Image from article, with caption: Israeli flags in Jerusalem on April 21, 2015.
For two decades the Jewish state has sought, fruitlessly, to negotiate an end to the conflict. Needed is a new, viable strategy for coping with reality and winning out.
II. Public Diplomacy
The fact that Israel needs international help even to shift the focus of negotiations with the Palestinians underscores why diplomacy, especially public diplomacy, is a vital part of a new strategy. It is also essential for preventing damage to Israel’s economic ties with the West and ensuring a degree of Western support for military action against Palestinian terror.
Few would dispute that Israel is currently failing in this arena. For starters, according to a recent Foreign Ministry report, Israel spends less than half as much as the Palestinian Authority does on its foreign service, despite having a GDP per capita more than 20 times that of the PA. Moreover, Israel maintains an embassy in fewer than half of the countries with which it has diplomatic relations. Even most European nations spend a considerably greater percentage of their budget on foreign relations than does Israel, and those nations aren’t engaged in a global diplomatic battle crucial to their future.
As for the public-diplomacy (or hasbarah) front, Israel makes very little effort to get its story out. Its public broadcasting authority has slashed English-language programming; Arabic-language programming remains limited; and in 2008, the authority was even poised to shut down broadcasts in Farsi, the language of Iran, before they were rescued by a last-minute government intervention. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the government hasn’t even coughed up a measly $12 million a year to bring 3,000 non-Jewish campus influentials to Israel, despite the proved effectiveness of letting people see the country for themselves.
The main story Israel has told about itself is that it wants peace, suggesting that, in the absence of such peace, Israel is a failure on its own terms.
Obviously, therefore, Israel needs to invest more. But no amount of money will help if it doesn’t have a compelling narrative to sell. And as the dramatic decline in Israel’s international standing clearly shows, the story the country has marketed for the last two decades is anything but compelling.
The main story Israel tells about itself is that it wants peace. This story did generate global enthusiasm at the time of the Oslo accords; peace, after all, is an attractive value. But two decades later, Israel still hasn’t achieved peace. In other words, Israel has failed to deliver on the promise at the heart of its own narrative about itself—which suggests that, judged on its own terms, Israel is a failure. And there is nothing compelling about a failure; on the contrary, it is off-putting.
There are, however, numerous other stories Israel could tell that are no less attractive and inspiring, and on which it really has delivered: the Jewish people’s rebirth from the ashes of the Holocaust, the return to Zion after 2,000 years and the dramatic ingathering of exiles, the only Mideast country that protects human rights and maintains a genuine democracy, the start-up nation, the West’s front line against Islamic extremism, and so forth and so on. Each of these stories is potentially attractive to one or more diverse audiences.
Indeed, very few of Israel’s friends support it primarily because it seeks peace; they admire it for its successes, not its failures. Americans, for instance, see it as the Middle East’s only democracy and an ally against Islamic terror. Evangelical Christians support it because the Jews’ return to Zion is biblical prophecy come true. Many Chinese and Indians admire its high-tech prowess. All of these qualities have far more to do with Israel’s raison d’être than its failure to achieve peace does. Peace is obviously desirable, but Israel doesn’t exist to achieve peace; it exists to create a thriving Jewish state in the Jewish people’s historic homeland. By encouraging the world to judge it on its peacemaking credentials rather than on the myriad positive goods it provides, Israel has invited the perverse and false conclusion that the Jewish state has been a failure rather than a resounding success.
But selling yourself is only half the public-diplomacy battle; the other half is discrediting your opponent. You’ll never hear Palestinian officials talk about Israel’s peacemaking bona fides, let alone about Israeli rights; Palestinians talk only about their own rights, while consistently accusing Israel of every crime known to mankind. Once again, however, Israel frequently does the opposite. Israeli leaders speak constantly of the need to “end the occupation” and the Palestinians’ “right” to a state; they also routinely laud PA President Mahmoud Abbas as a “partner for peace.”
This habit has badly undermined the credibility of Israel’s own case and has inevitably led much if not most of the world to place blame for the lack of peace on Israel’s doorstep. After all, if both sides agree that the PA wants peace, the Palestinians must be right to point the finger of blame at Israeli malfeasance. And even when Israel does try to call out the PA’s misbehavior and repeated bad faith, its inconsistent messaging makes it hard for people to take it seriously. Why, for instance, would anyone believe the (accurate) contention that Abbas has fled every proposed deal when Israel itself has repeatedly proclaimed him sincere in his desire for peace?
Similarly, and more damagingly, most of the world now regards Israel as occupying stolen Palestinian land. And why not? For two decades, Israel has downplayed its own legal claim to the West Bank and Gaza in order to promote Palestinian statehood there. This is a critical issue, because if Israel is a thief, it has no right to retain any of its stolen land or impose conditions on the return of that land to its rightful owners. By contrast, were it to be seen, rightly, as generously offering the Palestinians some of its own territory for the sake of peace, it would be in a better position to defend its right to retain certain areas for the sake of its security or impose conditions on their transfer.
As it happens, Israel’s claim to the West Bank and Gaza is strong. The League of Nations assigned these territories to the Jewish national home in 1922, and the UN Charter preserved that decision in Article 80. The UN’s 1947 partition plan was a nonbinding recommendation that the Arabs rejected. The UN-brokered agreement that determined the 1949 armistice line, also known (wrongly) as the “pre-1967 border,” explicitly states that this was not a final border and did not prejudice any party’s territorial claims. Israel captured both the West Bank and Gaza in a defensive war in 1967, at a time when neither was under the rule of any recognized sovereign. UN Security Council Resolution 242, which ended the 1967 war, was explicitly worded to allow Israel to retain at least part of these territories.
And this is far from being an exhaustive list. If, outside of Israel, few people know any of it, that is because Israel rarely talks about it. And even when it does, its contradictory message about “ending the occupation” and Palestinians’ “right” to statehood undermines its credibility. After all, people have a “right” to statehood only on their own land; if Palestinians have that right, Israel must have stolen their land. Nor can any country “occupy” its own land; if Israel’s presence in the West Bank is an occupation, the land must belong to someone else.
Add to all this that whereas the Palestinians in general relentlessly accuse Israel of various crimes, Israel has failed to be equally relentless in highlighting the PA’s constant incitement to violence, let alone its internal corruption, lack of democracy, and suppression of basic human rights. In light of this, is it any wonder that the world sees the Palestinian cause as far more deserving of support than it actually is? Only if Israel stops acting as the Palestinians’ defense attorney and instead explains, clearly and consistently, why its own case is worthy of support, as well as why the Palestinian case is not, will it have any hope of winning the public-diplomacy battle.
Whereas the Palestinians relentlessly accuse Israel of various crimes, Israel has failed to be equally relentless in highlighting the PA’s constant incitement to violence, internal corruption, lack of democracy, and suppression of basic human rights.
One final point to keep in mind, however, is that public diplomacy is a means, not an end. The primary end isn’t winning the world’s love, but winning the war. And that means it’s sometimes necessary to disregard global public opinion. Even if Israel were vastly to improve its public diplomacy, some decisions would still bring out the anti-Israel mobs, especially in Europe. If those decisions are important to Israel’s strategic ends, then Israel cannot be deterred by their global unpopularity.
For example, Israel was right to ignore the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who protested last summer’s war in Gaza; stopping the rocket fire from Gaza was more important. By the same token, it would be wrong to capitulate to global demands for an immediate pullout from the West Bank; fleeting public approval can’t compensate for the loss of strategically vital territory. As in any other war, Israel must weigh competing strategic considerations against each other and try to pick its battles. ...
V. The Paradigm
By means of public diplomacy, the U.S. largely succeeded in maintaining the support of fractious allies under difficult circumstances, while also convincing millions of Soviet subjects that the American model was economically, politically, and morally superior to their own. It achieved this not merely by investing heavily in selling its own narrative (for instance, by establishing Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to broadcast to Communist countries), but also by adhering to two important principles.
First, its narrative stressed the positive goods America really delivered on, like freedom, opportunity, human rights, and economic growth; by contrast, the Soviet Union was ultimately unable to deliver on its counternarrative of economic development accompanied by equality and social justice, which for decades continued to attract legions of adherents and admirers worldwide until its failure became incontrovertible. Second, while not all American leaders were as blunt as Ronald Reagan in dubbing the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” most were clear that there was no moral equivalency between the two countries; with a few exceptions, the generally consistent message was that America was a force for good in the world while the Soviet Union was the opposite. ...
What matters is for Israel to ensure it can survive and thrive until some solution becomes possible. And one way to do that is to follow America’s cold-war playbook. Use military force when and where necessary, but be careful to contain the conflict. Negotiate when possible, but on small deals that will reduce tensions and improve conditions rather than on big issues where agreement is unattainable. Fight the public-diplomacy war by investing the necessary resources, by advocating Israel’s cause rather than the Palestinian cause, and by emphasizing Israel’s successes rather than its failures—all the while remembering that public diplomacy is a means rather than an end, and strategic priorities should never be sacrificed to global public opinion. Preserve internal unity—an incalculable strategic asset—and invest heavily in Israel’s own economic and social development.
All of these are doable. And by doing them, Israel can survive and thrive despite its cold war, and ultimately win it—just as America did.