All Writings
November 8, 2010

Israel’s Dismal Public Relations

Israel's public image today is dismal. As Elie Wiesel once joked, "Jews excel in just about every profession except public relations, but this should not surprise us: when God wanted to free the Jews from Egypt he sent Moses, who stuttered." However, today Israel's problem is not that its leaders are stuttering, rather that they are stalling to show leadership toward ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. In doing so, they are sending a message to the international community that Israel does not care what the world thinks, and that it does not want peace after all.

Israel's public relations problem is not due to a lack of attention. The entire world is watching Israel closely, but they do not like what they see. In recent weeks the world community has witnessed near daily vandalism by settlers against Palestinian property in the West Bank, the passage of a "loyalty oath" aimed at marginalizing Israel's minorities, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's obnoxious speech at the United Nations, and the government's continued refusal to halt settlement construction in order to improve the environment for peace negotiations, despite unprecedented offers from the United States to encourage it do so. This is not to mention a range of public blunders by the Israeli government in the past year, from Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon's insult to the Turkish Ambassador, to Israel's harsh blockade of the Gaza Strip-since eased-viewed by the international community as collective punishment of the people of Gaza. All of this has served to undercut public relations campaigns regarding the very real threats to Israel's security, its genuine contributions in computer sciences and health care technologies, and its leadership in humanitarian relief efforts in times of crisis, such as in Haiti. As a result, Israel is becoming more and more isolated each day, and is increasingly appearing to be the obstinate party keeping the Middle East peace process from moving forward.

Faced with increasing criticism and delegitimization campaigns, Israelis are becoming resigned to the belief that nothing they do will improve their public image. A recent poll conducted and published in August by Tel Aviv University and Israel Democracy Institute indicated that 56 percent of Israelis believe that "the whole world is against us." Even more Israelis-77 percent of those polled-believe that no matter what Israel may do to try to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians; the world will continue to be critical. These are disconcerting statistics with significant implications for Israel's public relations, and more importantly, for its policies. The perception that Israel's policies and public relations simply do not matter to the world leads Israel to ignore policies which should be advanced, and to neglect communicating its message when and where it matters most. But Israel cannot simply complain about the discriminatory treatment it receives and make hardly any effort to explain itself. The decline of Israel/Turkey relations offers a prime example. In the period between 2005 and 2009, Israel's efforts to explain to the Turkish public the onslaught of Hamas rocket attacks appeared to be few and far between. As the Turkish public became increasingly critical, Israel dismissed the trend as a sign of the influence of the new Islamic-rooted AK Party in its rise to power, not the result of poor public relations (or policies). As a result, rather than seeking to mend relations, adapting policies and improving communications, Israel ignored its longstanding ally, and even worse, insulted it. Instead of using quiet diplomacy to address Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's verbal attacks while focusing on a well-orchestrated public relations campaign to change the Turkish public perception, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister summoned the Turkish Ambassador to have him seated on a lower chair in front of the press. Following the flotilla affair, Israel's failure to explain itself and to continue to drag its feet in providing information to the commission appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, yet again, further damaged its image.

Much of the blunders of Israel's public relations today are derived from the disunity of Israel's governing coalition. Let's face it: Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, charged with serving as Israel's messenger to the world, is a man who 60 percent of Israelis according to a recent Yediot Aharonot (Israel's late addition newspaper) poll believe is the politician "most responsible for the increased extreme nationalist and racist tendencies" in Israel today. His speech at the United Nations, which was subsequently rebuked by Prime Minister Netanyahu, exemplified the mixed messages Israel has been sending to the international community, and the division within Israel's current coalition. In fact, disunity in the coalition is significantly damaging Israel's public relations in two important arenas: in New York, where outreach and communications with the American Jewish community is critical, and at the United Nations, where Israel faces an onslaught of criticism and delegitimization on a daily basis. Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman were unable even to agree upon who should serve as Consul General in New York or Ambassador to the United Nations. Only recently the Israeli Ambassador to Colombia Meron Reuben, who was filling the position of Interim Ambassador of Israel to the UN, was finally instated as the Permanent UN Representative. If Netanyahu and Lieberman could not even agree in a timely manner on the messenger, how can they ever agree on a cohesive, positive message, not to speak of a constructive policy? And without that clear message, Israel's image is suffering precipitously.

The combination of the Israeli public's disillusionment that peace efforts will ever improve its global image and the disunity within the government further exacerbates Israel's historic public relations woes across the globe. But Israel is also inept at public relations at home. A recent poll showed that Israelis continue to oppose the Arab Peace Initiative. While 56 percent of Israelis polled reject the plan, 57 percent of Palestinians polled support it. That the majority of Israelis do not recognize the opportunity posed by the Arab Peace Initiative as a historic repudiation of the Arab League's "three no's" at the 1967 Khartoum Conference, in which they declared "no to negotiations, no to recognition, no to peace," is an indictment of the Israeli government. Instead of marketing the plan as a genuine vehicle for negotiating an end to the conflict, the Israeli government has largely ignored the Arab League's peace effort, and the public has followed suit. As a result, the global community gets a clear message: the Palestinians-and Arab states-are pursuing peace, while Israel is not. This failure is more than just one of public relations, but of the Israeli government's responsibility to pursue and advance all possible efforts to end the conflict and provide Israel with the security it requires.

Some may argue that Israel's public relations have in fact, never been better. Prime Minister Netanyahu is viewed by many Israelis as a master of PR. Israel's Ambassador to the United States, one of the most important positions for presenting Israel's perspective to its most critical ally, is led by a respected academic and historian, Michael Oren. But Netanyahu and Oren's mastery of the English language cannot overcome the black eye to Israel's image that Foreign Minister Lieberman provides. And without a government that has a positive message, one that embraces efforts to secure peace and aggressively communicate with its allies in times of agreement and differences, Israel's image will continue to suffer. Contrary to the Israeli public's indifference to global opinion, at a time when Israel is facing a strengthening delegitimization campaign across the globe, Israel's dismal public relations are dangerous for the prospect of peace and for Israel's security. In fact, to effectively counter the impact of these campaigns, Israel should send the global community the kind of concerted, positive message which it is sorely lacking today.

Many across the globe believe that Prime Minster Netanyahu can change the dynamics of the peace process-and Israel's image-at any moment if he wished. The world knows that should Netanyahu genuinely wish to achieve a peace agreement, he has Kadima waiting in the wings, ready to enter into a coalition to support him. The fact that he has not done so in itself sends the world a negative message: he does not really want peace. The world sees this and rightly concludes that Netanyahu would rather stick with Lieberman and stall the peace process, than bring Tzipi Livni into the coalition and seek to conclude it with a lasting peace agreement.

Should Netanyahu finally decide to bring Livni in, and make a genuine effort to end the conflict, he could dramatically improve Israel's image and live up to his reputation as a master of public relations rather than a demagogue.