Israel Must Rethink Its Public Diplomacy Before It’s Too Late

Feeling good under the comfort blanket of American support for Israel is not enough. Israel must find ways of taking its arguments into European politics.

Dennis MacShane
Denis MacShane
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A protester chants slogans near a banner reading "Boycott Israel" during an anti-Israel march in Malmo, Sweden.
A protester chants slogans near a banner reading "Boycott Israel" during an anti-Israel march in Malmo, Sweden. Credit: Reuters
Dennis MacShane
Denis MacShane

The Financial Times was blunt in a recent editorial entitled ‘Anti-Semitism is a menace to us all: Criticism of Israel should not extend to Jews worldwide.’ “Israel, a mature democracy, is frequently subjected to a double standard that is not applied to other states. In London this month, thousands marched in protest at Israel’s actions in Gaza. Why have there been few such demonstrations against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, now responsible for 150,000 deaths?” Actually the UN figure for Syria is 193,000 - but the point about double standards is well made.

However, this is of little help to Israel as it reaches the tipping point when the nation slides imperceptibly across the line into being seen a state that too much of the world simply does not like - or even accept as valid.

A country’s image and status matter. China can imprison a Nobel Peace Laureate, Liu Xiabo, but, unlike a Sakharov or Archbishop Romero, no one mentions Mr Liu’s name. Hamas can execute 18 Palestinians in cold blood and ensure - like the British IS member who killed U.S. journalist James Foley - that the pictures of their slaughter are posted on social media to discourage others, as Voltaire might have said.

But, unlike the wall-to-wall coverage of the Foley killing, the Hamas murders get relatively little coverage in the British or European media, and it is years since China was condemned for throwing its Nobel Peace Laureate into its chopstick gulag.

Double-standards again? To be sure, but moaning about double standards will do little to help Israel. So what can be done?

The first thing is to “de-Jew” the defense of Israel and Jewish identity. The British media, for example, is awash with defenders of Hamas and Palestinian resistance. Hardly any are Muslims. In contrast, the prominent journalists – Jonathan Freedland, Daniel Finkelstein, Melanie Philips, David Aaronovich – who support Israel are, well, Jews.

They write eloquently and, other than the obsessive right-wing anti-immigrant defenders of Israel and xenophobic haters of Islam, they do so with sensitivity.

But most who read their columns shrug their shoulders and think privately: “They would say that, wouldn’t they.”

Israel has to find and encourage non-Jewish writers and opinion-formers able and willing to make the case for Israel’s right to exist in security.

The second tactic is to focus as much on Europe, maybe more than on the United States. Israel’s lean to America is understandable, but a stool with one leg cannot stand. Israeli politicians, intellectuals, NGO and business leaders seem permanently on El Al flights to America. They look down with condescension, if not contempt, on Europe with its growing Muslim population and the anti-Semitism from both the pro-Islamist left but increasingly also on the xenophobic anti-EU populist right.

But feeling good under the comfort blanket of American support for Israel is not enough. Israel must find ways of taking its arguments into European politics.

This was easier in a time when Israel’s Labor Party and its Histadrut trade union had significant reach and the backing of the Israeli state which, until 1980, was largely dominated by the democratic left in Israel.

I used to watch Shimon Peres at excruciatingly boring meetings of the Socialist International, then the main forum for center-left parties in Europe. Peres would say nothing and just be available for small talk, surrounded by his security detail. But perhaps, just with a brief word, he would intervene and derail some ugly anti-Israel motion, usually put up by an unpleasant Nordic politician who would never condemn brutalities in an Arab country.

With the rise of Likud, Shas and the nationalists of Russian origin who now dominate Israeli politics, whole swathes of the liberal-left in Europe now have little knowledge of, or political contacts with, what remains after-all the only electoral democracy in the region.

Israel has to find a way of reconnecting with Europe and stop treating the EU and European politicians as opponents in contrast to the uncritical support they receive from American politicians.

A new European Parliament with 751 MEPs has just been elected. A whole new leadership team will soon emerge in Brussels – a new EU Commission president, a new President of the EU Council and a new EU Foreign Policy supremo. 28 Commissioners will soon be named to new posts.

Can Israel connect with this new EU leadership team? It will be uphill work - but the effort is needed. The forces promoting boycotts and using trade and other sanctions to put pressure on Israel over the occupied territories are strong. But these are essentially political processes and Israel is not sufficiently present in European politics. It is just so much easier to whizz over America and hear warm words that do not help Israel in the rest of the world.

Finally, send Haaretz’s Ari Shavit out on a permanent speaking tour, especially to the England from which his forebears came. His book “My Promised Land’ is brutally honest about the disasters and dishonesties of Israeli politics towards its Arab citizens and the Palestinians now living in the Iand conquered in 1967.

States need to be respected and even liked beyond their own circle of friends and fans. Ireland exists independent of its support base in Boston and its diplomats have brilliantly transformed the image of Ireland so it is now seen as the most European-friendly of any English speaking country.

Israel has to rethink its public diplomacy before it’s too late.

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister for Europe and author of "Globalising Hatred: the New Antisemitism" (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 2008). He works in Brussels and London advising on EU policy and politics.



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