Amidst the uncertainty following Operation Protective Edge, and the predictable criticism of Israel from much of the world, the need to improve Israel’s hasbara (literally “explanation,” but meaning public relations) has again emerged as a consensus issue. While in the country last month, I heard frequently and with a dose of hyperbole, about the “world” that “hates us now.” It echoed even in Los Angeles, where Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the audience at a fundraiser that, while fighting Hamas is difficult, “hasbara is much harder for us, and we are terrible at it.” The gap between Israel’s reality and portrayal from outside is seemingly wider than ever, and frustration over this runs deep.
The second intifadah highlighted Israel’s increasingly negative image abroad, particularly in the media, amongst academics and on the political left. Yet after this last Gaza war, is it the case that Israel’s substantial investment in hasbara over the last decade has yielded little fruit? The harder Israel tries to explain itself as a sane and even exemplary nation amidst the regional insanity that it – but not its harshest critics – faces, the more misunderstood and castigated it becomes. Was not Protective Edge a justified war, a war of self-defense, and not a war of choice? What else should Israel have done, when Hamas was shooting rockets and burrowing tunnels, solely for the purpose of murdering its civilians? And why did Israel receive almost no credit from the so-called international community for the extensive steps it took to minimize collateral damage –– warning civilians in advance, calling off air strikes, allowing humanitarian relief into Gaza throughout the fighting – and was instead accused of war crimes?!
In spite of the Orwellian dystopia that is much of the world’s treatment of Israel, many Israelis still cling to the belief that it’s a PR problem, not a fundamental disagreement. That if Israel only presented a better image – through better spokesmen, more convincing statistics, tighter messaging – the truth about the country would finally get out there. But sadly, this is not the case.
While improving hasbara may score Israel some points at the margin, it will not yield a meaningful increase in the country’s international standing. Israel’s strongest supporters, intermittent allies and fiercest critics form their positions based on their own values and interests, not because of the image that Israel presents to the world. Focusing disproportionately on public relations thus puts the cart before the horse. Moreover, Israeli public diplomacy is already quite good, possibly the best to be hoped for given Hamas’s explicit strategy to achieve and to showcase Palestinian suffering and casualties.
For a variety of geopolitical reasons — oil, the decline of the US as sole superpower, Europe’s Muslim diaspora and the advent of political Islam in the Middle East — Israel has become ever deepened as an international fault line issue. Nations’ policies toward Israel are an extension of these and other complex forces, which public relations cannot possibly match.
The so-called “international community” is more a construct than a reality, and in any event, it does not reject Israel. To be sure, many countries do not agree with Israel’s settlement policies or its tactics of fighting Hamas, in the same way many countries may not recognize Northern Cyprus as Turkish territory or believe that Spain should grant independence to Catalan. But they do not boycott Turkey, and they still flock to Barcelona by the millions. There is clearly increased hostility to Israel among some segments in certain parts of the world — particularly in Europe — yet the EU is also the country’s largest trading partner.
Nations make their foreign and economic policies – including their policies toward Israel – according to their interests and domestic constituencies. Israel (and its supporters abroad) should therefore pursue outreach based on common values and interests, rather than focusing the PR debate on the most sensitive issues — “defeating” terrorism and reaching a political solution with the Palestinians – for which Israel itself does not even have internal agreement.
We would all like to believe that we form our opinions objectively, based on a review of the evidence and facts, but at least regarding the media – disturbingly perhaps – this appears not to be the case. Instead, people tend to seek out information that conforms to and reinforces their pre-existing beliefs. The acclaimed pioneers of behavior psychology, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, named this phenomenon as the “confirmation bias,” and psychologists have demonstrated through a series of experiments just how pervasive and persistent it is to the human condition. Facts are indeed stubborn things, but not nearly as strong as convictions. We are, fundamentally, emotive beings, not cerebral machines.
The relevance of this phenomenon to the media and its effects is enormous. Extending Kahneman and Tversky’s work, Freakonomics co-authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner illustrated how pervasively the media caters to consumers’ pre-existing points of view. The media – for-profit entities and fiercely competitive – slant their coverage, slightly or heavily depending on the publication, in order to gain and retain viewers. In the United States, MSNBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post skew to the left; while the Wall Street Journal, Fox News and most of Talk Radio veer rightward. But this reflects the views of those watching and listening, rather than causing them.
Those abroad who support Israel most strongly do so out of commonality with the country. Hundreds of millions of people all over the world believe in Israel because they see it as one or more of the following: the Jewish homeland, the fulfillment of a biblical promise, a beacon of Western civilization, and a strong ally in a perilous region. This support is genuine. It is intrinsic and reflexive. These people want Israel to remain steadfast and to prevail – and perhaps even help them prevail. Their views are not circumstantial, and are not driven by media hype or hasbara.
Consider some of the countries most consistently aligned with Israel: the United States, India, Canada, Kenya, Singapore, the Kurds in Iraq. They have many overlapping characteristics: ethnically heterogeneous democracies with pluralistic religious constituencies (Israel is the most ethnically and religiously diverse country in the Middle East, unknown to or ignored by its critics), neighbors of Muslim countries which see themselves as threatened by Islamic terrorism, pro-Western and little if any history of anti-semitism. The largest pro-Israel demonstration during the war was in Kolkata, not New York or Toronto. “The destiny of both India and Israel as thriving democracies is intertwined,” said the event organizer Tapan Ghosh, who convened 20,000 Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists together in support. “We both share the same values.”
In the United States, religious affiliation and political persuasion alone are nearly sufficient to predict a person or group’s views on Israel – independent of what is happening on BBC or CNN. A Pew Research Group report from earlier this year revealed that modern orthodox Jews view themselves as significantly more attached to Israel (77%) than reform (24%) or unaffiliated Jews (16%). The orthodox comprise only 10% of Jewry, but almost two-thirds of American immigrants to Israel. 55% of American Christians and 64% of Protestants believe that Israel was promised to the Jewish people by God – far more than even most Jews. Republicans in the United States are twice as likely as Democrats to identify as strongly pro-Israel, especially among young voters. The largest pro-Israel lobby in the US is not AIPAC, but Christians United for Israel.
Views of Israel in many other countries, often more subdued, are formed because of alliances and interests. China and Russia, for example, admire Israel’s achievements in high-tech and the technology “ecosystem” it has built; China is mostly indifferent to the Arab-Israeli conflict provided that others stay out of its own “internal affairs.” Mexico and Ghana seek drip irrigation and agricultural expertise. Colombia is a long-standing customer of Israeli defense equipment, and Brazil is eager to acquire more. These and other countries are primarily concerned with what Israel can do for them, not what it does vis-à-vis the Palestinians. While they may intermittently voice criticism during periods of heightened tension, or vote with the majority in the UN against Israel, their true interests align more closely with Israel than with the Palestinians or radical Islam. And they, too, will not be substantially influenced by hasbara.
Now let’s examine some of Israel’s harshest and most vocal critics abroad, beyond the Muslim world. They are typically far-left governments, and due to various domestic and other interests, align themselves with the Arab World and Muslim block, i.e. against Israel. France, once the Jewish state’s protector, switched sides after 1967when Charles de Gaulle decided France would be a check to the now dominant United States (it should be remembered that France built Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor and criticized Israel vociferously in 1981 for destroying it). Anyone who has visited Paris recently is a witness to the French failure to absorb its Muslim immigration – nearing 10 percent of the country’s population. Jews are now leaving France faster than any time in history (more than 1% just this year alone) and supporting the far-right National Front in record numbers. The current predictions are that Belgium will become a Muslim majority state by 2030, the first in Western Europe. A gunman killed four people at the Jewish museum in Brussels earlier this year, and where the country’s official education curriculum on the Holocaust includes comparisons of Israel to the Nazis. Norway, in a previous life home to the Oslo Accords, was labeled by a prominent Norwegian historian as the most anti-Semitic and anti-Israel country in the West. Dagbladet, the country’s third largest paper, amazingly featured the notorious “circumcision cartoon” last year that is indistinguishable from the propaganda of the Third Reich. Norway is an oil producer, as is Venezuela, another of Israel’s harshest critics. Secular, European-oriented Turkey was one of Israel’s closest allies; since the country’s shift eastward, it has aligned itself more with Iran, and therefore against Israel. Its anti-Israel position today is directed more at its own population, and perhaps Washington and Tehran, than Jerusalem.
If a country’s demographic realities and core interests are not compatible with Israel, hasbara is a waste of time. In a democracy, a nation’s foreign policy is an extension of its population’s will; no amount of settlement freezes, “proportionate” responses or eloquent spokesmen will change this. Israel is a fault line – and they fall to the other side. Asserting that Israel is the Jewish homeland, the fulfillment of a biblical promise, a beacon of Western civilization, a strong ally – the same attributes that garner Israel support elsewhere – will drive these and similar countries further away.
Many synagogues feature an inscription overhead reminding congregants to “know before whom you are standing.” Israel must do the same. The world does not speak with one voice on any issue, and certainly not on Israel. True support and opposition – as differentiated from media sensationalism – have much deeper roots, and are dependent on factors far beyond “explanations.”
The greater challenge for Israeli public diplomacy is not the media circus, the United Nations or the International Criminal Court, but the fact that Hamas emerged from the war victorious in the eyes of the Palestinians. Incredulously, nearly 80% of Gazans thought Hamas won the war, and the group has regained status from its previously fading position throughout much of the Arab World. There are glimmering signs of hope, perhaps offering the chance for a breakthrough: Hamas capitulated to Israel’s demands in the cease fire, the West Bank showed no appetite for a third intifadah during the fighting, regional allies like Egypt and Jordan have positioned themselves as the moderate and constructive balances against Hamas and an increasingly feckless Mahmoud Abbas.
Not PR, but real political achievements on the ground, will help Israel best shore up its imperfect military victory, and hopefully prevent the need to fight — or explain — a fourth Gaza war.