A group of American Jewish billionaires and mere multi-millionaires have grown tired of watching Israel get clobbered in the public relations war with the Palestinians and fed up with Israel’s unwillingness and or inability to defend itself. As a result, they have created two well-funded think tanks – one in United States and one in Israel – to redirect Israel’s advocacy activities.
The new initiative has predictably ruffled a number of feathers, not the least of them those of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which does not relish a group of concerned citizens taking over part of its functions. Others fear the Jewish magnates will use the initiative to link advocacy of Israel’s position to the final Clinton plan. The choice of Itamar Rabinovitch, former Israeli Ambassador to Washington and today closely identified with the Peres Peace Center, as director of the Israeli think tank lends credibility to those fears.
Nevertheless it is hard to gainsay the intuition of some of American Jewry’s biggest philanthropists, including the Bronfman brothers and Michael Steinhardt, that something has gone drastically wrong with the presentation of Israel’s case. The failure of Israel’s advocacy efforts is not of recent derivation. In Ben-Gurion’s time, contempt for world opinion was part of the regnant macho Zionism. "It’s not important what the goyim think, only what the Jews do,’’ Ben Gurion is reputed to have said.
While there are few today who believe that we can afford to remain oblivious to international public opinion, and particularly American public opinion, the disdain for public relations continues. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres famously remarked at the beginning of Oslo, "If you pursue good policies, you do not need hasbara, and if you pursue bad policies, no amount of hasbara will help.’’
That statement provides yet one more proof of how much foolishness can be contained in one clever phrase. Imagine a CEO cutting out all advertising because good products don’t need advertising and bad products won’t be helped.
I recently asked David Olesker, who teaches Jewish student groups techniques of effective advocacy, why the Palestinians do so much better presenting their case. "Simple,’’ he replied, "they try and we don’t.’’ He noted that one of his students recently walked into the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, a familiar haunt for foreign journalists, and within an hour was approached three times with offers to take her to a refugee camp or to visit the family of a "martyr.’’
Nothing comparable exists on the Israeli side. Less than two months into the current intifada, Israel had already closed its press center at the Jerusalem’s Isrotel and stopped its daily English press briefings. The Government Press Office found itself without a director, and when a staffer took a leave there was no one to Email information to journalists.
Israel is frequently oblivious to the need to explain its actions. Only six days into the recent closure around Ramallah did Israel mention for the first time that the closure was necessitated by intelligence reports of a terror cell planning a major attack from Ramallah. By that time, the image of Israel callously maximizing Palestinian suffering was firmly entrenched.
Official apathy is just one of the obstacles to effective advocacy for Israel. With the onset of the Oslo process, Israel became the leading international lobbyist for Arafat. Shimon Peres’ vision of a New Middle East posits that the stronger the stronger the Palestinain economy the more likely an enduring peace. To that end, Israel pushed the Americans and Europeans to be extremely forthcoming in aid to the Palestinian Authority.
At the same time, Israel deliberately downplayed all evidence of PA non-compliance with the Oslo Accords and withheld information that might have undercut in any way the picture of an Arafat deeply committeed to peaceful coexistence with Israel.
As Benny Begin demonstrated, Foreign Minister Peres knowingly dissembled when he announced that the PLO had rescinded the provisions of its Covenant calling for Israel’s destruction. Indeed whitewashing Arafat had long been part of Peres’ strategy. One of his first acts upon taking over the Foreign Ministry in 1986 was to order a halt to the distribution of the PLO Covenant.
American congressman often proved more skeptical about whether Arafat had changed his spots than the Israeli government. In September 1995, the House International Relations Committee screened a film showing the post-Oslo Arafat calling for jihad against Israel in Arabic, praising suicide bombers as "holy martyrs,’’ and comparing the Oslo Accords to treaties entered into by Mohammed with infidel tribes around Mecca, whom he subsequently wiped out. The Israeli Foreign Ministry worked to prevent the film from being screened, and then Ambassador to Washington, Itamar Rabinovitch went so far as to suggest that the clips might be forgeries. (Yes, that is the same Rabinowitch slated to head the new Israeli think tank.)
Old habits dies hard, and even the renewal of open warfare did not revolutionize theForeign Ministry. At the instigation of military intelligence, a comprehensive report of PA violations of all its previous agreements was prepared last November. The U.S. State Department was eager that the document not be released, and through Ambassador Martin Indyk brought pressure to bear on the Foreign Ministery to suppress it. Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami complied.
On occasion the Foreign Ministry’s failures reach the level of the surreal. Israel Harel described in Ha’Aretz the late December visit of a European Solidarity Mission. On the mission’s first day, the participants were addressed by Ziad Abu Ziad, one of the most effective Palestine anti-Israel propagandists. On their second day, they were scheduled to meet with Jews in the Galilee. Instead they met, with three left-wing MKs, Naomi Chazan, Yael Dayan, and Colette Avital, and Professor Galia Golan of Peace Now, which had just placed an ad in the Arab press laying the blame for the violence squarely on the settlers. On the third day, scheduled visits to Yad Vashem and to Gilo were cancelled to give the Jewish solidarity visitors the opportunity to once again listen to Ziad.
It is appropriate that Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, the founders of Project Birthright to bring Jewish students to Israel, should be among the moving forces behind the new privately-funded public relations effort. The battering that Israel absorbs due to sins of omission and commision of its advocacy apparatus -- nowhere more so on college and university campuses -- threatens to undermine the positive benefits of the Birthright program. The constant attacks on Israel make it more difficult for Jewish students to identify with Israel and their Judaism. That story next week.