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June 19, 2013

The re-‘birth’ of hope?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/the_re_birth_of_hope

Truisms are born to be disproven. The assertion that the era of the two-state solution is over has been frequently propounded of late by Israelis from left to right. To make their case, they point to the irreversibility of Israel’s presence in the West Bank. 

Another truism of great resonance, especially in the American Jewish community, is that Israel’s PR efforts are woefully inadequate. I mention these two — among many truisms pervading the Middle East—because they were the subject of withering scrutiny on an eye-opening visit I paid several weeks ago to Molad, a newly formed think tank that rests atop the popular Burgers Bar restaurant on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem. Molad, which means “birth” in Hebrew, describes itself as the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy.  The group undertakes various research projects with an eye toward regaining some of the ground of democracy lost in recent years in Israel. Looming over all is a grand, 10-year vision: to overturn more than a decade of right-wing control in Israel by returning progressive forces to political power (quite akin to the concerted plan laid out by the Center for American Progress in the United States to return Democrats to power after the Bush era). 

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Molad is the path followed by its youthful leaders. Avner Inbar and Assaf Sharon are both 30-something, American-educated political theorists who were among the organizers of the weekly protests in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood of East Jerusalem where Palestinian families who have resided for decades have been forced out of their homes and replaced by Jewish settlers. A third leader of Molad is Mikhael Manekin, one of the founders of Breaking the Silence, the group of former and current Israeli soldiers who report on aberrant or illegal behavior committed by the Israel Defense Forces.

A few years ago, the three were, figuratively speaking, throwing stones at the establishment. Today, they are methodically attempting to gain control over it, through democratic means — and, indeed, through the expansion of democratic principles in Israeli society. It is stunning to behold the lightning transformation and maturation of these three from radicals to pragmatists, a process so rapid that they are, in some cases, more moderate than their parents — a curious inversion of the generational norm. For example, I had assumed that the youthful leaders of Molad would have maintained that a tipping point has been reached on Israeli settlement activity, and that the challenge ahead was to think of a post-two-state world. Quite to the contrary, they maintain that Israel doesn’t have the luxury of such despair. The two-state solution, they argue, is the only one that can work in a land riven by bitter conflict for over 100 years. To believe otherwise is to engage in delusional fantasy. Accordingly, they are devoting all of their substantial intellectual energies to restoring the two-state idea to the top of the political agenda.

This requires dispatching with facile assumptions through careful and uncompromising research. One of the latest examples to emerge from the Molad shop is the study undertaken by researcher Shivi Greenfield regarding the efficacy of Israel’s hasbara, or public relations, efforts. The conventional view in the Israel advocacy community, as we hear on occasion on the pages of the Jewish Journal, is that Israel is losing the battle on the public diplomacy front. The argument goes that Israel’s hasbara operation is far less sophisticated than that of pro-Palestinian forces, including but not limited to advocates of BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. The result is a deep erosion of Israel’s standing in the international community. 

The Molad report examines the various claims and arrives at three important conclusions. First, there was a marked improvement in Israeli public diplomacy following a scathing report condemning previous efforts by Israel’s State Comptroller in 2007. More centralized control of various government public diplomacy outlets has yielded a more coherent and effective voice. The report utilizes seven criteria (e.g., coordination, crisis management and branding) to challenge “the common perception that the Israel hasbara apparatus is ineffective.” On the contrary, it concludes, “Israel has an elaborate, professional and sophisticated hasbara apparatus.”

The report then moves on to a second conclusion that flies in the face of what we often hear in Jewish communal conversation: that supporters of the Palestinian side belong to a well-oiled, sophisticated and amply funded PR machine. Using the same seven criteria discussed in the case of Israel, the report points to the absence of a single centralized anti-Israel hasbara operation — not in Iran, not by Hamas, not by the Palestinian Authority nor by the advocates of BDS. Its various organs are poorly coordinated, often excessively shrill in tone, and diffuse in their use of media and branding. The lack of coherence reveals a measure of organizational chaos that helps explain why “Israel earns widespread sympathy in the United States, much more so than Palestinians in general and anti-Israel organizations in particular.”  As a general matter, the report asserts, the anti-Israeli “public diplomacy network can be said to be significantly inferior to Israel’s.”

This leads to a final, powerful, though barely articulated conclusion. To the extent that Israel is the target of international criticism and has a negative image, it is manifestly not the result of failed public diplomacy. It is about Israel’s 46-year occupation of the West Bank, in the absence of which the country’s international standing would not be faltering nor would there be calls for boycott. 

Molad’s mission in investigating the claims about Israeli public diplomacy is not to give Israel a bad name, but to do the hard work of distinguishing between ikar and tafel, between what is central and what is peripheral. The organization’s youthful leaders want to save Israel’s body and soul by declaring with Carvillean bluntness: “It’s the occupation, stupid!” Seeing their rare combination of piercing intellect, political realism and future-oriented vision can, at least for a fleeting moment, cure one of a fatalistic certainty regarding the end of the two-state era.  Whether they ultimately turn out to be right, it would be foolhardy not to place a bet on this group of supremely talented and committed young Israelis.


David N. Myers teaches Jewish history at UCLA.

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