Israeli citizens are being recruited to boost the country’s image abroad – but the campaign amounts to papering over cracks
Seth Freeman, 22 February 2010
Israel’s latest conscripts in the fight to improve the country’s image have been unveiled: ordinary Israeli citizens. Armed only with a government-issued hasbara pamphlet and a winning smile, they will be sent to wage war with their detractors, in an effort to present Israel as a benign, democratic utopia whose only achilles heel is poor public relations.
Into the breach has stepped a phalanx of Israeli spin doctors, who have devised a campaign in which they want all Israelis to participate when travelling overseas by “telling about the beautiful Israel you know“. To that end, three television commercials are currently being aired which mock the foreign media for its portrayal of the country. In one, a French newsreader is shown confusing Independence Day fireworks and flypasts with military action on Israel’s streets. “Fed up with how we’re portrayed abroad?” asks the advert. “You can change the picture.”
The ministry for public diplomacy goes to great lengths instructing Israelis how to conduct themselves when engaged in PR on behalf of the state: first listen, then speak; maintain eye contact; use relaxed body language and tone; don’t preach; ask questions; answer points raised; stick to two or three messages you want to convey; and maintain a sense of humour. If such rules are followed, the campaign literature suggests, there is a strong chance of winning over even the staunchest adversary.
Hasbara is seen as a vital weapon in Israel’s arsenal, both by government officials and ordinary Israelis. According to a poll, 85% of Israeli citizens want to help promote the country’s image abroad, and in itself there is nothing wrong with taking such a patriotic stance. However, as has been seen time and again with Israel’s attempts at hasbara, more often than not the campaigns are based more on witch-hunts and whitewashes than honest debate over the most thorny issues surrounding the state.
Despite the sarcastic adverts broadcast by the public diplomacy ministry, what causes such consternation abroad is not whether Israelis use camels as their primary form of transport, or whether the average Israeli home is connected to gas supplies. Rather, Israel’s flagrant and repeated violations of international law in its dealings with the Palestinians are key to most critics’ complaints – but, of course, this would prove a far harder nut for the spin doctors to crack.
Instead, those who stand up to Israeli aggression in Gaza and the West Bank are belittled by the likes of Shimon Peres, who recently quipped: “There are millions of Indians who love us, a billion Chinese who love us, and millions of evangelicals, who love us. We have a problem with Sweden, but we’re working on it.”
Peres and the officials behind the latest PR drive are one side of the hasbara coin, trying to make light of Israel’s image problem and implying that winning over their opponents is only a matter of patient, good-natured explanation. The other, darker side of Israeli hasbara is the relentless pursuit of anyone deemed a danger to the state, whether domestic dissidents or external critics. The recent savaging of Naomi Chazan and the New Israel Fund, as well as the gunning down of the Goldstone report, showed the true face behind the hasbara mask, in which politicians and press alike utilised the most vicious tactics available to ostensibly “improve Israel’s image in the eyes of the world”.
Huge amounts of public and private money is spent in such a fashion, funding quasi-governmental thinktanks and watchdog organisations dedicated to the McCarthyite hounding of media companies, diplomats or human rights groups labelled inimical to Israel. The same organisations are adept at dangling carrots as well as waving sticks, courting incoming reporters and statesmen with anything from dinner parties to helicopter rides in order to show a “more positive public face of Israel … [to help] protect Israel, reduce antisemitism and increase pride in Israel”.
But the facts that emerge from Gaza and the West Bank make it more and more difficult for the hasbaraniks to paper over the cracks, regardless of how many smiles they flash or glasses of wine they hand out. Even Israel’s own leaders warn of a system of apartheid emerging if a settlement with the Palestinians is not hammered out soon, and for all that the spin doctors try to blow out the smoke, the underlying fire continues to burn.
It is no surprise that Israel’s leaders want to improve the country’s image without having to take concrete measures in the form of concessions to the Palestinians. Likewise, it is not unusual that the same politicians seek to blame others for “misunderstanding” the situation rather than admitting that their own policies are highly questionable and unethical. However, to rope ordinary Israelis in by repeatedly telling them that anti-Israel sentiment abroad is irrational and baseless is both a futile and dishonest path to tread.
Israel’s image problem will only disappear when the core crimes committed in the name of the state cease, and the Palestinians are dealt with equitably. The Israeli public should demand their government spend all its energy on such fundamental affairs of state rather than worry about how many foreigners know that Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euroleague in 1977. Hasbara is no substitute for adherence to justice and basic human rights.