Tag Archives: Netanyahu

It’s the ‘hasbara,’ stupid: The new Israeli government must prioritize PR

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett holds a
news conference in Jerusalem on July 14, source: Marc Israel Sellem

Published in the August 19, 2021 issue of The Jerusalem Report.

Israel has a national security blind spot. It is called effective public relations or, in Hebrew, hasbara. Israel does it really badly. I say this as an American who listens to other Americans, American politicians and the American media. American politicians who support Israel have confided their utter frustration with the lack of Israel’s public relations savoir-faire. It makes advocating for the US-Israel relationship much harder, especially against a coordinated anti-Israel apparatus that speaks on message and has mastered social media.

Israel’s enemies know that they cannot defeat the Jewish state militarily, so they have turned to influence the public with a straightforward one-sided narrative that plays fast and loose with facts and context. Taking control of the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is happening right now, and Israel’s enemies are winning. A recent poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute revealed that 38% of American Jews under 40 think Israel is an apartheid state, 33% think it is committing genocide against the Palestinian people and 20% think Israel doesn’t have a right to exist!

The first thing Israel needs to do is to acknowledge the problem and admit the image has been handled poorly. Then it needs to raise public relations importance to the level of a national security priority of the first order. Without a coordinated public relations strategy with the financial resources to make a difference, Israel’s ability to educate and influence the American public with its compelling case will continually be undermined. Winning this is essential not only for Israel. America needs a strong Israel as it pivots its efforts to the Far East to confront China.

But just reacting to propaganda attacks, being on the defensive is a guaranteed losing hand for Israeli hasbara. The mantra for Israeli public relations is to go on the offensive continually. Use personal narratives to illustrate Israel’s human tragedies because of Palestinian terrorism, inspired by blatant Jew-hatred thinly veiled behind anti-Zionism. An example of what it means to go on the offensive against the false charge of Israeli apartheid would be to publicize the Palestinian law that forbids selling land to Jews, a much more appropriate analogy to South African apartheid.

As a BESA public paper said, “The systemic failure of Israeli public diplomacy is a longstanding open secret. Because the country’s diplomatic bodies are dispersed among an assortment of ministerial and security frameworks, it is highly unlikely that the system as a whole will ever be strengthened and revitalized… a formula to establish a central and synchronized public diplomacy body has not yet been found. It appears that Israel has still not internalized the full value of either dynamic public diplomacy or sophisticated psychological warfare.”

Things may be changing. Israel’s new government brought not only a new prime minister and foreign minister but ended the 12-year reign of Benjamin Netanyahu, who downgraded the foreign service budget, and
with it, a potent tool to improve its public diplomacy and get it’s narrative a fairer hearing. Bibi thought he did hasbara better than anyone, and perhaps he did. But relying on one person for effective PR, especially one so divisive in America, was a self-inflicted wound, especially with so many English-speaking orators who could have amplified his message. According to Gary Rosenblatt, the former editor and publisher of Jewish Week, Netanyahu was incomprehensibly rude to American Jewish journalists, antagonizing pro-Israel friends and writers. Bennett is fluent in English, the son of American immigrants, so he should not be shy about being out front in the PR wars.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid seems to get it, too. In a news conference at the Foreign Ministry on July 25, Lapid lamented that failed Israeli PR is partially to blame for the current peak in antisemitism and Israel-bashing. “The State of Israel is in trouble,” Lapid said, adding that “the time has come to tell Israel’s story differently.”

He said the Strategic Affairs Ministry had been folded into the Foreign Ministry in an effort to concentrate and improve Israel’s PR, and the ministry’s budget was being boosted significantly. “Restoring the status of the Foreign Ministry is a goal that both I and Prime Minister Bennett share.”

In Lapid’s words, “in the past years, Israel has abandoned its foreign service, abandoned the international arena, and then we woke up one morning to find that our international standing has been weakened. The management of the relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States was careless and dangerous. The Republicans are important to us; their friendship is important to us, but not only the friendship of the Republican Party. We find ourselves with a Democratic White House, Senate, and House, and they are angry. We need to change the way we work with them.”

This will be an uphill battle with the rise of the anti-Israel progressive wing. Hopefully, Lapid’s perception as a moderate may give the cowered mainstream pro-Israel Democrats like US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer some courage to speak up.

Will this government, like almost all before it, relegate the issue of Israel’s public relations at both times of war and peace to second or third-tier priorities? The damage done by Israel’s mixed messaging during the most recent Gaza war may have created a tipping point against Israel in America and Congress, with the anti-Israel pro-Palestinian voice moving to center stage.

For the first time, too many pro-Israel Democrats remained on the sidelines, not openly defending Israel during Operation Guardian of the Walls. They allowed a moral equivalence narrative to take hold, doing a wholly inadequate job of defending Israel from the malicious charge of indiscriminate attacks on Palestinian civilians or explaining the importance Israel plays in advancing American national security interests. Democrats told me that Israel’s PR was abysmal, making them less willing to take the risk of supporting Israel. There was also the legitimate fear from the ascendant anti-Israel members of their party that if they defended Israel, they could endanger their re-election.

Israel’s governing coalition of just 61 MKs hangs by a thread and has so much on its plate. It is tasked with advancing the nation’s interests at home and abroad while not losing even a single vote of a member along the way. Their first priority is to pass a two-year budget so the nation can finally plan for the future and create some stability. Making the case to prioritize PR will be a hard sell.

The Palestinians and their supporters speak with one message of victim and victimizer, occupier and occupied, that resonates in an American nation that is increasingly ignorant of the history of the Middle East. Out of context heart-wrenching narratives followed by charges of apartheid and war crimes are given unrefuted coverage. Especially when they come from progressive Jewish organizations like J Street that seem more pro-Palestinian than their self-designation as pro-Israel, pro-peace. Photos of children killed in war are reflexively blamed on Israel, even when it’s from a misfired Hamas rocket shot from a Palestinian civilian area. Israeli spokespeople have done a poor job publicizing the cynical use of Arab children as human shields.

Israel’s best English-language spokesperson, Netanyahu, was too involved in managing the war and chose not to deputize articulate English-speakers to go on the air and write columns throughout the US. The playing field was left almost entirely in the court of the anti-Zionists. Yes, it is an uphill fight, but its management has been a failure for decades. The inability to get all branches of government on the same message is not just poor public relations but a national security nightmare that is ignored at the nation’s peril. America needs Israel to do a better job, as it is in its interest for Israel to be strong and not become a pariah in the US.

An indication of the dysfunctional Israeli PR was the recent closure of its Strategic Affairs Ministry, transferring its mission to the underfunded Foreign Ministry. Outgoing director-general Tzahi Gavriel’s job was to brand Israel positively and fight the growing BDS movement. He told Lahav Harkov of The Jerusalem Post, “If we go back to a situation where this important issue is scattered between different ministries, we’ll deteriorate. This is about Israel as a brand. PR and hasbara were not enough anymore. We needed technology, data, a civil society engine, and digital assets. We needed infrastructure and a coordinated plan.”

Since the beginning of the Second Intifada, American supporters of Israel have been banging their heads against the walls of the Knesset and Prime Minister’s Office, trying to alert the Israeli government that it is losing the battle for the court of public opinion. The victim/victimizer approach advanced by mainstream media sympathetic to the underdog Palestinian cause could have been better managed. But getting the Israeli government to realize this as a national security priority fell on deaf ears repeatedly.

Often I heard from Israeli officials that they know what they were doing. Other times I heard that it doesn’t make a difference, and we have given up trying to convince an international community or mainstream media of Israel’s case. Arrogance and surrender is not a strategy. Especially for a country forging new relations from the Far East, the Asian subcontinent, and the Arab world. Not adequately prioritizing its public relations with its most important friend, ally, and benefactor, the United States, is just a self-inflicted wound. Israel is losing the American public.

Israel’s ability to prosecute the inevitable next war in the north or south may be limited by poor public relations. Suppose the American public is not convinced of Israel’s case during a war. In that case, the president and Congress will be less willing to give Israel leeway to continue fighting, forcing a premature ceasefire before Israel accomplishes its military goals. That alone could bring the following war sooner rather than later.

Going forward, what should the new government do regarding public diplomacy? Let’s start with a well-funded initiative to prioritize public relations in the English-speaking world. Here is a perfect example. Instead of marching out an older male Israeli spokesman speaking English in harsh accented Hebrew, Israel puts its best foot forward with a young female person of color with perfect English. The pro-Palestinian world has been using young relatable English speakers for years. You would never know that these Palestinian apologists represent a misogynistic, homophobic, authoritarian regime that wants to end Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation. Their weapons are the words of the intersectional Left of America, using their own set of facts and narratives to elicit an emotional response. That is the winning hand in this PR war.

What is needed is an entirely new and well-financed Israeli-based English training media center. Its goal would be to train Israel’s diplomats, politicians, ministers, spokespeople of government ministries, military, police force, civil society leaders and key Israeli influencers in practical communication skills to boost Israel’s image. If created in partnership between government and private donors, like Birthright, it could forge a path toward public relations effectiveness.

The media center would include practical training for TV, print, radio and social media. This would cover everything from learning how to develop talking points, writing op-eds and learning how to avoid getting trapped by questions of an interviewer hostile to Israel. Learning to be effective in social media platforms used in English is an absolute must. A real media studio with a mock TV and radio studio would allow those trained to feel comfortable in front of the camera. And yes, every politician, diplomat and person qualified for the English-speaking world would need to consider him or herself a student, requiring humility to improve.

America needs a stable Israeli government

Source: Getty Images

An earthquake has hit the Israeli political scene. Its longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, now leads the opposition after 12 years. For an America that counts on a strong and stable Israel as part of its core security interests, this profound change in Israeli politics is a moment of both potential and vulnerability.

Read the full article from The Hill.

How should Netanyahu approach the new Biden administration?

{Previously published by the JNS}

In the winter of 2015, one of Israel’s most senior security cabinet officials asked me what advice should he give to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in regard to Speaker of the House John Boehner’s invitation to speak before the U.S. Congress, laying out his case of why the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, was a “bad deal” for both Israel and the United States. My answer surprised him. I told him not to accept the invitation, but to wait a few months until the Israeli election was concluded. I learned later that Netanyahu’s former Ambassador Michael Oren also told him to decline the invitation. This is in contrast to Israel’s ambassador at the time, Ron Dermer, who incensed the Obama administration as the one who “orchestrated the invitation” and wrote much of the speech.

Why is this history relevant for Netanyahu in 2020? There is an analogy to today. He is likely to create conditions in 2021 for a new election to avoid handing over power as promised to Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The Biden administration would likely be negotiating with Iran, once again at a time when Netanyahu’s hold on the leadership of Israel is in doubt, as it was in 2014. This should be kept in mind by the Israeli prime minister before he has his first meeting with the Biden people, and strategizes how he should approach the new administration.

The 2014 visit to Congress was ill-timed, coming before an Israeli election later that spring. If Netanyahu won and formed a coalition, he could then have come later in the spring with a stronger mandate as the newly re-elected leader of Israel with a better chance not to throw kerosene into the fire of American politics. Any newly elected Israeli leader would naturally have asked to come to speak to U.S. leadership. If an audience with the president were denied, it would have been seen by much of the American public as petty politics on the part of the Obama administration. According to an NBC poll at the time, 68 percent of Americans “believed Iran was not going to abide by the nuclear agreement.”

I was and still am a strong critic of the JCPOA, believing that it undermines American and Israeli security interests, being both dangerous and unprecedented in giving a nation on our terror list the right to enrich uranium.

Yet knowing all of that, I still told my Israeli friend to try and dissuade Netanyahu from coming to Congress in 2014, even though I knew that Obama and his team had completely misled the Israelis, keeping them in the dark about the secret negotiations despite assurances that they would be kept in the loop, knowing the JCPOA was an existential issue for Israel’s survival.Top of Form

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Although some blame the frosty relationship between Obama and Netanyahu for his administration’s actions, most think that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s relationship with the Israeli prime minister was always warmer. However, we don’t really know whether Biden will prove more sympathetic to Israeli interests than Obama was. We do know that he fully supported the JCPOA and was aware of the behind-the-scenes maneuvers to keep the Israelis in the dark.

The Obama administration policy from 2009 on was to create “daylight” between Israel and the United States, and to move closer to the Iranians. Keep in mind it was Biden who told the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing that you say, but I love ya.” That was 2014—the same year that the administration was secretly negotiating with Iran. So with act two of the JCPOA about to preview, it would behoove Israel and its supporters to review all of the history, mistakes and consequences related to the nuclear agreement.

In 2014, I spoke with the foreign-policy advisers of the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressing my concern that they were being outmaneuvered by the Obama administration, which was cleverly creating a backdoor pathway for Senate approval of the agreement with only a minority of the Senate in favor of the deal. I emphasized that the JCPOA rose to the level of a treaty and should be submitted to the Senate as such, which would require 60 senators to vote in favor of its passage, as it was the most significant American foreign-policy commitment of the 21st century. In the end, the Obama administration brilliantly outmaneuvered the Republican leadership and was able to advance the agreement with something akin to an executive order, with only 42 senators in favor. The next year I was told by that same Senate office that when Europeans came to visit Washington, they were astonished that the JCPOA was not passed as a treaty.

If President-elect Biden re-enters the JCPOA or renegotiates a new agreement, will the 2021 Republican Senate try to weigh in? Will Netanyahu try a new approach, having learned the lessons of interfering in American politics? Biden promises to re-enter the deal in his first few months, so time will be of the essence.

The Obama administration took its revenge for the Netanyahu speech before Congress, when a year-and-a-half later, in December 2016, the United States orchestrated the passage of UNSC Resolution 2334, labeling any Israeli presence over the 1949 armistice line (1967 line or Green Line) an international crime and upending the UNSC Resolution 242, the keystone document that previously acknowledged that Israel was never supposed to return to the indefensible borders of 1967.

So how should Netanyahu approach dealing with Biden, knowing he wants to restart the JCPOA in a few months’ time and wants to fulfill his campaign promise to reopen the PLO mission in Washington, the U.S. Consulate in eastern Jerusalem for Palestinian use, and restore some funding to the Palestinians, even if they have to ignore the Taylor Force Law denying American funding to a Palestinian Authority that rewards and incentivizes terrorism?

The two leaders know each other very well. They also have clashed with each other for years over settlement building, most recently when mid-level Israeli officials announced settlement building during a Biden visit to Israel, embarrassing the vice president, who choose to publicly lash out at Netanyahu despite the prime minister’s apology.

Unlike the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which not only saw eye to eye with him on almost every issue—with tangible actions ranging from the U.S. embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, to acknowledging that Israeli settlements do not break international law—Biden and his advisers want to promote a more balanced narrative and promote the aggrieved party of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They could, if challenged by the Israeli government, even choose to join the international community in boycotting Israeli goods from the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).

Netanyahu needs to prioritize his goals before engaging with the new administration. There is no doubt that the nuclear deal is the No. 1 issue on Israel’s plate, and there are rumors that the new administration, unlike the Obama one, will actually listen to Israeli suggestions for a new nuclear deal.

The Israeli prime minister’s highest priority is to emphasize to Biden that he shouldn’t rush to rejoin the flawed deal without significant changes to the agreement, as many of its provisions will sunset in less than five years. He must convince Biden that the United States has new leverage with the Trump sanctions in place, which have caused the Iranian economy to be under tremendous strain. The revolutionary regime’s first goal is to stay in power, and it worries about a rebellion from within. This is a great American advantage for negotiations if it is appreciated, as it could force the ayatollah and his minions back to the table.

“Patience, patience, patience with Iran” should be the bywords for the Biden administration, along with the willingness to leave negotiations if the regime’s leaders don’t meet the minimum threshold to truly end the Iranian nuclear program forever.

Netanyahu’s second goal is to continue the normalization process with the Arab world. Getting the Biden administration to prioritize this early on when there is still a window of opportunity for new nations to join will require him to give Biden something back in return. That inevitably will be something in regard to the Palestinians and Israeli settlement-building.

With the Israeli prime minister looking to renege on his deal to hand over power to rival Benny Gantz next year—and another potential contender, Naftali Bennett, gaining popularity from the right—he will be seriously challenged to advance Israel’s long-term goals while advancing his own political interests.

For his legacy, I would urge him to think of the long-term survival of the U.S.-Israel relationship in light of the challenges Biden will face from his own party regarding the Palestinians, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and prioritize the nuclear deal and normalization, offering some carrots to the Palestinians. The P.A. is dysfunctional, and the Palestinian people don’t trust their leadership, now in the 15th year of their four-year term, so even optimists in the Biden administration know that there is a limit to what can be achieved.

You don’t get something for nothing, and if Netanyahu can get 80 percent of Israel’s agenda in line with a President Biden, that is a huge win for America and Israel.

Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”

Netanyahu’s Speech to the E.U.:  Don’t Miss the Opportunity

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

The goal of this talk is to create a new benchmark narrative that Israel should insist upon at every meeting going forward with European and international diplomats.

After years of Netanyahu’s requesting the opportunity to address all 28 European Union foreign ministers, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has invited him for an “informal exchange of views… [at] the margins of the Foreign Affairs Council,” according to The Jerusalem Post.

Not exactly the respect due the democratically elected leader of the only democracy in the Middle East – but it does create an opportunity to think out of the box and reframe Israel’s case, presenting itself as the one stable and reliable nation amid the chaos created by the wars of political Sunni and Shi’ite Islamism that are raging against the backdrop of Iranian expansionism.

Netanyahu believes his rhetorical skills can convince skeptical and hostile European foreign ministers of the validity of his case. This is how he approached his visit to the US Congress to fight the good fight against the JCPOA (Iran Deal), which was counterproductive and alienated some US legislators, polarized along US party lines. I was asked by one of his senior aides at the time what he should do, and I said he shouldn’t go at that time.

When addressing the EU foreign ministers, Netanyahu should avoid reaching beyond what is possible, but not miss this opportunity to begin to give a new perspective to his listeners, European diplomats who have for years taken for granted that Israel is the party in the wrong in the Middle East.

Make no mistake, the Europeans will hear Netanyahu, but will for the most part not be listening to the substance of his remarks. What he says will be heard by the US Congress and Trump administration, his primary audience.

A few central or eastern European foreign ministers may appreciate Israel’s case, but the majority of Europe is blinded by an intersectional view that sees Israel as the oppressor and the Palestinian as clearly in the right.

America can and should over time better explain to its European allies why Israel is so important for both American and European national security.

The problem is that “Netanyahu is expected to tell the European leaders that their obsessive focus on the settlements is ‘ridiculous’… We in Israel are the future. We will bring you water, technology and security against terrorists. We have blocked 30 to 40 major attacks in Europe. You ask your people whether they would rather have that or Ramallah.”

All true and all will fall on not only deaf ears, but may also exacerbate hostility to Israel, as this group believes that the conflict is completely Israel’s fault as a post-colonial imperialist power.

To them it is clear; it is all about the settlements anywhere over the green line, while Israel commits war crimes targeting Palestinian children. To this group, UNSC Resolution 2334, Israel is a violator of international law. Thank you president Barack Obama.

They believe Israel is the primary cause of most of the problems of the Middle East, and that if only Israel disappeared or acquiesced to returning to the ‘67 lines, all the problems of the Middle East would fall away. They have been hearing this scapegoating line of logic from the Arab world for half a century, and European diplomats have internalized it.

Here is a better way forward for the prime minister.

Netanyahu should begin by telling them that if Israel disappeared today, the 1,400-year-old Sunni-Shi’ite war would still be raging, geopolitical Islamism would still be a threat to them and their allies, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political Islamist ilk would still want a worldwide caliphate, Egypt would still be a basket case, the Syrian slaughter would have still happened, and yes, Iranian Shi’ite Islamist hegemony would still be the greatest threat to peace in the region, while Iran continues every day to be the world leader in terrorism and human rights abuses.

Netanyahu should ask them why they are willing to invest hundreds of billions of dollars propping up the Iranian mullahs’ dictatorship, which is supporting the North Korean nuclear regime, while they call for a boycott of Israeli goods from the disputed territories.

That is how you go on the diplomatic offensive. You have nothing to lose and much to gain by calling the West to task for its hypocrisy.

Netanyahu, challenge them: if they care so much about human rights, why don’t they publicly rebuke the state-sponsored human rights abuses and terrorism that afflicts almost every Muslim nation?

Where are the condemnations of Turkey for its oppression of journalists and minorities, and the putsch-style takeover of the military, media and schools?

Why do they pretend that Qatar and its Gulf neighbors are good international citizens when they keep their foreign workers in slave-like conditions, and misogyny, homophobia and torture are, for them, business as usual?

Challenge them to acknowledge that Israel has offered an Arab state living next to it five times in the past 82 years. Ask them if they know that Israel offered a state in 1936, 1948, 1967, 2000 and 2007, when the offer rejected by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was for 100% of the West Bank with swaps, east Jerusalem as their capital, and Arab control of the Temple Mount.

Netanyahu should challenge them to get rid of the double standard they have used for years to cast blame on Israel and call them to task for their government funding of NGOs in Israel whose goal is to undermine the democratically elected government of Israel, something that they would never tolerate another government doing in their countries.

Netanyahu should tell them that before they present another peace plan that they should insist at the outset that both Israel and the Palestinians agree to sign an end-of-conflict agreement creating two states for two peoples, one a Jewish state and the other an Arab state – or no deal. Otherwise, once again, it will just be a one-way-street negotiation.

Few minds will change, but the goal of this talk is to create a new benchmark narrative that Israel should insist upon at every meeting going forward with European and international diplomats.

The author is director of MEPIN™, the Middle East Political and Information Network™. He regularly briefs members of Congress and think tanks on the Middle East. He is a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post.