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Diplomacy is a matter of national security

Cutting foreign ministry funding puts Israel at grave risk on the 'lawfare' battlefront

Although it has not yet entered many of the conventional dictionaries and is not even incorporated in the software used in our computers, the term lawfare is very familiar to followers of the Israeli diplomatic front. This play on the terms ‘law’ and ‘warfare’ describes the effort to exploit international humanitarian law against countries and armies that find themselves fighting asymmetric warfare against non-state entities, irregular forces or terrorist organizations that use the civilian population as human shields for their activities. The term is often used today to describe the legally problematic nature of fighting terrorists in Gaza, south Lebanon or in Afghanistan and Africa.

The campaigns of lawfare and conflicting historic narratives have become powerful weapons for gaining the support of the world’s hearts and minds and twenty-first century diplomacy, particularly public diplomacy, stands squarely on that battlefield. This is why there is no excuse for the negligence and irresponsibility reflected in the sharp cuts in budget and manpower of Israeli diplomacy, according to a recent report issued by Israeli Foreign Ministry staff.

Diplomacy should be viewed as part and parcel of the Israeli battlefield, a sort of ‘diplofare,’ and should be treated accordingly. As the report highlights, investment in our diplomatic corps should not be viewed against investments in defense, but rather as complementary allocations aiming to strengthen our security. The struggle to delegitimize Israel in the form of calls for divestment and sanctions is based largely on myths and false narratives that require extensive diplomatic work in informing and educating officials, elites and the public. It becomes clear that even in the age of internet diplomacy and instant messaging through the social networks of cyberspace there is no replacement for the classic diplomatic work of person to person contact and the living human face of public diplomacy.

The sharp divide in Israeli society on political issues should not serve as an excuse for the failures and paralysis in public diplomacy. Both contending political sides share grave misconceptions about the image of Israel abroad and the potential to set the record straight. The political right is wrong in assuming that “all the world is against us” and that the Jewish state will always “dwell alone.” The political left is misleading in claiming that there is no need for “hasbarah” (advocacy) because of the fallacy that “good policies don’t require advocacy.”

The world is not altogether anti-Semitic or anti-Israel since many hundreds of millions are simply ignorant about the historic and political background of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israeli diplomacy must stand up against political warfare that denies its basic rights and legitimacy as a Jewish state and attempts to rewrite the history of the land of Israel and the Jewish people. When, in their comments and their textbooks, the leaders of the Palestinian Authority deny Jewish ties to Jerusalem or the history of the conflict, the advocacy of Zionism becomes a critical line of defense. It takes a willful blindness to dismiss the fact that the state of Israel faces existential threats unparalleled in any other conflict in the world.

Campaigns to preserve Israel’s international legitimacy go far beyond the classical interplay of diplomacy between embassies and foreign ministries. They call for active presence and activation on different public fronts: in the media, on the internet but also at university campuses, in civil society and among NGOs. The diplomat of the twenty first century continues to carry the old duties of representation and state protocol but must also be able to face the more diversified and sophisticated challenges of the age, which require of him more knowledge about legal and economic affairs and familiarity with the use of social media. Diplomats must expand their networks through public appearances but also convey their messages in quiet contact or through briefing to the press or by using local friendships cultivated over years with those in the media, academia or in prestigious think-tanks.

The old Zionist vision, expressed by Theodor Herzl and practiced by David Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, that Israel should fulfill the Biblical prophecy of “light unto the Nations” continues to be an important diplomatic tool. Despite consistent delegitimization efforts, Israel still enjoys a high degree of appreciation because of its unique message, which combines the old spiritual voice of the land of the Bible with the most advanced technological creativity of a ‘Start-up Nation’. It is only through the work of able, efficient and active diplomats that this message can be recognized in the world and help to strengthen our national security and legitimacy.

About the Author
Dr. Avi Beker teaches diplomacy and international law at Tel Aviv University and Ono Academic Center. He was the Secretary General of the World Jewish Congress and a Visiting Professor at Georgetown University.