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Israel’s unique public diplomacy dilemma

By Amb. Alan Baker
web posted July 5, 2021

In recent years, Israel’s involvement in military operations, whether vis-à-vis Hizbullah in the north or Hamas in the south and especially during the May 2021 “Guardian of the Walls” operation, is characterized by a unique dilemma that often crops up in Israel’s efforts to explain itself in the field of public diplomacy, or in its Hebrew translation, “hasbara.

Israel’s public diplomacy – as professional and practical as it may be – tasked with explaining its military operations in defending itself and responding to terror attacks, fails to convince the international media and other Western political elements.

It is clear that many foreign media and political elements have generally held an overall negative, critical, and even hostile viewpoint regarding anything Israel does. This is enhanced even more during military and counter-terror operations, when foreign media and political players prefer to buy into the propaganda that portrays Gaza as the victim and underdog, fighting what is presented as the military might of Israel.

The widespread use of attention-grabbing and often sensationalist graphic imagery, provided to the world by the Hamas propaganda and public relations sources showing destruction and casualties, including children, only serves to enhance the negative, critical, and often outright hostile viewpoint of Israel in the international media.

Days of Sympathy and Identification

In the early days of any combat operation, Israel is usually seen to be on the defensive when faced with the physical and military need to protect its civilians from massive missile and rocket attacks, as well as arbitrary shootings and acts of terror along its borders. This includes attempts to penetrate its sovereign territory through offensive tunnels used to attack Israeli citizens in border towns and villages.

Israel responds by exercising its internationally recognized, inherent right to self-defense when attacked by aggressive and offensive terror. Such responses include legitimate counter-attacks against the sources of aggression, including rocket emplacements and tactical military targets, as well as offensive actions against the sources of terror, including those terrorists actively involved.

Israel receives a wave of international sympathy and recognition by most Western leaders and institutions for its fundamental right under international law to self-defense in the face of aggression and terrorism. This is true as long as Israel and its citizens are perceived by the world as victims of terror and aggression,

In this temporary situation, the task of public diplomacy, or hasbara, appears to be simple, self-evident, and even superfluous. Most foreign officials are unanimous as to the legitimacy of Israel’s response aimed at protecting the lives of its citizens and the territorial integrity of the state.

Transition to Condemnation, Accusations, and Psychological Warfare

However, the international wave of sympathy and acknowledgment of Israel’s right to self-defense in the face of aggression and terror has a very brief shelf life.

As soon as the Hamas propaganda machine provides thirsty Western media sources with graphic images of destruction, including pictures of wounded children and dead bodies, any sympathy and understanding for Israel disappear and are forgotten. The sympathy undergoes a kind of “metamorphosis” and is replaced by disdain, criticism, and condemnation.

With the dissemination of graphic images, many regularly repeated accusations are rapidly leveled against Israel by international leaders, media, and human rights organizations, including:

  • “Use of excessive and disproportionate force”

  • “Collective punishment”

  • “Deliberate and indiscriminate assault against private homes and public buildings”

  • “Unjustified damage to civilian infrastructure”

  • “Civilian casualties” and more

The creation of a false equivalence is a regularly repeated phenomenon and only used with regard to Israel. It seeks an equal balance between Hamas and Israel. Such cynical equivalence obscures and ignores, on the one hand, the logical and necessary distinction between the actions of an authoritarian terror organization that arbitrarily and deliberately seeks to target Israeli civilians and even harms its own citizens, and a democratic sovereign state that exercises its recognized international right to self-defense.

These phenomena of false equivalence and balance, as well as the irresistible urge to show evenhandedness, deliberately ignore those measures that Israel takes to respect and uphold humanitarian norms aimed at reducing casualties. Such efforts include providing warnings and calls for the evacuation of civilians before responding to rocket attacks with action against legitimate military targets.

It would appear that most political and media elements, whether out of sheer sensationalism or inherent political or other bias, prefer to refrain from presenting a true, accurate, and honest representation of the situation. They fail to acknowledge the fact that Israel abides by its military prerogative to defend itself and its humanitarian obligations, and at the same time, to go to extensive lengths to respect international humanitarian norms of protecting civilians.

In this context, perhaps the most ridiculous accusation against Israel on the international level, including by political leaders, is that of “balancing casualties.” This comparison suggests that conducting a “body-count” – comparing the generally low number of Israeli casualties (due to Israel’s missile defense systems and civil defense safeguards) with the relatively high number of Palestinian casualties (due to the Palestinian practice of deploying their arms depots and launchers in residential areas and placing their civilians in danger by using them as human shields) is legitimate.

The cynical message implied by those who repeatedly make reference to this absurd equation is that it would be preferable, if only for the sake of balance, if the number of Israeli casualties was higher!

The Unique Elements of Israel’s Public Diplomacy

Israel’s public diplomacy dilemma lies in the unique and unprecedented circumstances that exist in the region:

  • Palestinian use of massive and indiscriminate rocket fire targeting Israel’s civilian population in order to cause maximum human casualties and destruction of property.

  • Israel’s ability to protect its population from missiles with the Iron Dome missile defense system, which significantly reduces the risk of harm to civilians and property.

  • Palestinian abuse of its civilian population, hospitals, schools, mosques, private homes, and public buildings as human shields, in clear violation of international humanitarian law, exposing them to the risk of harm from any Israeli reprisal targeting legitimate military targets deliberately located among the population, including firing positions and bunkers for firing missiles.

  • Palestinian use of private homes of their leaders and senior commanders for storage of weapons, as headquarters, and tactical centers for coordination, thereby rendering them to be legitimate military objectives.

  • The phenomenon of digging scores of kilometers of tactical and offensive tunnels under roads, public squares, civilian structures, schools, hospitals, mosques, and under Gaza cities (known as “the Gaza Metro”), even when civilian life is being conducted above them. Such tactical tunnels thereby become legitimate military targets.

  • Israel’s military practice of minimizing collateral harm to civilians not involved in the conflict, as required of a law-abiding state committed to applying the norms of international humanitarian law.

Such unique characteristics are not reported by the international media when offered the greater sensationalist news value of graphic images of destruction and casualties. There is a natural urge to prejudge Israel negatively and favor the “underdog.”

Sadly, there exists reason to presume that the international media’s persistently biased and hostile attitude to Israel, especially during periodic defensive military operations against Hamas and Hizbullah, may also emanate from long-existing and ingrained antagonism, and even a degree of anti-Semitism towards Israel by journalists, editors, and editorial boards.

Implications of the Propaganda Dilemma and Ways to Deal with It

The unique problem of Israel’s public diplomacy, when accompanied by the inherent lack of fairness and integrity in global media coverage, has serious implications for the efforts of Israeli diplomats around the world.

This is no less a problem facing Jewish communities in Europe and North America, which are expected by their fellow citizens to respond to accusations leveled against Israel by the media and by senior political players.

In light of these singular features of Israel’s public diplomacy challenge, the question arises whether it is possible to more successfully leverage them to create a better understanding of the security and moral challenges that Israel faces?

Given the automatic and consistent international tendency to ignore these particular attributes, and in light of the ease and willingness of the international community to blame and condemn Israel, declare Israel’s guilt in advance, and create a distorted and false equivalence, it will be difficult to change this reality.

However, it is possible to strengthen the content and credibility of Israel’s public diplomacy. Foreign political and media elements could be convinced by the logic and legitimacy of Israel’s military activity by emphasizing several points:

  • Rather than media interviews by Israeli leaders, politicians, military personnel, diplomats, and jurists, it would be preferable to rely on prominent foreign military and legal experts, including officers with combat experience in various battle zones around the world, who can credibly and no less professionally, explain Israel’s military operations and legal prerogatives, without being perceived as Israeli political propagandists.

  • Senior Israeli military officers, commanders, and other personnel engaged in the ongoing military operations should not be permitted to appear before Israeli and international media. Such disclosure not only jeopardizes their personal and family safety but also exposes them to dangers of possible accusations and international commissions of inquiry, as well as possible legal action in international courts.

  • Any reporting on combat activity and performance of IDF forces should be solely by the designated IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, without any need to reveal the identity of operational commanders and senior division commanders involved in the operation. The men and women in the Spokesperson’s Office should be selected by their intellect, sincerity, and language abilities. Officers from units such as the Intelligence Branch may tend to be taciturn and reluctant to engage their interlocutors.

  • To the extent possible in terms of their personal and family security, media appearances and international diplomacy missions by senior Israeli Arab and Druze citizens, including academics, media professionals, clerics, and municipal leaders, should be encouraged. Such personalities are clearly of high diplomatic and media value and credibility vis-a-vis the international public.

  • The recent establishment of normal and friendly relations with the leaders of Arab countries in the Gulf and Morocco following the “Abraham Accords” provides professional contacts with academic institutions, military personnel, and research institutes.

In light of the commonality of interests between these states and Israel in dealing with militant Islamic elements, leading personalities in these countries might be encouraged to proffer public and media support for Israel’s efforts to defend itself against terror. Such support would be of high international credibility and media value.

  • To avoid a vacuum in the efforts of Israel’s public diplomacy and to prevent delays in providing answers to media complaints similar to those by Associated Press regarding the destruction of its Gaza office shared with Hamas electronic warfare units, Israel’s diplomatic representatives abroad and leadership of Jewish communities in Europe and North America need to be equipped, in real-time, with substantive and professional answers to media allegations and hostile propaganda leveled against Israel.

  • The widespread publicity given by Hamas propaganda showing Palestinian children in demonstrations and military parades, often wearing military uniforms and holding weapons, is, by any moral standard, a shocking, immoral, and illegal exploitation of children. This is a flagrant violation of international conventions prohibiting the exploitation of children for combat purposes.

Given the acute international sensitivity – especially in Europe and North America – to the phenomenon of abusing children, and especially in light of Hamas’ consistent use of images of injured children in its propaganda, any such exploitation of children for purposes of warfare and propaganda should figure extensively as a central component of Israeli public diplomacy.

  • By the same token, European and North American countries and their public are particularly sensitive to ecological and biological damage caused by Hamas through the repeated use of incendiary balloons and other devices to ignite forest fires and destroy grain fields and nature and animal preserves. Hamas’ attacks also cause extensive pollution and suffocation by directing massive waves of smoke against the Israeli population in the vicinity of the Gaza border.

The reoccurring use by Hamas and Hizbullah of ecological, biological, and agricultural terror against Israel’s civilian population contravenes a series of international conventions on ecology and humanitarian law, and these crimes should become a central component of Israel’s public diplomacy.

  • The attempt by Hamas in the context of the “Guardian of the Walls” operation to establish a permanent and ongoing, utterly false and artificial interdependence between events in Jerusalem, on the one hand, and the actions of Hamas vis-à-vis Israel on the other, calls for concerted public diplomacy to block such an attempt.

This is all the more so because serious media outlets (especially the New York Times) have bought into and indicated support for such a linkage, using it as another lever of criticism against Israel in the context of Jerusalem.

Israel’s message in this context should be based on the premise that the governance of the city of Jerusalem, in all its areas, including protecting the holy sites, maintaining public order, managing daily life, and any civil legal issues related to the ownership of property in the city are the sole responsibility of Israel and bear no affinity or connection with the Gaza Strip.

The 1995-9 Oslo Accords, signed by the PLO and Israel, as witnessed and countersigned by world political leaders and approved by the UN, are premised upon agreement between Israel and the Palestinian leadership (the PLO, not Hamas) that the issue of Jerusalem is the subject of negotiations on the permanent status of the territories. As such, Hamas has no standing and cannot artificially manipulate the international community into accepting any such a false linkage.

Conclusion

It is hoped that effective, compelling, and credible public diplomacy will utilize these points as a means of enhancing the understanding of Israel’s military activity in defending itself against terror and countering the false propaganda against it.

It is also hoped that a better comprehension of Israel’s case will redirect international political players, media, and international institutions, which have made a regrettable habit of prejudging Israel without considering facts, reliable information, and the truth.

Amb. Alan Baker is Director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.

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