The current moment of conflict requires a different type of public diplomacy
Now is not the time for Hasbara. Hasbara (from the Hebrew word ‘to explain’) was developed as a public communications strategy to provide the Israeli government room to root out terrorist infrastructure before international condemnation forced its hand to stop military operations. The Hasbara paradigm assumes that if we only ‘explain’ the situation to international publics they will grant the government freedom to act. It does not require anything from the larger international community other than supporting (or at least not stopping) retaliatory Israeli government actions meant to create deterrence.
The existence of hundreds of hostages, coupled with the shattered trust much of the country has in our government, has made today’s situation more complex than any we have faced since 1948.
First, the situation does not require retaliation, but rescue. This will not be rockets and airstrikes. This will be a full on ground invasion.
Second, the perception of government failure to prevent this atrocity and rescue its victims and support reservists rushing to the front has created a vacuum Israeli civil society has inspiringly stepped up to fill. To continue this effort, we will need the international community to support civil society – more so than the government – both morally and financially.
Israelis cannot do it alone: we simply do not have the financial resources or the material. To succeed in the campaign to return our hostages and secure our civilians we will need non-Israelis to do more than understand. We will need them to take action alongside us. To join us to overcome nearly insurmountable odds to bring our loved ones back alive. For this we will need a new public diplomacy paradigm wherein we Enlist to action (Hafala) as opposed to Explain to them (Hasbara).
A Hafala public diplomacy paradigm should set as its aims to enable Israel to bury its dead, heal its wounded, and prepare for the long struggle to return captives to their families. In that order. Each messaging area needs to include a clear call to action for the international community.
Practically, I recommend focusing our efforts on:
- Comforting the mourners
- Messaging: Share stories of grief, and public support for families who lost loved ones
- Action: Rally communities to aid families in their time of need by creating public foundations dedicated to supporting their needs and rebuilding the affected communities
- Supporting the survivors
- Messaging: Profile those victims recuperating from attacks, and highlight the brave and tireless medical teams working tirelessly to save lives
- Action: Raise funds and provide expertise to ensure the full recovery of the wounded, and to support the rest and recuperation of medical teams after the intensity of the event
- Demanding return of captives
- Messaging: Solidarity as mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, with those whose loved ones have been kidnapped and stating openly and without hesitation that we will not rest until their loved ones are back safely.
- Action: Legal and civil cases on all known accomplices of Hamas, seizure of assets, international NGO condemnation and commitment to raising the return of the kidnapped to their top emergency priority
- Strengthening Civil Society
- Messaging: Acknowledge the government’s shortcomings and celebrate the resilience of the Israeli people to fill the gaps
- Action: Raise and direct funds from international communities to vetted and well-run NGOs who can sustain civil society efforts
Timing is critical in the face of international attention spans and media cycles. Phased messaging – prioritizing key themes at strategic intervals based on monitoring the media cycle for resonance – will ensure a sustained focus by the international community to support Israeli society to honor the dead, heal the wounded, and secure the release of captives.
Tactically, by targeting messages alongside calls to action, by building on action to enlist further commitment, we will shift our own mindset from Hasbara to Hafala, from asking the international support for passive support to engage them in helping us build a better future out of the destruction.
And if we had time for strategy
As an observer and participant in public diplomacy campaigns since my time on the team building the internet division of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit circa 2000, my prediction is that we have at best one week from the initial attack until when the international media – and public opinion – fully shifts from talking about our dead to talking about the death and destruction in Gaza. From October 14 onward, international support will start to wane, and decision makers will find it hard to support on-going bombardment of Gaza’s infrastructure.
In the ideal world, Israel’s government would integrate this public diplomacy scenario into its strategic planning. It would spend the next four days securing the homefront, honoring the dead, and caring for the wounded (while training and preparing for our offensive). We would spend this week enlisting the international community to join us in mourning, focusing on personal stories of grief and loss, developing and spreading the most human of stories: loss, survival, a need for security. We would enlist the international community in creating foundations in the name of those lost, dedicated to ensuring the safety and security of their surviving kin, and the rehabilitation of their communities.
In the ideal world we would also spend the next week communicating that our war is not on the Palestinians, but on Hamas and their supporters. We would call on the international community to support Egypt in taking in as many Gazans as it can leave, and to set them up in temporary housing across the Egyptian border or within Gazan agricultural zones (away from urban infrastructure used by Hamas) to enable them to keep their loved ones safe. We would enlist the international community to join us to protect innocent lives while preparing for the long arduous battle to come. We would ask them to raise funds to ensure these innocents can survive in the days and weeks to come.
And only then would we issue Hamas an ultimatum: they have 48 hours to return all of our captured, our kidnapped. We would prepare the international community to the intensity of our response: we will do anything to rescue our children. We will not let anything get in our way to be reunited with our loved ones.
In the ideal world, we would be ready with all of these messages and their appropriate communication channels before a conflict like this even takes off. We are not living in the ideal world. Already Israeli ministers have openly declared they will cut off water to the two million Gazans who are living in the Strip, without giving them a way to avoid collective punishment. Already we are hearing stories in the international media about Palestinian civilian suffering, and all our dead have yet to be counted. Those of us who want to ensure international support under these circumstances will need to act now, before the damage is done, to do what we can to enlist the international community to help us get our loved ones home, and not try to explain to them how they would do the same in our shoes. It is time for Hafala.