What's to be done about Israel's woeful public diplomacy?

by Norman A. Bailey  |  September 11, 2017  |  ARTICLES

Israel needs to fight the war over perceptions with professional weapons.

There is general agreement that Israeli public diplomacy (the polite way of saying propaganda) is very poor. The public diplomacy of the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been running rings around Israel's for years, culminating in widespread belief that the Jews never had anything to do with a "Temple Mount" that in any case never had any temples. Even ISIS, the embodiment of savage barbarism, has better public diplomacy than Israel, not to mention the current master of the art -- Vladimir Putin of Russia.

Why should this be the case, and can anything be done to turn the situation around?

I would suggest that Israel at best regularly ignores and at worst, grossly violates the following cardinal principles of effective public diplomacy:

  • Perception matters. It is not nearly enough to be right and to have the truth on your side. This is the mantra repeated over and over again by public officials when confronted with the abysmal quality of Israeli public diplomacy: "But we are right! The truth is on our side!" Whenever I hear that I have to bite my tongue in order not to retort, "So what?" For the great majority of people, perception is reality; what they perceive as the truth IS the truth. Few are able to admit to themselves that their perceptions might well prove to be wrong and keep their minds open to that possibility.
  • Call a spade a spade. You cannot combat what you refuse to recognize or identify. Decades went by in the Cold War before President Ronald Reagan was able to call the Soviet Bloc "an evil empire," although it clearly was from every relevant standpoint. President Obama refused to even mention Islamic (or "Islamist") terrorism and ordered the departments and agencies of government not to use the phrase also. An army officer in Fort Hood shooting his colleagues while shouting "Allah'hu Akbar" represented "workplace violence."
  • Don't target the convinced or the unconvinceable. Target the unconvinced but convinceable. It is equally a waste of time and resources to direct Israeli public diplomacy either to hardened antisemites or to ardent philosemites. Target those who have not yet made up their minds.
  • You don't ask an architect to treat a toothache. You don't ask a dentist to design a building. Don't ask diplomats or politicians to design and implement public diplomacy campaigns. Diplomats are trained to seek compromise; politicians are trained to make deals and get reelected. None of those skills is of any use to public diplomacy and in fact, they are counterproductive. To design and implement an effective campaign of public diplomacy, hire specialists in public relations and marketing. Over the years the PA has spent hundreds of millions of European and American taxpayers' dollars contracting the services of the best public relations firms in New York and London. The results speak for themselves.
  • Don't ignore the fact that the different medias' importance has drastically changed. Work with the changes, not against them. Print is much less significant than it used to be--in contrast, social media are now of great importance, whereas a few years ago they didn't exist.
  • Do not adopt your enemies' terminology. If you do, you have lost half the battle before you start. Force the other side to adopt yours.
  • You cannot win with a completely defensive strategy. The best you can hope for is a tie, and a tie is not nearly good enough. No sports team ever won a championship by playing to tie. Be proactive, not merely reactive; you can be sure your enemies are.

The safety and survival of the Israeli state and society are dependent to a considerable extent on outside perceptions of them. Israel must make public diplomacy a priority, not an afterthought. Using the United States Information Agency (USIA) as a model, Israel should centralize public diplomacy (now divided among four ministries) in one independent agency, run by professionals, not by diplomats or politicians, and not part of any ministry (when after the Cold War was over USIA was folded into the State Department it disappeared without a trace). The agency should be well-funded and staffed by public relations and marketing specialists. It should have the authorization to contract for services from private firms as needed.

The State of Israel, with a wonderful story to tell, warts and all, should try to be at least as effective in its use of public diplomacy as the Palestinian Authority or ISIS. Nothing in this article should be interpreted as a criticism of the splendid work of a number of hasbara organizations, in Israel and abroad. It is simply not enough, in scope, funding or staffing.

This article was originally published by Globes.