Israel, Adept at War, Fails at Public Relations

Though he lacks all credibility—even in his own country these days—Western journalists never seem to tire of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The feeling is obviously mutual. As the ’00s wound down, the Iranian president sat smugly for yet another series of interviews with America’s media big shots. As always, he appeared eager for a fresh round of “debate” over Israel’s right to exist, 60-plus years after its founding. Featured on Larry King Live last fall, Ahmadinejad trotted out his favorite argument: even if the Holocaust happened—a fact he won’t quite concede—it wasn’t any justification for plunking down a Jewish state in the middle of Palestine in 1948. Why that place in particular, asked the former “university professor” (as Ahmadinejad referred to himself), sidestepping 4,000 years of history and the 1917 Balfour Declaration with a smirk. Still smiling, Ahmadinejad answered his own question: “Because the Holocaust happened, they said, and the Jewish people were oppressed, and the Jewish people need an independent government. And where in the world? In Palestine. And we’re saying, well, what exactly does this have to do with Palestine?” Larry King’s response? “Well, I understand that, intellectually understand that.” On to the next subject, right after this break.

To be sure, few intelligent people have ever taken Ahmadinejad seriously. But by endlessly repeating such propaganda on prime time, courtesy of untutored TV anchors, high-profile enemies of Israel like the Iranian leader have been sowing seeds of existential doubt about Israel for far too long. And for far too long, Israel has been permitting this sort of nonsense to go unanswered in an effective way. It’s not that Israelis don’t respond to the propaganda; it is that Israelis tend to do so defensively and reluctantly, and therefore incompetently.

Even Benjamin Netanyahu, an eloquent English speaker who may be the most effective communicator ever to serve as Israeli prime minister, played into Ahmadinejad’s agenda when he devoted most of his speech at the U.N. last fall to defending his country against the Iranian leader’s “rants.” Bandying accusations with Ahmadinejad, he waved a copy of recently acquired original blueprints for Auschwitz and the actual minutes of the infamous 1942 Wannsee Protocol, which detailed the Nazi plan for the Final Solution. “Is this protocol a lie?” he asked. The same sort of querulous defensiveness characterized Israel’s response to the release of the U.N.’s Goldstone Report, which alleged atrocities by Israeli troops in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in late 2008. Israeli officials denounced the report as wrong and unfair but stinted on producing their own counterevidence of just how much effort their military put into avoiding the deaths of innocents in that extraordinarily difficult operation. (Among the evidence I’ve seen: video footage showing Hamas operatives snatching Palestinian children from the street and using them as shields to successfully prevent Israeli fire, thereby banking on the very humaneness that Israel’s critics now deny existed.)

This won’t do. To survive in the long run, Israel must get better at fighting for itself on the “new battlefield” of world opinion, as a just-released study calls it. The only way to do so is to develop a long-term strategy and to go on the offensive. Israel is fiercely effective at taking the offensive militarily as well as technologically—as Dan Senor and Saul Singer point out in their new book, Start-Up Nation—but somehow it remains chronically inept at promoting its interests aggressively. The Israeli government continues to see this issue as a secondary matter of little substance. Its attitude seems to be: Why bother? The world isn’t with us anyway. Never will be.

Hence, during the 2006 Lebanon war, then-P.M. Ehud Olmert never bothered to hold a news conference explaining himself in English. And in the middle of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza, when Israeli soldiers had to uproot whole towns of anguished Israeli citizens, the government failed to develop a PR campaign to win global sympathy. “When I asked them about their ‘press strategy,’ they just sort of looked at me. They didn’t have one,” says Senor, who served as communications strategist for the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq. “Whether it’s tactics or strategy, they’re terrible at it. Their attitude is, they’re busy in a knife fight and don’t have the time.” On a recent trip to Israel, I heard exactly the same complaints about the government’s lack of PR savvy—even from some Israelis.

That dismissive attitude is no longer an option. Sometime in 2010 Israel may undertake the most sensitive military operation in its history—an attack on Iran—and if it does, it will need every ally it can get around the world. Beyond that, however, Israel’s future fight for its existence is far more likely to take place in the realm of world politics than regional military threats, and it has to gear up. Setting aside the Iran nuclear issue, Israel is militarily secure; no rival nation’s military can come close to challenging it, and the security fence as well as improved intelligence gathering in the West Bank have reduced suicide attacks to a new low. Politically, however, things are looking shakier than they have in a long time. With the Palestinians hopelessly divided, and Netanyahu resisting a total freeze on settlements, a negotiated two-state solution seems as remote as it ever has. Israel’s unilateral efforts to promote a separate Palestinian state—the heart of the strategy that led to the Gaza pullout—have failed irretrievably with Hamas’s violent takeover of the territory. U.S. envoy George Mitchell is headed back to the region shortly in a quixotic bid to restart talks with what remains of the Palestinian government. But in the absence of meaningful peace efforts, there is a new campaign emerging around the world to raise fundamental questions about Israel’s legitimacy as a purely Jewish state.

As the dream of peace appears to be dying, in other words, the old question at the heart of the West Bank occupation is alive and healthier than ever: how can Israel retain its Jewish identity if it intends to rule territorially over millions of Palestinians into the indefinite future? “The recent assaults on the state’s legitimacy threaten to push Israel towards the status of a pariah state and therefore pose a real threat,” wrote Eram Shayshon of Tel Aviv’s Reut Institute. The Israeli think tank has published a study concluding that Israel’s hardest struggle may now come in a war of words. The battlefields, the study says, will be “hubs of delegitimization” based in such cities as London, Toronto, Brussels, and Madrid.

Ahmadinejad-like challenges to Israel’s basic right to exist are beneath comment. But as long as all those Arabs and Palestinians remain in its midst, their political status unresolved, critics from all sides will keep questioning how long Israel can endure as both a Jewish state and a democracy. Why not organize a well-funded PR strategy, complete with eminent proxies (retired statesmen of the kind TV producers love to book), to begin to address those questions now? Go on the offensive: a case could be made that, as the only Mideast state actually approved by a vote of the U.N. General Assembly (Resolution 181 in November 1947, partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab sections; Jews embraced it, and Arabs went to war over it), Israel has the right under international law to retain its identity as a Jewish state. By contrast, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon were merely patched together by treaty bureaucrats at around the same time—hardly a global imprimatur.

Don’t simply parry, in other words; thrust as well. Strike preemptively for hearts and minds. Develop long-term strategies. Lay the groundwork for future challenges so that you’ve got camera-ready allies in high places, and the Larry Kings of the world are gradually and subtly “educated” in how to respond to obvious misstatements of fact. Plan and organize a lot more tours and private briefings for journalists and think tanks—the kind that Jewish groups and U.S. senators and congressmen now routinely get, to great effect. Embed foreign journalists and others in more operations. Take the doubters down into the archeological tunnels well below the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem to show people, again and again, that the Jews were at the Western Wall first. You can then remind them that, for all the accusations of brutality and insensitivity hurled at Israel, Israelis still restrain themselves today from worshiping at the holiest site in Judaism—the “foundation stone” of the Ark of the Covenant 250 feet away from the wall—so as not to ruffle Muslim sensitivities (it sits underneath the more recently built Dome of the Rock).

Winning good will means an endless siege on world opinion, but Israel can no longer disdain the war that awaits it on this new battlefield. To survive, it must make better use of its talent and ingenuity to make its case.

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