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Jewish Journal

How to Fight Delegitimization

by Eran Shayshon

April 28, 2010 | 12:05 am

Protesters burn an Israeli flag in front of the Israeli embassy in Athens, Greece. Photo by Tom Stoukas

Protesters burn an Israeli flag in front of the Israeli embassy in Athens, Greece. Photo by Tom Stoukas

My team and I at the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv recently published a comprehensive report on the intensifying global campaign aimed at delegitimizing Israel. In the report, we emphasized the importance of distinguishing between criticism of Israeli policy on the one hand, and efforts to delegitimize Israel’s existence and undermine its right to exist on the other. Delegitimization is about negating Israel’s right to exist or the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. Thus, even unfair or biased criticism of Israeli policy is not necessarily equivalent to delegitimization.

Two distinct and independently operating forces drive Israel’s fundamental delegitimization. The first of these is the Middle East-based resistance network, comprising Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and additional Palestinian and Islamic factions. The resistance network advances a strategy of implosion that aims to precipitate Israel’s internal collapse by undermining attempts to end its control over the Palestinian population, delegitimizing Israel and, at the same time, conducting asymmetric warfare on the battlefield and against Israel’s civilian population.

The second force driving Israel’s delegitimization is a Western-based delegitimization network, made up primarily of elements of the radical European left. A relatively small group of anti-Zionist Jews and Israelis amplifies their message, which then reverberates throughout Islamic communities in the West. These groups aim to challenge the State of Israel’s moral and judicial legitimacy and seek to turn Israel into a pariah state. 

The concurrent ripeness of these two networks in the Middle East and the West may be coincidental, but the two dynamics create a predicament for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that can be seen unfolding on the ground. While the Middle East-based resistance network sabotages every move aimed at separating Israel from the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution, the West-based delegitimization network seeks to isolate Israel and promote, tacitly or explicitly, a one-state solution. The feedback loop arising from these two separately emerging processes in the East and West poses a threat to Israel’s political and economic model and has gained strategic significance in recent years.

How has the movement to delegitimize Israel emerged as such an effective force? Despite being driven by a political and social fringe, Israel’s delegitimization in the West became an agile and resourceful force when it emerged as a network. A network structure transcends the utility of individual nodes, which — when harnessed within a network formation — are able to rapidly adjust their attributes and objectives for optimal collective resilience. The delegitimization network structure contains a range of organizations and individuals from diverse backgrounds. They are dispersed globally, have no top executive or command-and-control centers, and — while varied in strategy and function — are driven by a common ideology that negates the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.

There are a relatively small number of hubs that carry the burden of delegitimization against Israel, usually global metropolises that concentrate global media, international institutions, leading academic centers, international NGOs and human rights organizations.

In each of these hubs, there are a relatively small number of catalysts, those individuals and organizations that carry disproportionate influence in driving the campaign to delegitimize Israel. These catalysts constitute the engine of the network, including by developing new actionable ideas, creating cooperative and information-sharing platforms, and initiating events and protests against Israel. In London, for example, the main catalysts are an amalgam of elements known as the red-green alliance — an unholy pact of radical British left and Islamist groups that includes organizations and political movements such as Respect, Socialist Action, War on Want, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the Muslim Association of Britain — and individuals such as George Galloway, John Rees and Ghada Karmi.

Most of those who participate in these anti-Israeli activities in the West probably only aim to affect Israeli policies, rather than seeking Israel’s delegitimization. However, the effectiveness of the catalysts of delegitimization stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others by blurring the lines between delegitimization and criticism. They do so by demonizing Israel, deploying double standards, rallying coalitions around “outstanding issues” against Israel, making pro-Palestinian activity trendy and promoting grass-roots activities such as boycotts, divestments and sanctions (BDS) that are aimed primarily at tarnishing Israel’s face. Thus, these catalysts have made significant inroads in expanding the delegitimization network.

Protests in Venezuela. The placard reads “Israel-Murderer of the Future.”  Photo by Juan Barreto/AFP

Surely, a credible and persistent commitment by Israel for a peace that establishes a Palestinian state and brings about an “end of conflict” would weaken the grounds of Israel’s delegitimization. However, the viability of the peace process is undermined by several structural obstacles, such as the effective actions of the resistance network to sabotage it and the constitutional and political crisis within Palestinian politics. This reality necessitates an Israeli strategy to fight delegitimization within the context of political stalemate. Furthermore, even given an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the logic of the delegitimization campaign would persist as long as Israel is defined according to its Jewish character. Therefore, it may be that neither changing policy nor improving public relations will suffice in the battle against delegitimization.

How can Israel and its allies contend with the delegitimization challenge? A key principle in thinking globally is acting locally. Jewish communities and Israeli Diaspora can and should be mobilized toward the cause of fighting delegitimization. Generally, it is local pro-Israel communities that are more likely to have the most nuanced understanding of the local dynamics and the appropriate response, and therefore should be expected to lead. However, a few generic principles can be utilized by Israel and by pro-Israel groups in effectively countering local delegitimization dynamics. 

The first such principle involves embracing and acting according to the network-based logic that underlies the effectiveness of the delegitimization movement. First and foremost, this involves focusing on the hubs of delegitimization and undermining catalysts within such hubs. The number of hubs of delegitimization is fairly small and may include, for example, London, Madrid, Sydney, the San Francisco Bay Area, Paris, Toronto and Brussels. While in each of these places there may be many anti-Zionists, there are actually only very few catalysts — organizations and individuals devoted to undermining Israel and whose fingerprints are ubiquitous in a wide ranger of anti-Israel initiatives. In every hub of delegitimization, there are approximately 10 to 20 catalysts in the order of 100 organizations or individuals worldwide who are the real engines of delegitimization. Numerically speaking, contending with them is an attainable task.

Secondly, Israel and its allies must drive a wedge between those few catalysts of delegitimization and critics of Israeli policy, mainly by isolating and exposing the former and systematically engaging with the latter. This principle should be exercised especially in those arenas exploited by the delegitimizers to promote their cause, such as labor and trade unions, campuses, media and the nongovernmental organization sector. Many times, Israeli politicians and pro-Israel organizations fail to fully differentiate between critics and delegitimizers, thus pushing the former into the arms of the latter. 

Third, Israel and its allies should focus efforts on engaging the hearts and minds of liberal progressive elites, a sector in which Israel’s status has eroded significantly. The most effective barrier against the spread of delegitimization within these communities is a network of strong personal relationships. The contemporary context has ushered in a painfully ironic phenomenon in which values-driven individuals and communities genuinely committed to justice, peace, human rights and international law coalesce almost unnoticeably with fundamental Islamists to create an absurd alliance against Israel. These are the very individuals and communities who are supposed to be Israel’s natural allies. One particularly bizarre example juxtaposing the seemingly diametrically opposed values defining these groups — which melt away when it comes to Israel — is the gay rights march against the “Israeli apartheid” in Toronto, an event taking place while homosexuals are being hanged in Tehran and forced to flee from Gaza to Tel Aviv.

Fourth, Israel’s rebranding is also strategically important. Israel has been successfully branded by its adversaries as a violent country that violates international law and human rights. With such a brand, even the most outrageous accusations — from Israel poisoning Palestinian children to the Israel Defense Forces’ engagement in organ harvesting — may stick. A sophisticated rebranding campaign would not only make Israel’s communication strategies more effective but would also make it more immune to attacks by its detractors. Finally, it is equally important to brand the other side by associating them with values that reflect their actions and true intensions.

Israel is a vibrant democracy where the Jewish people exercise their right to self-determination, in which all minorities are guaranteed equal rights, and that seeks a way to end its control over the Palestinians without compromising the security of its citizens. However, it is wrong to think that solely by “explaining” Israel as it is to the world, delegitimization will go away. A rich understanding of the structural roots of the problem and direct response through deployment of the several principles discussed above may help stem the tide against what is increasingly becoming a strategic threat against the state. 

Eran Shayshon is a senior analyst at the Reut Institute, which recently published its report “The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall,” on the global campaign confronting Israel.

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