Explaining Israel's PR failure
Our Hasbara efforts undermined by unholy trinity: Courts, media, and academia
For many, both in Israel and abroad, the failure of Israeli diplomacy and public relations (Hasbara) is difficult to understand. After all, the Jewish State has many features that, prime facie, should bestow on it the unqualified support of Western democracies: Free fair (and frequent) elections, general gender equality, religious freedom, an open press, tolerance of sexual preferences and so on. Even if in everyday practice there are flaws and imperfections in some of these areas, they are certainly far closer to the desired ideal than in any of its Muslim adversaries and certainly more so than the areas under Palestinian rule (or misrule.)
In fact, the explanation of the failure is very simple – although it may not be easy to accept. For the truth of the matter is that Israel is losing the battle for world opinion because…it simply has no desire to win! At first glance this explanation seems inconceivable. However, an even a cursory examination of the facts will suffice to provide solid evidence to support it.
In assessing the motivation and resolve of an organization to achieve a certain goal, one of the most significant measures is the quantity of resources that it allocates for that purpose. In the case of Israeli Hasbara, the official budget ranges from "pathetic" to "ludicrous" and is barely the equivalent of what a medium-to-large commercial corporation would allot for advertizing.
The reason for this excessive thrift cannot be attributed to lack of funds. After all, whenever the government of Israel wishes to implement some unbudgeted project, somehow it always manages to find the financial resources to do so. For example, when the decision was taken to construct the "security barrier", the billions of shekels required were made available without great difficulty. Likewise, when the "Disengagement" from Gaza was decided on, the billions of dollars needed for its implementation were not considered a significant impediment. Moreover, when the proposed "Convergence" from Judea and Samaria was being seriously considered, the fact that tens of billions of dollars would be necessary for its execution did in anyway not deter its enthusiastic proponents.
The regrettable, but unavoidable, conclusion must therefore be that for national policy makers, Israel's international image and the promotion of its case abroad is not an important priority on the national agenda – for if it was, far more resources would surely be devoted to this objective
This course brings us to the "$64,000 question": Why does the official Israeli establishment display such lethargy, such passivity, such impotency, such defeatism on the media front and in the battle for the hearts and minds in the of the public – both at home and abroad. The answer to this is rooted in the structure of Israeli society and in the identity of the groups who actually wield the power to shape events here, to mold opinions and to determine what processes should be set in motion and which should not. In this regard, it turns out that in many - if not most aspects – the results of Knesset elections have little relevance.
For example, Ariel Sharon was elected on the explicit rejection of a policy of unilateral withdrawal, but after being elected was coerced into implementing measures he had previously dismissed as entirely unacceptable. Likewise, Yitzhak Rabin was elected on the basis of a number of unequivocally hawkish "No's": No to negotiations with the PLO; No relinquishing the Jordan Valley; No to the division of Jerusalem and so on. Yet, after his election he adopted an entirely different policy, which in essence meant transforming all these resolute and hawkish "No's" into concessionary and dovish "Aye's" – in spite of the fact that precisely such policy had been proposed by the more radical Left and had been rejected at the polls.
In actual fact, people who dominate the socio-political mechanisms and in effect are those who "make things happen" in Israel comprise a trinity of elites who, although unelected, impose their views on the general public with great effectiveness. These are the elites in the legal establishment, in the mainstream media, and in academia (at least that portion of academia that interfaces with the previous two elites – principally in the faculties of the social sciences and the humanities, where the politically-correct dominates the factually- correct.)
Thus for example the legal elite can obstruct any assertive initiative that the elected polity may wish to implement (as was the case with the attempt to cut-off the electricity supply to Gaza); similarly, the media elite can initiate any concessionary initiative that the elected polity may be loathe to implement (as was the case with the Disengagement and, to a large degree, with Oslo); and when the stamp of professional approval is required, the amenable academic elite is ever-ready to provide it.
It requires little analytical acumen to identify that these were the mechanisms that generated – and to a large degree, still sustain – most of the major political processes over the last two decades.
Accordingly, the ability to understand the realities in Israel and how they are produced is contingent on the recognition that these powerful and influential elites hold a common worldview, which rests almost entirely on quasi-religious belief that it is the Israeli presence in Judea and Samaria (and previously Gaza) that is the root of all evil in the region – if not the entire universe.
This perception – accompanied by a vitriolic enmity towards the settlements across the 1967 Green Line, and settlers who reside in them – is not a mere political opinion that is the product of intellectual analysis and rational evaluation of the facts and that can be changed should the facts themselves be changed or assumptions be proved wrong. Rather it is an almost cult-like socio-psychological syndrome, strongly connected to a sense of self-worth of the members of these elite groups, to their status among their peers, to their social acceptability, to their professional prestige and at times even to their very sources of livelihood. Anyone with the temerity to raise heretical doubts as to the validity of the prevailing norms and conventional wisdom is very liable to find him/herself paying a heavy price both personally and professionally.
This produces an overriding endeavor to prevent any undermining of the validity of this worldview, which has far reaching effects. For example, it prevents it adherents and all those under their considerable influence from portraying the Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular, in their true light. This reticence to drawing attention to the real nature of the Arab world – to the brutality and to the corruption, to the fanaticism and the backwardness; to the repression of women, the suppression of Christians, and oppression of homosexuals, to the hounding out of dissident journalists and the hunting down of political opponents - prevents Israel from persuasively presenting its case and the dire dangers that it faces in contending with such adversaries. After all, an assertive portrayal such as this would make the dominant elites' worldview look totally ridiculous and outrageously irresponsible.
For if Arabs are portrayed in the negative light they so richly deserve, it makes an absolute mockery of any policy which in effect advocates:
1. creating a new international border for Israel only a few thousand meters from the national parliament and from virtually all the government ministries;
2. exposing the country's only international airport to attack from primitive weapons already being used from within territories that have been abandoned;
3. making its major rail and road links vulnerable to attack by little more than small arms fire, risking paralysis of the land transport system;
4. abandoning the control of crucial water sources (about one third of the total national supply) to Palestinian control;
5. bringing principal infrastructure installations such as the Hadera power station together with 80% of the civilian population and the economic activity of the country within the range of rockets and missiles presently being launched against Israel.
Consequently, in the effort to preserve their worldview from discredit and ridicule, these influential elites must depict the Arab side in a far more favorable light than reality warrants while portraying the Israeli side in a far more negative one. For otherwise there would be no justification (or indeed sanity) in handing over areas of such vital strategic importance to Arab control. This obsessive adherence to an untenable worldview entraps its proponents into a delusional and desperate quest for the one "last mythological concession," which if Israel would only consent to make – the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict would miraculously come to an end.
Thus a situation has been created in which Israel finds itself unable to embark on a offensive strategic Hasbara initiative designed to defeat its adversaries, and thus restricts itself to tactical defensive responses, designed merely to temporarily ward of enemy offensives and doomed to inevitable failure.
This then is the explanation for Israel's abysmal performance in the fight for public opinion. Remedying this regrettable condition is not any easy task. While the difficulties should not be underestimated – neither should they be over-estimated. As with any problem, the first stage toward a solution requires an accurate articulation of the issues involved as a necessary condition for their diagnosis and for the formulation of ways to contend with them.
The precise details of these formulae for solutions constitute a topic for a separate discussion, but their overriding objective would be to publicly expose those responsible for the diplomatic debacle, unveil their myopia and their malice, undermine their standing, and erode their status. This is the only way to neutralize their influence and the enormous damage that they inflict on the nation.