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High on Hasbara, It’s Time to Smell the Coffee

Israel's Ministry for Public Diplomacy Logo. Credit: Israeli Ministry of Public Diplomacy Facebook Page

What do right-wingers like Yishai Fleischer and Gilad Erdan, and the more liberal-minded and Bibi-sceptic Eylon Levy and Noa Tishby have in common? In a seemingly divided Israel, where in domestic politics the Left and Right have come to abhor one another, they share a major common denominator: they suffer from crippling overdoses of Hasbara.

Every passing day, we see this class of Hasbaristas going on overdrive, with their sea of hashtags and talking points to apparently prove to the world that Israel is doing its most to deliver aid to Gaza, that Hamas is solely responsible for the humanitarian nightmare in the Strip, and that the West should not support Palestinians because there is no “P” in Arabic. All with progressively more aggressive claims against even Israel’s closest friends in the USA.

And increasingly, politicians seem to find time to wade extensively wading into Hasbara. Whatever one says of Gilad Erdan’s latest stunt-not much more than a pound shop version of Chaim Herzog’s famous ripping up of the ‘Zionism is Racism’ abomination of a General Assembly Resolution-it should be viewed as part of a strategy with one aim: cameras and clickbait. Not only would this be a well-serving stunt to Erdan’s desires for any post-Bibi Likud leadership election, but it would prove the “haters” wrong. It also seems as though amidst the flurry of negotiations in Doha and Cairo, the protests in Tel Aviv, the misery of the hostage families, and Washington’s growing anger at his government; Benjamin Netanyahu managed to find time for an interview with Dr. Phil. Not with Channel 12, not with the Western media, not even with some kowtowing Channel 14 yellow journalist. But Dr. Phil.

Let me state from the outset that having sound public diplomacy is a necessity. Some countries don’t do it as overtly as Israel does, like when the savvy American Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink dropped a rather goofy, if admirable, rap song (Vietnam is undoubtedly on the front-lines of US-China strategic rivalry, and a bit of soft-power might be helpful!). In Israel’s case, it is necessary to provide the international community a lens into its perspective in the world’s most intractable conflict. The Palestinians don’t invest much in public diplomacy, but there seems to be no need to, especially given the daily images of horror from the Gaza Strip, matched with the shocking TikToks of some soldiers, which routinely undercut the catchphrase ‘most moral army’. Of course, this doesn’t mention the truly ahistorical nonsense dressed as scholarship that gets more and more clicks these days online.

But there is a limit to Hasbara’s utility. Initially, this was to ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ people about the ‘other side’ of the conflict. This was helpful during minor flare-ups, and was certainly of use when Israel faced the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, though that was at a time when Israel enjoyed the persistent diplomatic leverage that came with its good-faith efforts to reach a peace deal in the final months of the Barak premiership. Now, it seems to be catered primarily towards ‘strengthening the base’ and convincing those who call themselves pro-Israelis (and, indeed, the domestic audience) that Israel can do no wrong.

It’s essentially becoming a drug that serves only those within this community, especially at a time when many liberal Zionists are losing faith in Israel’s government. I trace the beginnings of the major crack among them from Operation Guardian of the Walls, which in the late-COVID wave of international attention, seemed a step too far for many, particularly given the context of home demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah. The judicial overhaul and the utter obscenity of a government that has led Israel since the 2022 election pushed many even further: how could one associate with a state that has entertained settler interest parties, in some capacity, in every poll since 2009?

The horrors of 7/10 doubtless brought many back into the fold as they were reminded of Hamas’s savagery. But the conduct of the war and widespread destruction of Gaza has smashed much of this to pieces. As soon as they were reminded Israel was led by a Prime Minister on trial for corruption, a finance minister who calls for villages to be wiped out, and a national security minister who needs no introduction for his lifelong and clinical racism; the conduct of the war became seemingly indefensible. Remember, it is one thing for Ehud Olmert to wage the 2008-9 war after making serious propositions to the Palestinians after the Annapolis round; it is quite something else if it’s Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben-Gvir.

Consequently, Hasbara is essentially for self-consumption. It is to tell the people of Israel who live abroad and the declining constituency of non-Israeli Zionists (of whom I am a member myself, though never a follower by Hasbara) that all is okay, Israel is the victim of an international smear campaign, and will survive with or without the world.

It is all hollow. Consider the widely-quoted Menachem Begin, who said to Ronald Reagan in 1982 that Jews were not ones with trembling knees as was the case before the Holocaust. This is true: the State of Israel was established to provide the Jewish people with a secure and democratic homeland. It is a beautiful statement, but one that-like much of Begin’s work-tends to be eloquent without the requisite substance in policy. The Lebanon War would be the inglorious end of his premiership, leaving him a broken man for the rest of his life. Israel did respond to American pressure and facilitated Arafat’s exile from Beirut, despite what was the lifelong desire of the war’s architect, Ariel Sharon, to assassinate the PLO leader.

To be sure, Reagan did not have a very coherent strategy to deal with the PLO, much as Joe Biden doesn’t have one for this war: vacillating between ardent personal support for Israel and the devastation of Washington’s world image and the heartfelt rage of many of its allies; there isn’t much either had in mind for addressing the threat of a terrorist entity on Israel’s borders. But at least in Biden’s case, this was never something for America to do: it was for Israel to present a coherent strategy of how to handle Gaza after the war. It was always clear that to achieve a non-Hamas government and pressure the Hamas leadership into freeing the hostages, there had to be someone other than Hamas feeding Gazans. This, in turn, required Israel to commit to the PA and the Arab world to an irreversible and time-bound post-war peace process that would yield two states.

This was always impossible; a forlorn dream for Washington elites seeking a wider regional normalization and a monstrous impossibility for the messianic sycophants reigning Israel. It is something Netanyahu (and most people with a cell between their ears) have known since 7 October itself. It is not something that he could do given his own politics. And, as our very own Times of Israel itself has reported, the US threat to halt offensive weapons supply was a long way coming. With the USA facing unprecedented international criticism, Biden giving up his long-standing quest to win over the Israeli public, and (most importantly) Netanyahu being an impossible interlocutor and partner; Biden had no choice but to step up.

But this isn’t the reality that Hasbaristas will portray. Instead, we find the now-deleted Eylon Levy tweet claiming that Biden has essentially “buried” the hostages. We will see more nonsense of how Israel has been the perfect partner but was stabbed in the back by the United States. Right-wing Channel 14 narratives shall be translated through the dignified tongue of the liberal hasbarista to a bunch of meaningless sentences about how Israel must finish off Hamas for there to be peace, all while deliberately leaving out the fact that Netanyahu never had a plan on how to accomplish this mission.

Hasbaristas and all followers, it’s time to smell the coffee. Israel has had seven months to come up with a plan on post-war Gaza governance and a diplomatic path forward, with the reward of the road to integration into the wider Middle East. Bibi flubbed it for his personal gain and, given his continued complicity in this catastrophe of a government, I seriously doubt Gantz has the spine to do much differently. The world may be hostile to Israel but there’s no point ceaselessly complaining about it. It’s time to take bold and painful decisions, even if it means moving towards territorial withdrawal in the wake of a truly appalling Hamas attack. It is the only way to preserve Israel as a secure, Jewish and democratic state. Making irate noises at cameras about how the world is unfair to convince yourself isn’t going to serve any purpose.

About the Author
Priyankar Kandarpa is an ardent supporter of Israel's existence as a secure, moral, democratic state to fulfill the original mission of Zionists to ensure the Jewish people a truly recognized, legitimate place among the nations. He closely researches matters regarding the so-called 'Permanent Status' issues and the history of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. He studies History and Politics at the University of Oxford.
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