Monday, October 20, 2014

  • Monday, October 20, 2014
  • Elder of Ziyon
Last week, Mida magazine published a provocative essay by Noga Arbell called "Sovereign States Don't Do Hasbara."


When the Israeli Prime Minister got up in the United Nations and asked "In what moral universe does genocide include warning the enemy's civilian population to get out of harm's way?", he made a number of embarrassing rhetorical mistakes, especially when one recalls that Binyamin Netanyahu is considered a virtuoso in the field. He repeated the absurd accusation of genocide to an audience which included those who may not have heard it, and by even referring to it, gave it validity.

...Worst of all, he is effectively asking permission. He places himself at the judgment of his audience. Even if the crowd itself were on his side, this is nevertheless a fundamentally flawed approach. It grants the crowd power no self-respecting state would grant it. Whether Netanyahu appeals to his citizens or judges, he should be placing before them a fait accompli and not a murky vote. The right of Israel to defend itself should not even be up for debate. To take it off the agenda, Israel needs to do a very simple rhetorical move: take it off the agenda. The idea is so absurd it's not even worth addressing.

...Sovereign states don't ask permission. They don't spend all their time justifying themselves or asking for sympathy. They know they're right. Their right to exist, the right of their citizens to life, freedom and happiness are so obvious to them that they do not feel the need to have these confirmed by their neighbors and allies. Sometimes, when they really cross the line in defending those rights, they ask forgiveness. But even then, usually they don't.

...Netanyahu's speech is a shining example of a fundamental flaw in Israeli hasbara: it doesn't stop apologizing and ask for support. It doesn't stop asking permission. Other heads of state used the UN platform to tell other countries what to do. If we were a normal country, our Prime Minister would point to his audience with an accusatory finger and say "you did this!" He would accuse the "moderate" Palestinian leadership of giving its children over to Hamas with their never-ending recalcitrance.

...Our real problem is not anti-Semitism, the Muslim or even the settlements. Our real problem is our desire to be loved. By arguing that Israel is a small country surrounded by enemies and in need of allies we neglect the fact they need us no less than we need them. Just to show how desperate we are to be liked, as opposed to any other country on earth, we see the virulent criticism against our country as something positive to be listened to and absorbed. As though there is truly "constructive criticism" in the messy and Machiavellian world of international politics.

...After the Six Day War (in other words, right after the infamous "occupation"), we were admired the world over. Now we're just repeatedly used. We sullied the victory – not the Arab states, not anti-Semitism and not even "Peace Now". Israel. The Israeli leadership which keeps begging for the world to "recognize Israel's right to exist" are helping to cause horrific damage to Israel throughout the world.

Sovereign states don't ask permission, and Israel – as opposed to many other countries – has nothing to apologize for.
I received a very interesting response to this by J.E. Dyer, of The Optimistic Conservative blog and  Liberty Unyielding:

Actually, sovereign states do hasbara all the time.

When Netanyahu speaks to the UN, I don’t hear him asking anyone for permission. I hear him stating Israel’s interests, intentions, and policies. He most definitely should NOT switch to accusing and haranguing the UNGA as his mode of communication. That’s what the irresponsible and non-statesmanlike do (cf. Mahmoud Abbas, Hugo Chavez, pick your Iranian president from the last 35 years).

Netanyahu is behaving like a statesman, on what students of international relations are pleased to call the “Westphalian” model. That adjective is serviceable enough, even if it has its problems on the margins. Part of being a modern nation-state – an integral, inherent part – is exhorting your fellow nation-states on the matter of your interests and policies. The whole discipline of diplomacy is as much about representing your own interests and positive attributes as it is about persuading others to do things.

Tolerance and peace among the nations isn’t about everyone angling to appear blameless (a terribly sophomoric perspective, on life as well as international relations), it’s about everyone recognizing that all nations have their own interests and will be advancing them. We can stew in resentments and make them the centerpiece of our relations – or not. Not is the better course. I admire and commend Netanyahu and his government for being very consistent in that regard.

In fact, Netanyahu has been a standout as a statesman over the last five years, in a dithering and confused world. One of the first things he did was send Lieberman out to knock on doors and bring gifts to Asia and Latin America. He’s been leveraging technology and energy for all they’re worth to build up relations with other nations – beyond the U.S., beyond Europe and the Middle East – as a way of broadening Israel’s base of global connections. I believe the outreach he inaugurated in 2009 made a real difference when the Arab Spring hit. His government had cultivated the connections and was a known quantity in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe, the nearby regions that had to absorb big shocks from the Arab Spring. The outreach also provides a general and broadly-motivated context for developing more specialized geographic links, which facilitate intelligence, and military and special operations, where Israel needs them.

In my judgment, it has been Bibi’s record as a predictably responsible, disciplined Westphalian statesman that has given Israel the freedom to do what she had to in November 2012 and June-July 2014 in Gaza. He articulates Israel’s interests and purposes, he does what he says he will, and he doesn’t exceed the expectations he knows he has created in regional stakeholders, like Egypt and Jordan.

The Pax Americana has made us all sloppy in our thinking about these things. America, as a hyperpower (France’s term for it), was at liberty for nearly a quarter century to act carefully, or not, depending on who was in the Oval Office. Even then, America actually did hasbara 365 days a year, and so did the other nations – but people’s eyes missed that because there was little effective pushback from the lesser powers. Hasbara wasn’t a difference-maker during those years. We are reentering a time when it will be, and I for one think Israel is blessed to have Netanyahu doing hasbara. In fact, with Obama in the White House, America’s hasbara today is in bad shape, while Israel’s is much better.

One final thought. The U.S. doesn’t call it hasbara, but people in our foreign service and our senior military ranks get regular training in the concept. It’s conceptualized systematically as pertaining to one or more of the “elements of national power”: diplomatic, informational, military, and economic. And here’s the final thought: American trainees are told that one principle supersedes all others in our “hasbara,” and that is that it must be based on truth.

Often, priorities make it unimportant to catalogue ALL truths, in every situation. There is not always a point in complaining, regardless of how factual the complaints may be. But after identifying our interests and policies, we have to represent them on the basis of truth, and not on untruths or anti-factual fancies. It’s a moral obligation to the American people to do this. I submit that Israel holds herself to the same obligation. And surveying the nations, I see very few others of which that can be said.

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