Sometimes Hasbara Is the Best Hasbara

Is it any surprise that, following years of asymmetric information warfare, a large body of world opinion is totally unfamiliar with the case for Israeli legitimacy?

Last week, Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid (as reported in the Hebrew edition online on June 16 ) detected implicit criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the address by President Shimon Peres to the World Zionist Organization Congress. Ravid highlighted Peres' sound bite, in which he suggested that "Hasbara is very important, but proper policy is the best kind of hasbara," referring to the uniquely Israeli concept of information combined with public relations. Our ceremonial, nonpolitical president proceeded to clarify that the "proper policy" would be yet another peace initiative on the part of Israel.

Peres, who prides himself on the originality of his epigrams, was effectively plagiarizing his former protege Yossi Beilin. It was he who, during Oslo's heyday, coined the idea that sound policy obviated the need for effectively presenting Israel's case to the world.

Both Peres and Beilin should be asked why, after years of peace-processing, and after Netanyahu embraced a position on a Palestinian state that was once enunciated only by the extreme margins of the Israeli left, Israel's public relations situation today is worse than it was two decades ago under Yitzhak Shamir (once considered the epitome of Israeli immobilism ).

Has Israel's position really worsened only recently, even compared with the firestorm last year during Operation Cast Lead when Israel was led by Ehud Olmert, who peace-processed with the best of them, and thus followed Peres' prescription to a T? Surely the president has nothing to offer beyond the extreme concessions made by Olmert, his Kadima party colleague - concessions which, in a crunch, did not provide Israel with any hasbara dividend. Peres and Beilin would probably paraphrase the Hebrew catchphrase associated with using brute force: "What does not succeed with peace-processing will succeed with yet more peace-processing."

Oslo and its prime movers are responsible for the atrophied state of Israeli hasbara, given their overconfidence that the peace process would obviate the need for hasbara basics.

Since we were working toward an accommodation with the Palestinians, why befoul the air by referring to the faults of the other side, whether past and present? So, for example, the collaboration between the Palestinian national movement and Nazi Germany was airbrushed out of the discussion. Yasser Arafat's 1994 Johannesburg speech - in which he likened the Oslo Accords to Mohammed's temporary truce with the Quraysh tribe, his enemies in Mecca, until he gathered sufficient strength to overcome them - was ignored or marginalized. This contrasted with an Arab and Palestinian policy of weakening and besmirching Israel at every possible international forum, while Peres was busily recruiting donors to contribute to the Palestinians' wellbeing (and, in effect, to Arafat's secret accounts ). The Osloids were understandably still battling for Israeli public opinion and therefore passed over any unpleasant facts that would undermine public confidence in a New Middle East.

Israel since Oslo has almost completely abdicated the narrative of historic right in its diplomatic presentations and official documents, concentrating exclusively on the elusive goal of attaining a secure peace. Our official spokespeople stopped citing the historic right of the Jewish people to their land. Although Shiloh, Bethel and Hebron were every bit as important to the Jewish national legacy as Reims, Canterbury or Valley Forge to their respective nations, such emotional attachments were considered a handicap rather than a hasbara asset. One did not have to be a "right-wing messianic" to invoke these historical arguments. David-Ben Gurion (whom Peres constantly invokes ) had effectively marshaled them during the battle for statehood.

The Palestinians, for their part, never abandoned their historical claims, first and foremost among them the right of return. Similarly they have never conceded Israel's right to be a Jewish state. Israeli education ministers encouraged this stubbornness by incorporating poets like Mahmoud Darwish into the state curriculum or encouraging greater understanding of the Arab concept of the Nakba. In response to Israel's call for peace, the Palestinian side invoked historic justice and legitimacy; the peace they sought was a "just peace."

Is it any surprise that, following years of asymmetric information warfare, a large body of world opinion is totally unfamiliar with the case for Israeli legitimacy? If Israel only wants peace and the Arabs want justice, the fair trade is inevitably peace for "justice," as the Arabs understand it.

I do not want to be overly simplistic - like Peres - and blame our situation totally on the peace-processors. Today Israel, as in the 1970s, is confronting an adverse international constellation. The United States is internally divided and the White House is currently occupied, as it was during the Carter administration, by a president consumed with a sense of American guilt toward the developing world. Despite the encouraging results of the recent Dutch elections, Western Europe has not yet signaled that it is willing to fight for its values or even its identity. The Non-Aligned Movement has recovered from its collapse in the late 1980s, and its near-disappearance in the 1990s, with the ascendancy of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose anti-Israeli demagoguery is bolstered by their countries' economic assets or strategic position.

Putin's Russia and the People's Republic of China, while somewhat better than they were under Brezhnev and in the twilight of Maoism, respectively, are also far removed from their policy of the early 1990s. Their resentment of American leadership often motivates them to distinguish themselves from it by accommodating the renascent forces of anti-Israeli radicalism.

In this climate, Israeli concessions will at best be viewed as "an important step in the right direction" (British Foreign Secretary William Hague ), thus presaging further concessions. Therefore, such concessions should be made sparingly while a hasbara campaign stressing Israel's historic rights should be ramped up.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a columnist for both the Makor Rishon daily and Nekuda.