Shifting Public Relations Strategies in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

It has become commonplace to hear that Israel has poor public relations. In part, Israel’s failure to present itself favorably to the global community stems from the misconception within Israeli society that Israel is still perceived internationally as the underdog it was prior to 1967. However, Israel’s struggle to maintain the support of both individuals and states also arises, in part, from the strength of its rival narrative.

The Palestinians’ public demonstration of state-building is not only inspiring, it’s also quite sensational. In contrast to Israel, which has cemented its image as a Western satellite in the Middle East, the Palestinian story is still being written. Beyond the dramatic prospect of a subjugated people overcoming an oppressive occupation, Palestinians are also capitalizing on the image of a traditional society adopting more progressive ideals.

The sight of an Arab shepherd leading his flock directly behind the construction site for a new high-rise hotel is quite appealing for those seeking an emotional tale of a disadvantaged community grappling with its burgeoning statehood. This portrayal is not without basis. The Palestinians have faced substantial plight since 1948, and the past decade has charted tremendous growth for them as a people. Although it is somewhat controversial to say (because Ramallah does not accurately represent the West Bank and Gaza at large), Ramallah looks more and more like the capital of a fully-fledged state every day. Despite its occasional dysfunction, the Palestinian government in the West Bank consists of executive, legislative and judiciary branches, with a thorough network of NGOs aiming to fill any gaps this leadership creates.

From an outsider’s perspective, these developments must appear uplifting, and they ought not be discounted. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that in many ways this is a recycled storyline. Modern Zionism essentially follows the same trajectory: a population facing harsh discrimination built a state against all odds, thereby challenging its cultural and religious heritage. One would expect this similarity to instill a sense of kinship between these two national projects. However, as mentioned in a previous post, Israel is far less certain of its identity and secure with its existence than anyone cares to admit. Israel is not ready to guide others to statehood, especially in such close proximity, when it views its own state quite so vulnerable.

Israel’s state-building today is simply not sexy, as it has become for the Palestinians. Israel is losing its PR battle because the Palestinians are just now finding utility in a strategy that Israel has already exhausted. The political squabbles in Israel are far less attractive to a foreign observer than Palestinians agitating for their political rights for the first time.

The longer Israel waits and watches as the Palestinian state emerges, the fewer terms Israel will be able to dictate in the establishment of that Palestinian state. For a long time, Israel has simply refused to acknowledge the ongoing development of the Palestinian state, while simultaneously stifling its progress. This policy has decidedly backfired. Not only has it earned Israel the reputation as an oppressor, it has also helped the Palestinians gain the support of the international community. Rather than ignore the historic changes taking place in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel must seize the moment to create peace on its own terms, while there is still a moment to seize.

Israeli possession of the West Bank and Gaza was historically understood as a bargaining chip. It was a phenomenally strong bargaining chip—strong enough to leverage a lasting peace. However, Israel’s grasp on that chip is swiftly slipping. If Israel has any desire in retaining these territories as a negotiating tool, rather than watching them seized from beneath its feet, it must gesture to the world that it remains devoted to peace in the region. A far cry from recent policy.

One cannot overlook the fact that Palestinians still face their own share of PR problems. The fractious relationship between Hamas and the PA, fringe groups of citizens that take military matters into their own hands and a lack of lobbying presence in developed countries and international institutions all impede the Palestinian PR agenda. Despite these obstacles, the Palestinian narrative is much fresher than Israel’s outdated global message.

All this, I write as a Zionist, as a firm believer that Jews have a right to a state in the land of Israel. In order for that dream to remain a reality, however, Israel has a responsibility to demonstrate to the world that it sees the changes occurring around it, and that it is able to adapt to those changes. It is imprudent for Israel to neglect the weight of public opinion; after all, it was the support of the international community that permitted the establishment of the State of Israel in the first place.

About the Author
Stephen Rutman studies Modern Middle Eastern Studies and English at the University of Pennsylvania; Originally from New York, Stephen is interested in Israeli culture and politics and the way it is portrayed in American media and society