Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hasbara needed now more than ever (Zvi Mazel)

Israel has historically done a awful job of explaining its position to the world. It is way past time to start rectifying this.

If only someone would listen....
The old diplomacy is dead

You may remember me. I was the Israeli ambassador to Sweden who was confronted with a so-called art installation in Stockholm in January 2004 that glorified suicide bombing. It was a representation of the suicide bomber who murdered 22 innocent people and maimed dozens more gliding serenely on a pool of blood on a little craft labeled "Snow White."

The "art" showed me there are no limits to the lies told against Israel or the hatred of the Jewish people. I also felt we had given up trying to reverse the terrible decline of our image, especially among European public opinion.

And so I decided to damage the display, and shut down the lights illuminating it. Not a very diplomatic step, perhaps, but one that brought the issue into the open and led to a healthy discussion in Sweden and elsewhere. Israel needs a hasbara offensive. While I was an ambassador, I was stunned to discover that many people in Europe - journalists included - are convinced that in 1948 Israel occupied a sovereign Palestinian state in a classic case of colonialism. The generation that witnessed the rebirth of Israel is gradually disappearing and younger people don't know the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So when Arab propaganda speaks about "occupation," it sounds easy to understand why Israel is being asked to terminate this anachronistic situation.

It was not always like that. Until the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel had an information policy that, while not optimal, didn't abandon the field completely to the other side.

But immediately after Oslo, the information department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was shut down; since Israel was presumably on the road to peace, it was not necessary to continue to explain our policies. Unfortunately, the other side had a different idea, and redoubled its propaganda.

It was during the implementation of Oslo that the Arab narrative of the conflict succeeded in flooding campuses, rallying the extreme Left and even capturing the more moderate Left, while Israel was conspicuously absent from the arena. The results were played out in the 2001 Durban conference, when the world ignored Israel's plight and condemned it without considering the facts.

Traditional diplomacy doesn't work anymore. Secret conversations between heads of states and foreign ministers, and the demarches carried out daily by ambassadors and other diplomats are no match for the media's ceaseless torrent of images and information.

One cannot win a war in the media alone, but one can weaken an opponent's messages; one can help change perspectives.

On a governmental level, such efforts are called public diplomacy; the academic world thinks of it as a form of "soft power."

ISRAEL MUST launch a large-scale, proactive campaign of public diplomacy to turn back the tide of anti-Semitic ignorance that is closing in on us. We have to move from our current policy - if you can even call it a policy - of delayed reactions, excuses and apologies to a potent strategy that will challenge the Arabs - taking the battle into their own media and propaganda castles and putting them on the defensive.

We have to face a cluster of factors - from blatant Muslim anti-Semitism, lies and distortion to the new anti-Semitism of European acquiescence, and the negative attitude of the Left with its calls for boycotts and divestment.

We need to tell the truth, publicly and repeatedly: the Arabs themselves are to blame for their underdevelopment, and as long as they ignore basic civil rights their peoples will remain poor and illiterate, a prey to unemployment and illness.

This situation, it needs to be emphasized over and over, has nothing to do with Israel or the conflict in the Middle East.

At the same time, we should ask them to condemn terror and stop calling it resistance. We should demand their apology for calling us pigs and monkeys, for stepping on our flag, for all the lies they write about Israel and the Jews. We should analyze their declarations and writings and lay bare their false contentions. We should remind them of their part in promoting slavery in East Africa.

We should urge governments, clerics and intellectuals in Arab countries to search their souls, and not hide behind lip-service condemnations, as some of them did after the bombing in London.

In Europe and America we should ask the media to forgo the tendency to close their eyes to terror - for instance, not one Western paper condemned the abduction and murder of the Egyptian ambassador in Iraq - and to condemn terrorism unequivocally. The time has come to understand that appeasement will not work, and that membership in the Third World doesn't confer a free pass to murder.

Europe should be reminded of its long history of persecution and suffering inflicted on the Jews - well before the Holocaust. Europeans too have some soul searching to do.

The time has come to switch to a proactive campaign. Israel finds itself dangerously isolated, and that isolation could get worse, since I don't believe many of us think the conflict is going to be resolved any time soon.

Moreover, European silence in the face of Arab pretensions only gives the Arabs more courage and fewer incentives to compromise. Arab hatred for Israel is on the rise in spite of the disengagement and the so-called improvement of relations with Egypt.

Two things need to be done. First, Israeli politicians must realize that there is no time to lose; the government must tackle this issue as part of its strategy to end the cruel terrorist war being waged against us.

Second, we need to set up an Arab television station broadcasting news, commentaries and programs that will deliver our case to Arab homes throughout the region.

The writer was a career diplomat for 38 years, and ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden. He retired last year.