A group of leading American Jewish philanthropists, tired of watching Israel get clobbered in the public relations war with the Palestinians, have created two well-funded think tanks – one in United States and one in Israel – to redirect Israel’s advocacy activities.
However skeptical one may be of the capacity of private parties succeeding where the state of Israel has failed, it is hard to gainsay the intuition 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 the attitude that Israel is the sole master of her fate reflected in Ben Gurion’s words no longer holds sway, 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." Imagine a CEO ordering a halt to all advertising because good products don’t need advertising and bad products won’t be helped.
One major reason for the Palestinians greater success in presenting their case is that they try while Israel does not. 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. It took days, for instance, to explain that the recent closure around Ramallah 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. At the onset of the Oslo process, Israel became the leading international lobbyist for Arafat, deliberately downplaying all evidence of PA non-compliance and withholding information that might have undercut the picture of an Arafat deeply committeed to peaceful coexistence with Israel.
Foreign Minister Peres knowingly dissembled when he announced that the PLO had rescinded the provisions of its Covenant calling for Israel’s destruction.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.
In September 1995, the House International Relations Committee screened a film showing the post-Oslo Arafat calling for jihad against Israel in Arabic and praising suicide bombers as ``holy martyrs." 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 fakes.
Even the renewal of open warfare did not revolutionize the Foreign Ministry. A comprehensive report of PA violations of all its previous undertakings was initiated by military intelligence last November. The U.S. State Department, through Ambassador Martin Indyk, however, successfully pressured the Foreign Ministry to suppress the report.
On occasion, Israel’s failure to make its case has approached the surreal. Israel Harel recently described in Ha’Aretz the late December visit of a European Jewish 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.
While it is hard to see what private parties can do to remedy failures of such magnitude, the fact that a group of private Jewish philanthropists felt the need to commit more than ten million dollars to rethinking Israel’s entire approach to advocacy will hopefully provoke some serious soul searching in the Foreign Ministry and beyond.
First of a three-part series