April 28, 2010
How to Fight Delegitimization
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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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