Israel’s unique public diplomacy dilemma
By Amb. Alan Baker
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.