It is hard not to notice the recent increase in popularity of Israeli President Shimon Peres. Peres, who used to be branded as the loser of Israeli politics, received unprecedented 81% support in a recent Haaretz poll. Some would attribute this to Peres’ new appealing facebook page or to his appearance at the AIPAC conference where he stressed that “Iran must be stopped”. I argue that Peres’ advocacy approach which combines his willingness to achieve peace and maintain a secure, recognized Israeli state is the reason why Israelis sympathize with him today more than in the past. Peres’ advocacy approach also represents a new kind of Israeli public diplomacy which is based on understanding the needs of Israelis rather than on explaining government policies.
Israel’s official response to winning the international community’s hearts and minds has been grounded in two policies: Hasbara and Branding. Hasbara is an attempt to explain why Israeli policies are justified and to deflect distortive pro-Palestinian media and boycott campaigns. The main difficulty with Hasbara is that it is based on argumentative tactics that indirectly justifies government policies. For many, Israeli presence in the West Bank is considered to be illegitimate and any argument that deals with the “details of occupation” is seen as not valid to begin with. In addition, the counter accusations made by Israelis and Palestinians as for who is more human, more guilty or more just are futile since in most cases the third party has no real indication who is right and it follows its natural tendency to support the weak side.
Branding was meant to answer Hasbara’s weaknesses by pushing the conflict image away from Israel and rebranding it as the land of hi-tech industry and beautiful beaches. Branding could be a useful tool to change a country’s image, but only when it is truly accepted and projected by all Israelis, not only by the Israeli diplomatic corps. Branding could claim some success, however, Israeli society in large embraces its militaristic character in such a way that projects like the “Tel Aviv beach” in Vienna would not change Europeans mindset about Israel.
In the age of Arab Spring, when people’s power is back to impact the national and international orders, Israel should also reshape its public diplomacy to reflect its people’s wills and desires. This non-partisan approach should be grounded not in explaining or justifying government policies but in explaining the logic behind Israelis’ most basic legitimate need – security and emphasize their most desired will – peace. When the audience gets the opportunity to view the Israeli – non political, but human viewpoint it will be easier for them to narrate with it.
A second guiding principle of this approach is to define the conflict in terms of present and future rather than past and justice. Both Israelis and Palestinians are caught in an impossible situation in which the only exit will be to look into the future from this point on, rather than keeping a relentless, pointless discussion about what might have happened in the past.
The most important strength of this approach is that it is productive in terms of conflict resolution. The groups that organize Pro-Israeli and Pro-Palestinian campaigns have a negative net effect on the progress of the conflict since they alienate and push the moderates to be more extreme and unwilling to talk to each other, unlike this approach that nurtures dialogue and bridge building. Moreover, since it is underlined in needs and not on political agenda, it will gain more support from all spectrums of Israeli society and thus becomes more authentic and effective.
Ranya Fadel, an Israeli who participated in a recent Israeli advocacy tour in the US gives a good example about the effect of this approach, in a meeting with Cindy Corrie, the mother of Rachel Corrie and president of the “Rachel Corrie Foundation for Peace and Justice” – one of the biggest criticizers of Israeli polices : “I didn’t want to talk about why Israeli policies are right or wrong and I didn’t apologize for being Israeli and willing to live safely …I just spoke about how us, as the young generation want to this situation to end, to look to the future…live in peace and security…following my lecture Cindy Corrie came to talk with us and we had an overwhelming conversation…it felt that we managed to reach her”
If Ranya and Shimon Peres do share the same idea, which is supported by the large majority of the Israeli public, then Israel should adopt as its public diplomacy policy – a public diplomacy that comes from the public and reaches a public.