May 4, 2006
This Week - Mission Impossible
These have been the six most difficult years in Ambassador Gideon Meir's professional life, and when I tell you what he does, you'll immediately grasp the reason why.
Meir is deputy director general for media and public affairs in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What that means is he is the senior diplomat in charge of explaining and defending Israel to the world. Talk about working a tough room.
They say the people with the highest Q ratings on television are those who are most themselves in front of the camera. That explains the success Meir has had as the face of Israel on CNN, BBC, even al-Jazeera. In person, over bagels at a Beverly Hills restaurant, he has the same wry smile, the same well-modulated voice, the same ability to make you believe he is letting you and you alone in on an urgent, heretofore unheralded truth.
"A normal corporation will spend between 1 percent and 8 percent of its budget on advertising and promotion," Meir said. "Israel, with a budget of $52 billion, is spending $8.5 million dollars on public diplomacy, on PR. In Yiddish, we call that bupkis."
As Palestinians and Israelis faced off each night on the evening news, it was Meir who more often than not explained images of Palestinian suffering at Israeli checkpoints or Israeli soldiers facing down Palestinian rioters or the bloody aftermath of a reprisal for a suicide bomber's massacre. As the rock-throwing first intifada became the suicide-bombing second intifada, sending image and economy plummeting, Meir's portfolio grew even more crucial. Good public diplomacy -- a government's form of PR -- became an adjunct of national security.
"You need to maintain strategic relationships with America, and convince Europeans to support the policy of Israel," he said, explaining his job. "And this only happens if you have very good public diplomacy."
At the same time, Meir was fighting two other battles. One was with the government that employed him. He had to convince them that in the media age, the message and the messenger mattered.
"The Palestinians speak with one voice, one message," he said. "But an American reporter in Israel gets six different opinions from six different ministers and generals."
Many Israeli leaders clung too much to the opinion famously voiced by the late Prime Minister David Ben Gurion: "What matters is not what the gentiles will say, but what the Jews will do."
Meir had to convince them that transparency and explanation -- not the traditional hasbara, which connotes propaganda -- is crucial to winning diplomatic battles. "We didn't learn the lessons of the first intifada," he said. "You have to explain."
Meir also has had to fight Israelis and Jews outside Israel who assert that the country does a lousy job explaining itself.
"I have to convince them our public diplomacy is working," he said.
Trouble comes when well-meaning supporters take matters into their own hands. I mentioned one such effort -- when one group put the carcass of an Israeli bus torn to shreds by suicide bomber on a national tour. Meir, ever the diplomat, allowed himself a wince. Not a big tourism booster, that.
The day after our breakfast, Meir is holding forth before a SRO audience of graduate students and professors in the USC Center on Public Diplomacy at the Annenberg School of Communications. The Jerusalem-born diplomat is in demand these days as a leading expert on effective public diplomacy. He has consulted with the Danes and even the Turks. Countries, he stressed, need to be marketed just like products. At his urging, Israel is in the midst of "a major rebranding," employing the talents of the country's top advertising minds.
"The major problem is the lack of knowledge about how Israel contributes to the quality of life" through pioneering work in medical and hi-tech research, he said.
Get that image out, and people will see Israel in a positive light.
Of course, many people would argue that Meir's message, regardless of how it's packaged, doesn't matter. To spin Ben Gurion's dictum on its head, it's not what Israel says that hurts it, it's what Israel does.
Many of these folks believe there is a magic, if bitter, pill that Israel could swallow to make its headaches go away. Just give up the territories, just tear down the separation barrier, just let all Palestinian prisoners free, just turn the American Israel Public Affaris Committee into a lunch-and-learn club, and the world will climb down off Israel's back and let it go about it business in peace.
It's easy to understand why people -- even smart ones, like Harvard professors -- would want these pipe dreams to be true, if only because they simplify a complex problem. It's funny, in fact, how those who chide President George W. Bush for his Manichean thinking on Iraq and terrorism have no trouble reducing the Israeli dilemma to bad guys (Jews) versus good guys (Arabs).
No doubt Israel has brought some of its worst tsuris on itself: Its settlement policy in Gaza and the West Bank has been ruinously costly, in moral, economic and diplomatic terms, for instance.
But Israel has also faced and continues to face irredentist ideological and political forces -- Yasser Arafat or Hamas, anyone? -- whose claim to moral superiority at the very least deserves a coherent rebuttal. In a 24-hour media world, it means a job like Meir's will forever verge on the impossible.
"When I go on television, there's always a Palestinian, too, and he says, 'If only the occupation would end...' and everyone knows how to complete the sentence," Meir said. " When I go on television and I have two minutes, I have to give the context and history and background -- and who gives me the time?"