperate efficiently, and how the new ministries of “strategic affairs” and “Diaspora and public diplomacy,” which were set up to help deal with the “threat,” are not fit for the purpose.

Much of this is very true, though it would have been useful it the comptroller had put more emphasis on the fact that the these new ministries, which have resources and responsibilities, are one of the main reasons for the emasculation of the veteran diplomats of the Foreign Ministries. But the main problem with the comptroller’s report is that while it pretty accurately pinpoints the bureaucratic failings, it totally fails to address the konseptziya. Judge Shapira, or whoever wrote the report for him, does not ask the basic question: If Israel’s public diplomacy campaign was the epitome of efficiency and professionalism, would that make Israel’s international image much better, or significantly reduce hostility and anti-Semitism?

By not questioning the fundamental beliefs at the root of Israel’s PR global campaign, Shapira is himself part of the konseptziya.

Here is what a real report on Israel’s concept and operation of public diplomacy would look like:

No amount of hasbara can change reality. While Israel should go to considerable effort to put its case to the world, not even the slickest PR operation can obscure the fact that it is holding 4 million people under military occupation. There is no way to hide, obscure or spin this fact and not even the most sympathetic and philosemitic foreign journalist can ignore it. Israel will not enjoy the image of an advanced liberal and democratic nation as long as it is an occupying force. This has nothing to do with the debate over the circumstances of the occupation’s origins and the identity or lack of partners for a solution to the situation, or even the viability of a solution. As long as the occupation exists, Israel will not have the image it craves. Nothing will change that.

Israel can live with a bad image. As important as good public relations are, this will not be the determining factor in Israel’s future prospects of survival and prosperity. Israel has been getting a bad rap in the international media for over three decades, basically ever since the First Lebanon War and certainly since the first intifada. In that period its population doubled, the size of its economy quadrupled and nearly 2 million immigrants arrived. As a journalist, I’d like to believe that the work we do is important, but I have to admit that our influence is greatly exaggerated. If getting good press was so crucial for the nation’s wellbeing, Israel would have been finished long ago.

Israel has no business fighting anti-Semitism abroad. Israel’s raison d’etre is serving as a haven for Jews from around the world. Its resources and efforts must be dedicated towards that. Israel’s part in the global fight against Jew-hatred must be as low-profile and behind-the-scenes as possible. It is the responsibility of the governments in every country and of international organizations to clamp down on anti-Semitism, and it is the local Diaspora communities, who know the peculiar circumstances of their own societies, who should be the ones sounding the alarm. Overt Israeli involvement only serves to muddy the waters between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israeli policies, and helps the racists hide behind the fake label of “anti-Zionists.” Israel should play a supporting role and under no circumstance direct the campaign.

There is no “BDS threat,” so stop pretending there is. The only real achievement of the anti-Israel camp in recent years (all of Israel’s other wounds have been self-inflicted) is to create the fiction that a handful of keyboard warriors on social media and a few disorganized rabbles on liberal-arts campuses are actually a “movement.” Israel’s attempts at “re-branding” were an abject failure; meanwhile the fashionable brand of BDS was created out of virtually nothing. Save for making problems for a few Israeli academics who are afraid they may not get the cushy sinecure they were relying on for their post-doctorate, and bullying artists whom most of us have never heard into canceling performances in Israel, the BDS impact on Israel has been non-existent. And yet, a day doesn’t pass without an Israeli newspaper or channel dedicating a feature to the phantom threat. The “movement’s”success is due mainly to the tacit cooperation of Israeli politicians. Right-wingers love talking about BDS because it fuels the siege mentality of “the whole world hates us anyway.” Left-wingers use BDS as the standard scare tactic of how Israel will become “isolated” if it doesn’t end the occupation. For every actual BDS activist, there are two Israeli journalists hysterically writing or broadcasting about them and three pro-Israel activists making a living fighting them. They are all a konseptziya and the government has much better uses for its time and money than fighting a threat that doesn’t exist.

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