Friday, May 27, 2016

Explaining Israel

Editorial, Jerusalem Post

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The time has come to rethink Israel’s public diplomacy strategy in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Israel gets a bad rap in the court of world opinion.

Just one example: the United Nations Human Rights Council condemns Israel for purported human rights abuses not only more often than it does any other single country in the world, but more than all the other nations of the world combined. If the highpoint of world empathy for Israel’s plight was in the wake of the Six Day War, it’s been downhill ever since.

Israel has been in desperate need of an overarching strategy for combating the world’s obsessive focus on its flaws for some time now. It needs to be extensively developed, generously budgeted, well-coordinated with the political echelon and the IDF, and strategically placed throughout the world.

It would be only natural for Israel to devote a disproportionate amount of time, money and resources to diplomacy and to be particularly good at explaining itself worldwide. It is difficult to think of another country in the world comparable in size that faces the sorts of diplomatic challenges Israel does.

That’s why it is frustrating to discover that Israel lacks an overall strategy, lacks funds, and is failing to achieve its goals in the battle against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.

That was the conclusion of a damning State Comptroller’s Report published Tuesday.

A litany of failures are outlined in the report: A lack of cooperation among the Foreign Ministry and the Strategic Affairs Ministry and the IDF Spokesman’s Office; slow responses to crises; unutilized Foreign Ministry missions abroad; inadequate resources at the disposal of the Strategic Affairs Ministry; grandiose plans never implemented (such as reaching out to religious organizations abroad and promoting dialogue with moderate Muslim communities in Europe).

The Comptroller’s Report is hardly the first wake-up call regarding unsatisfactory foreign diplomacy efforts. Back in February, The Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon reported that Israel invests significantly less in developing its Foreign Service Corps than countries of comparable size such as Norway, Greece and the Czech Republic. Israel, according to these figures, has 78 embassies abroad, 23 consulates, one trade office, and six missions to international organizations. Iran, by contrast, has 142 missions abroad and the Palestinian Authority has 101. Food-maker Osem’s annual ad budget is bigger than Israel’s public diplomacy budget.

Not only does Israel have too few missions, those that do exist are woefully undermanned. Just a single diplomat runs 30 of the missions and just two are positioned in 56 additional missions, including in Buenos Aires, Cairo and Shanghai.

Part of the problem is that the Foreign Ministry lacks a full-time minister – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also the foreign minister. Normally, the politician chosen to become foreign minister uses his or her position to make a name and to fight for bigger budgets. No politician with drive and aspirations to become prime minister would allow his or her budget to remain inadequately small without putting up a fight.

Another problem is that public advocacy or hasbara is a sexy issue. Every politician wants to be responsible for it. The Strategic Affairs Ministry dabbles in diplomacy as does the Prime Minister’s Office. The Foreign Ministry has become just one more ministry that engages in public diplomacy. And often these different bodies do not coordinate their efforts.

It must be frustrating for the idealistic and motivated Foreign Ministry diplomats based in Israel and abroad who chose the diplomatic calling out of a desire to serve and defend Israel against the propaganda spewed by a host of countries, non-state actors, terrorist groups, Islamists and BDS activists. These are people who received training in the art of diplomacy and are therefore the best qualified to take up Israel’s case abroad.

The time has come to rethink Israel’s public diplomacy strategy in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges.

Steps that need to be taken include: appointing a full-time foreign minister; increasing Israel’s presence abroad; utilizing professional diplomats; and coordinating the different hasbara efforts under a single body. We cannot eradicate prejudices. But we can do a better job of revealing them for what they are.

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