Why Israel Needs Hasbara

Like it or not, Israel needs effective hasbara to thrive in a hostile world. Dr. Lynette Nusbacher explains why and how.

Like it or not, the era of diplomacy solely by government officials is over · Israel used to be quite good at public diplomacy and appeals to public opinion. It just needs to get back in the game · What is certain is that Fortress Israel isolated from the world is not an option · Dr. Lynette Nusbacher explains why Hasbara is indeed necessary

The times of diplomacy by government alone is over. Congress of Vienna. Photo: Wikimedia
The times of diplomacy by government alone is over. Congress of Vienna. Photo: Wikimedia

It used to be that diplomacy meant contacts between government and government. This was a legacy of the days when plenipotentiaries moved between kings and queens, emperors and presidents. Ordinary people’s views of international affairs were not relevant to the conduct of foreign policy. Foreign ministries used to communicate with citizens overseas rarely, and through formal arrangements such as local world affairs councils and United Nations associations.

In recent years this has changed. Since Joseph Nye’s books on ‘soft power’, venerable institutions of national advocacy like the British Council, the Goethe-Institute and the Alliance Française have seemed much more relevant. Direct appeals to populations, even in dictatorships, seem more relevant.

Soft power, frequently misunderstood as an alternative to more traditional ‘hard’ forms of military power, is the sum of sentiment that a country inspires in other countries. It is the reservoir of goodwill that enables countries to achieve more than their economic or military stature should dictate. It is what allows countries like Israel to punch far above their actual weight, especially in countries like the United States.

Israel – A Former Hasbara Master

Public diplomacy is not new for Israel. Israel has always conducted public diplomacy in ways that other countries rarely do. In particular, the State of Israel, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund have made direct contact with grassroots committees largely based in Jewish communities outside of Israel. This has enabled Israel to retail its sovereign debt, raising capital in ways that the other states which became independent in the post-Second World War period couldn’t.

The narratives which underpinned Israel’s public diplomacy over its first sixty or so years were important: ‘Draining malarial swamps’ and not ‘destroying wetland habitats for migratory birds’; ‘making the desert bloom’ and not ‘damaging fragile ecosystems’; ‘little David against the Goliath of seven Arab armies’ and not ‘Israel implementing French and British policy (or, later American policy) by destroying mobs of poorly-trained fellahin’.

Israel understood the importance of hasbara. Poster of the Film "Exodus". Photo: Wikimedia
Israel understood the importance of hasbara. Poster of the Film “Exodus”. Photo: Wikimedia

The evidence of successful public diplomacy was not only evident in the ability of Israeli government and quasi-governmental institutions to raise capital overseas. It was also evident in a widespread willingness, among decision-making elites in particular, to view Israel in terms of its own narratives, to a point.

Around the turn of the present century, structures which supported Israel’s ability to conduct its particular brand of public diplomacy were beginning to show their age. Support for Israel has become more distinctively elite, more distinctively establishment, and in the United States more distinctively Christian. Some of the old narratives were harder to support, to some extent because Israel’s economic, social and military success made some of the old stories less resonant; but also because they were old.

In 1961 Jerry Herman, young and then almost unknown, could put a heartwarming story about the birth of Israel on Broadway without a single Arab character. In 1962 Eddie Fisher could hit number two on the Canadian pop charts with Herman’s big number about how wonderful Israel is. That moment has passed.

The Illusion of Permanent Strength

Jewish communal life in the Diaspora has changed. Israel has changed. The world has changed. It seems odd that, since a time when Israel created robust narratives to convey the sense of a worthwhile, justified national project, it is now possible to suggest that Israel ought not to bother explaining to the world what it is and what it does.

Perhaps the most dangerous change for Israel was initiated by the Camp David Accords of 1979. Camp David changed the basis for US Government direct support of Israel from one in which Israel asked for help to one in which Israel (and Egypt) collected an annual stipend in return for not fighting wars.

Combined with a run of presidents whose administrations found it useful to have cozy relations with Israel (Bill Clinton and W. Bush in particular), it started to become impossible to imagine a world in which the United States were anything but an ally of Israel’s. Make that a staunch ally of Israel’s. So gemütlich are America and Israel as a couple that an important point is easily forgotten: the United States has no meaningful terms of alliance with Israel.

Too many Israelis think they can exist isolated from the world. Nimrod Fortress in the Galilee. Photo: Yossi Aloni/Flash90
Too many Israelis think they can exist isolated from the world. Nimrod Fortress in the Galilee. Photo: Yossi Aloni/Flash90

In this context it is possible for some in Israel to suggest a very rough sort of public diplomacy strategy:

An independent state doesn’t need to explain anything to anybody; Europe is irrelevant to Israel; and Israel needs no allies apart from the United States, and Israel doesn’t need the United States either.

This view is based on a sort of imagined autarky: Israel’s security is based on the strong right arms of Israeli fighting men and women. Israel’s economic success is based on Israeli know-how and ingenuity. So far so sensible; but the imagination then slides to an extreme: Israel’s security needs nothing more than the strong right arms of Israeli fighting men and women. Israel’s economic success is based on nothing more than Israeli know-how and ingenuity.

The power of this view is not confined to any one corner of Israel’s political spectrum, and it has certainly made itself felt in years of hamfisted attempts by Israeli governments to shape overseas opinion. Such an approach creates an impression not of independence, but of haughty arrogance, unnecessarily alienating many a potential supporter.

Hasbara needs an upgrade

In recent years another stream of thought has risen alongside the ‘Fortress Israel’ narrative: If the world understood Israel’s reality, the world would understand Israel’s actions. This idea is compatible with ‘Fortress Israel’, but not easily compatible. The idea is that explaining (hasbara in Hebrew) can propagate new narratives that will be advantageous to Israel’s existence in the world.

Although using that Hebrew word in English is comparatively new, creating robust productive narratives is in essence a return to a former Israeli strength: appealing to public opinion rather than to potentially hostile foreign ministries.

It’s harder to practice public diplomacy now than it was in 1961. There are more voices competing for attention. The consumer is more sophisticated. People tend to stick to channels of communication that do not challenge their preconceptions.

The practice of public diplomacy or public relations is a more sophisticated thing now than it was in the days of Don Draper and Ari Ben Canaan. Understanding audiences and calibrating messages has to be undertaken carefully. Messages that play in Peoria won’t be accepted in Paris or Berlin. Professor Oren sounds like a regular guy to Americans, but like a Yank abroad to Brits. A senior official of the Chinese Foreign Ministry once told me that a nation that is seen to seek soft power gives the impression of an ugly woman trying too hard to attract affection. It’s a blunt point from a blunt speaker: to be seen trying to get this power is to lose this power.

A good weapon in the hasbara arsenal, but we need to diversify. Dr. Michael Oren. Photo: Gideon Markowicz/FLASH90
A good weapon in the hasbara arsenal, but we need to diversify. Dr. Michael Oren. Photo: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90

Israel is capable of great sophistication in the practice of diplomacy along traditional lines. Israel’s close connections with Kurdistan and Azerbaijan are evidence of that. Yet Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is under-resourced and kept away from the relationships that matter most to Israel. The campaign of accessible videos that Danny Ayalon made when he was Deputy Foreign Minister was potentially effective, but it was clearly a ministerial project rather than a Ministry effort. It stopped the minute he left office. It will be the work of years to create a public diplomacy capability as effective as Israel’s efforts in traditional diplomacy.

Israel needs public diplomacy for the same reason that every country in the world needs public diplomacy. The world in which kings and princes, or press barons, were the sole players on the foreign affairs stage is a world gone by. If Israel is to achieve its aims, Israel needs to slowly and patiently revive the skills that made it possible for Israel to exist at all in a hostile world.

Dr. Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil’s advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom and was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

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