In every escalation with the Palestinians, the failure of the Israeli public-relations machine is blamed for much of the condemnation of Israel and hostile media coverage. This was the case again during and after “Operation Guardian of the Walls” in May.
One of the few areas of agreement among American Jews is that Israel has terrible PR. The reputation was well-earned. For years, it typically involved officials with poor English attempting to give journalists a history of the conflict instead of the 30-second soundbite that was needed. The Palestinians, meanwhile, reduced the issues to three words: “End the occupation.”
Israel has gotten much better at PR in recent years but, like the war on terror, they are fighting an asymmetric battle. Photos of Palestinian children in hospitals or sobbing grandmothers standing in rubble, for example, are more compelling than Iron Dome missiles shooting down rockets. Israelis should not have to die to win sympathy, but they won’t get much if the people on the other side are dying.
Shimon Peres argued that good policy results in good PR. That is true to an extent, but sometimes Israel’s policy options are limited or poor. The media’s tendency is to focus on the negative results in unflattering stories even in the best policy environment. Moreover, it’s not always clear what constitutes good policy given the divisions in Israel and the Diaspora. Dismantling settlements or dividing Jerusalem might improve Israel’s image, but those policies would provoke serious dissent among Jews.
Some argue we should “Brand Israel” and treat it like selling toothpaste, but commodities and most other countries do not have the same political baggage. A related argument is that focusing on Yisrael Hayafah will make everyone recognize what a wonderful place Israel really is, and they will ignore that pesky Palestinian issue.
There is a role for this approach. When I was at AIPAC in 1992, I coined the term “Shared Value Initiatives,” arguing that we needed to focus more on what Israel can do for America rather than the other way around. After I started the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE), I highlighted specific areas where our countries shared values and interests and still maintain that, for example, you can make a better case for Israel to some members of Congress by showing them that their constituents are benefitting from U.S. aid, trade and academic exchanges with Israel.
There is one fundamental problem with this “Israel beyond the conflict” approach; you can’t get beyond the conflict so long as it continues. It is the conflict that makes headlines. It is the conflict that discourages tourism. It is the conflict that drives much of the progressive animus towards a country that otherwise exemplifies liberal values they support.
Apologies for the treif expression, but it is the proverbial effort to put lipstick on a pig.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, with whom I frequently disagree, makes a valid point when he argues that American Jews, especially the younger generation, “desperately need an Israeli leader who will say to American Jews and to all Americans: The territories are not Israel. We Israelis have no desire to rule over the Palestinian people. We are committed to sitting down with Palestinian leadership and working out a peace agreement, based on the principle of two states for two peoples. Until we have an agreement, no matter how long it may take, we will not expand our area of settlement, and we will do everything possible to separate from the Palestinians.”
Israelis must always appear to be the party most interested in peace. It is a fact, not hasbara that they are. That image was lost, however, during the Netanyahu years. Israel needs a plan—not necessarily Yoffie’s—to pursue peace with the Palestinians. Since the Palestinians have no plan, only a desire for Israel’s disappearance, it is not difficult to demonstrate who genuinely wants peace.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The most virulent critics of Israel—the Tlaibs, Omars, Farrakhans and BDSers—aren’t interested in Middle East peace, as evident from their condemnation of the Abraham Accords. They are no more interested in the welfare of the Palestinians, or they would condemn their mistreatment by their leaders. They do not object to Israel’s borders; they object to Israel’s existence. Should Israel sign a peace agreement with the Palestinians, the terms will be condemned as unfair, with Israel being asked to pay reparations for the refugees, and all manner of real and imagined sins. The human-rights organizations will write about Israel’s alleged history of persecution of Palestinians and ongoing mistreatment of Arabs in Israel.
This does not mean surrendering the public-relations battlefield.
One thing Israel can do is provide more timely information, ideally to a central address that can immediately disseminate it to the pro-Israel community. Americans have their own obligation to have responses ready long before a conflagration occurs because we already know certain things are inevitable whenever Israel engages in any operation against its enemies. For example:
- The Palestinians (or Hezbollah) will immediately disseminate lies about what is taking place.
- Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International will “investigate” and publish their own distortions of Israeli actions.
- The media will not verify information and disseminate anti-Israel propaganda as fact.
- Israel will be denounced by the United Nations, “progressives,” anti-Israel organizations and Israel’s detractors among faculty, students and celebrities.
These are givens that will not be altered by improving PR strategies. Still, it is possible to make the case for Israel that influences some and mitigates the damage of others. We know certain issues will routinely arise, such as disproportionality, humanitarian crises and allegations of massacres. Many of the calumnies are evergreens which Sy Kenen first rebutted in the first editions of Myths and Facts in the 1960s and remain in the edition I am currently updating.
As we know from political campaigns, negative attacks can work, but also sometimes backfire. The hasbara of the 1970s and 80s focused on demonizing the Arabs and had limited effectiveness. Israel needs to be portrayed in a positive way and not simply as less bad than the other side.
Back in 2008, I drafted a paper: “War Gaming: The Public Relations Front” and argued that like the Israeli Ministry of Defense or Pentagon, Israel’s supporters needed to prepare for future engagements. Some may never occur and the plans stay in a drawer, but others are more predictable. Even then, for example, I outlined the issues likely to arise from a conflict with Hamas and argued that we needed to have answers to questions about civilian casualties, proportionality and humanitarian crises, but they weren’t ready and we had to play catchup during operations “Cast Lead,” “Pillar of Defense,” “Protective Edge” and “Guardian of the Walls.”
We need to be primed for a range of possible scenarios. For example, what if Israel preemptively strikes Iran? Do we have answers now to justify Israel’s action, to explain collateral damage and to counter-arguments that Israel has endangered U.S. interests, provoked terrorism and undermined diplomacy? There is no excuse not to have them and, if we don’t, we can’t blame Israel for the resulting PR disaster.
I have no illusions about how Israel will fare in the media no matter how well-equipped we are for the PR battle, but being prepared will give us at least a fighting chance of shaping the narrative.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”