Much has been said and written about Israel’s “hasbara” and its effectiveness in presenting Israel’s case around the world. But to address this important matter properly, it is essential to understand what “hasbara” is really all about.
First of all, the word “hasbara” itself is a problem. There is no real precise translation of the word in English or in any other language. It is not mere propaganda, nor is it an attempt to merely “explain” Israel’s policies and reality, nor is it just a matter of providing information. “Hasbara” sounds passive and apologetic, yet there is nothing passive about it and Israel has nothing to apologize for. A much better term would probably be “public diplomacy” because it seeks to work with and convince the public, particularly decision makers, shapers of public opinion and important sectors of society.
Public diplomacy is not a cure-all for all of Israel’s problems in the arena of public opinion. There are many factors, not just what we say, that influence the perception of Israel abroad. But Israel’s public diplomacy can make a contribution and does - if not always in the immediate and short term, then certainly in the long run.
Realities and Obstacles Faced by Israel’s Public Diplomacy
There are those who think that Israel’s image abroad is primarily a result of Israel’s “failure” or “success” to present its case. This is not so. First of all, Israel’s image is largely event-driven, rather than argument-driven. Whenever we have seen a major success in the peace process, then Israel is very popular. But whenever there are breakdowns or crises, such as during the four years of the intifada terror campaign, Israel is subjected to much criticism and in certain cases even hostility.
Images on television have a much greater and immediate impact on what the public abroad feels about Israel, than the arguments Israel presents. The justice of Israel’s case is not rooted in simplistic slogans, but in more complex arguments based on history, logic, and security interests - but the public abroad is not so ready to invest its time and energy in trying to understand this, and the public’s memory is often short.
How does one explain the staunch support that Israel has received over the years from the United States, as opposed to the problems we have with Europe in matters pertaining to the Arab-Israel conflict? Certainly there are other factors in these countries, and not just Israeli “hasbara,” at work, such as national and partisan interests, value systems, predispositions and prejudices. There are many in the world with strong and over-riding interests connected to the Arab countries who are, therefore, often predisposed to give the Arab position the benefit of the doubt. Automatic emotional support for the Third World, antiglobalism, hatred of the United States and other such agendas favor the Palestinians over Israel. Anti-Semitism has its own role to play, although not in all cases. On the other hand, there are those who enthusiastically support Israel because they see us as sharing their values and as being an important ally against shared threats.
Consider this: Israel has itself, its Jewish brethren and its friends in the United States and elsewhere to present Israel’s case; the Palestinians, on the other hand, have not only themselves, but 21 Arab states, Iran, and much of the Muslim world and many in the Third World that back them, along with many leftwing radicals and rightwing extremists in Europe and elsewhere. In terms of numbers, resources, representation in international institutions, and access to forums of all kinds, Israel and its supporters are very much outnumbered. Even a superpower like the United States, with all the resources and people at its disposal, has difficulties in getting the support of public opinion abroad for some of its policies. Can we truly expect that little Israel would have a greater chance of success than the United States?
Israel is a democracy. As such we do not control the media. It is not the Israeli spokespeople who determine the priorities, the agenda, and the views of the media, but the media themselves. It can be clearly shown how in many ways, over the years, the foreign media have increasingly become “a third party to the conflict” - not just an objective observer and reporter, but an active interpreter and participant with its own biases, stakes, and way of doing things. Israeli spokespeople are given the opportunity to speak, but not necessarily and certainly not always in a manner that is equitable and fair to Israel. In fact, there have been cases when during interviews with Israeli spokespeople, images and scenes damaging to Israel are screened in the background. How fair is that?
As a democracy, Israel does not speak with one voice. It is no problem generally for the Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world to represent a unified position against Israel. Potential dissenters in the Arab world are arrested and murdered. On the other hand, dissent in Israel is part of the democratic scene and critics of the Israeli government can also present their case abroad. They too have an impact on the effectiveness of “hasbara,” and not just the spokespeople for the Israeli government and its supporters.
Achievements of Israel’s Public Diplomacy
Having said all this, public diplomacy is important to Israel and we have had successes. Developments on the ground coupled with persistent public diplomacy efforts over time have led to positive changes in getting understanding for at least some of Israel’s positions. We saw how Arafat, who had been the darling of so many in the West, eventually lost support in the United States, Australia, some European countries, and elsewhere - because of his personal involvement in terrorism and his corruption and, yes, also because of Israel’s persistent public diplomacy effort to expose that. Similarly, Israel’s position that movement in the peace process is dependent upon putting an end to terrorism and incitement has increasingly gained support abroad.
Because of its network of embassies and consulates abroad and its wide-ranging contacts all around the world, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the government institution most intensely involved in public diplomacy and best suited to do it. Although lacking in sufficient resources, especially financial, needed to carry out a more effective public diplomacy effort, because of the energy, skills and professionalism of its diplomatic personnel in Jerusalem and abroad, the Foreign Ministry has had successes. We have learned lessons from our past mistakes, and we constantly strive to adapt our public diplomacy activities to changing realities. Not only does the Foreign Ministry intensively train and equip those who join our ranks as cadets, but also all of our personnel, especially those who are assigned to our diplomatic missions overseas. The personnel of the Foreign Ministry are fluent in many languages and bring this capability to bear in their work at home and abroad. Under Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is fully mobilized to deal with both the political challenges faced by Israel abroad and to present Israel’s many accomplishments in numerous fields - alongside the many other diplomatic activities to strengthen our relations with countries around the world.
While working with the media and giving interviews is a very important part of our public diplomacy activities, it is only one part. For public diplomacy to succeed a constant and persistent effort over time is required in a myriad number of areas. Cultivating public opinion is not just a short-term activity, but more importantly a long-term one, and requires getting into details and projects of all kinds that engage our personnel every single day.
Success in public diplomacy requires the preparation of high-quality printed materials and multimedia materials that are distributed in quantity abroad. It requires having a state-of-the-art computerized system, including a superb Web site on the Internet, which can be used in real time to meet all contingencies. It demands that our diplomatic staff abroad go out in the field and meet not only with government officials, the media, and Jewish communities abroad - but also with students and professors, ethnic and religious leaders, as well as key people in the business world and in the arts and sciences. It also means inviting delegations to Israel, and our embassies and consulates hosting events abroad as well as their participating in those hosted by others. All this Israel’s Foreign Ministry - at home and around the world - does every single day.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its diplomatic missions abroad maintain a critical dialogue with the foreign media with the aim of rectifying media distortions and promoting an equitable depiction of events in their proper context. Within the last couple of years, in an effort to reach out to our Arab neighbors, we have also established a department that maintains contact with the media from the Arab world. Quite often now, Israeli spokespeople are interviewed by the Arab press and appear on Arabic television; this was practically unheard of in the past.
Sometimes, our achievements in public opinion are at the time only partial - considering the fact that the stack of cards is often weighted against us in the foreign media and in international organizations. But even partial success is important and in time could lead, with a continued and determined effort on our part, to much greater success. When Israel’s security fence was brought before the International Court at the Hague, it was clear from the outset that there would be no justice there, and that the matter had been prejudged due to pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel influences in the UN. But, outside the halls of the International Court, Israel carried out a major public diplomacy campaign, orchestrated by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which together with other Israeli government agencies succeeded in focusing needed attention on the reason behind the security fence - Palestinian terrorism and its innocent victims - thereby gaining understanding for Israel in various circles around the world, such as the United States and even within Europe.
One of the major challenges that Israel faces abroad is getting people to become aware that there is much more to Israel than conflict, tension, and fighting terrorism. The fact that Israelis live in many ways a normal life, that we are a thriving and robust democracy and pluralistic society, that we have achieved so much in the arts and sciences - is something that is ignored in headlines. While for years, the Foreign Ministry has made an effort to bring attention to these other important aspects of Israel, we are now engaged in intensifying those efforts and we have initiated a major campaign to show that there is an “Israel Beyond the Headlines.”
So while Israeli “hasbara” has not yet achieved all that we desire and even if Israel frequently appears to be taking a beating internationally, this is only one side of the coin. The other side is the fact that Israel has many friends out there and that Israeli public diplomacy has had many successes in strengthening and improving Israel’s ties with countries around the world. Israeli diplomats and official spokespeople are often praised by their foreign colleagues abroad for their initiative, energy, and professionalism in representing Israel’s cause. While there is always room for improvement, and we are constantly striving in that regard, just like Israel’s case itself, Israel’s public diplomacy effort has nothing to apologize for.