January 31, 2002
Clueless In Jerusalem
It's one thing you can take to the bank: Every time a new Middle East crisis explodes on the world's front pages, there's another hue and cry in the Jewish world about the need for better hasbara (public relations).
Commissions study the issue, politicians blame their rivals and everybody blames the media for the failure to get Israel's message out. American Jews donate money to the cause and fancy public relations firms get juicy contracts.
And then, things go back to the way they were until the next great hasbara crisis, when the whole cycle begins anew.
If this has a whiff of futility about it, there's a reason: Israeli leaders, regardless of party or ideology, are mostly clueless about their intended audiences, and they make a critical mistake in assuming that hasbara can exist in a vacuum -- separate from their policies, detached from the often-unfair-but-relentless rules of this media age.
So, in an effort to save the government some big bucks, here are a few free hasbara suggestions:
Know your audience.
Too much hasbara is preaching to the choir -- primarily to those Jews who are already working actively on behalf of the Jewish state. Stroking Jewish leaders is important, but they are already on Israel's side; that isn't where the emphasis should be.
On the other end of the spectrum, the world's slickest PR will not put a dent in the animosity of Israel's traditional enemies or the Third World sympathizers whose hearts bleed for the Palestinians, but who could care less about Israeli victims.
The primary target should be that great mass in the middle -- Jews and non-Jews who support the idea of Israel and see little difference between Yasser Arafat and Saddam Hussein, but for whom this is not a top-tier issue.
These are the people who are most vulnerable to the negative images coming out of the region, images that will always work against powerful, prosperous Israel.
And these are the people who are most subject to the fatigue of hopelessness. That is the real hasbara crisis today.
Offer hope, not just retaliation.
It cannot be easy for Israel's current leaders, trying to fight a mushrooming and constantly changing Palestinian terror campaign, while holding together a wildly improbable "unity" government. Their anger at Arafat, who betrayed everybody who cared about a genuine peace process, is understandable.
But when Americans hear Israeli officials talk about the current situation, they hear almost nothing that offers a glimmer of hope for peace.
When Israel's only strategic goal seems to be retaliation and revenge, even the best outreach efforts will be ineffective, and many who are favorably disposed to Israel will pull back from active concern.
Do not demolish Palestinian houses.
Yes, they may give cover to snipers and pose a security threat. But PR-wise, this is an action that will always hurt Israel. Always.
You cannot go into a refugee camp and flatten the houses of people who already have almost nothing and expect the world to nod in approval, no matter what the reasons.
You cannot offer strategic arguments to counter video clips of wailing mothers surveying the pitiful remains of their possessions with strategic arguments.
It does not matter that the imagery may not be accurate, or that it ignores the stupid decisions that led the Palestinians to this sad predicament; each knocked-down house represents a big PR sock in the jaw to Israel's image.
Do not talk about assassinating Palestinian militants.
Or using "targeted killings." And do not, for pity's sake, sneer when you profess ignorance. This is war, and hitting the terrorists the Palestinian Authority has let roam free may be a perfectly legitimate tool. But you don't brag about it. You don't let military officials use the dread word "assassinations," as several did last year, and you do not speak of targeted killings, which everybody knows amounts to the same thing. You do not answer questions about the subject; you do not respond to charges. Sometimes the best hasbara is to shut up.
Pay attention to other events.
Israel's leaders seem to believe that each of their actions is entirely independent of other events. So even when they gain in the PR race, often they just blow it in ways any shlemiel could have predicted.
Here is an example: Israel's interception of the Karine A, the arms smuggling ship from Iran, was a shock to many in the world who still believed Arafat was striving for peace. Israel often has the high moral ground, and this was one of those rare moments when the broader world seemed ready to acknowledge it.
So what did Israel do? It embarked on a new round of house demolitions that quickly knocked the arms shipment out of the headlines, and helped people forget the message inherent in Arafat's take-out order for a 50-ton weapons feast.
Could not the demolitions have waited? Did the strategic value of flattening the houses outweigh the big worldwide PR hit? Sharon seemed blissfully aware of the entire question.
This, in fact, points to the real heart of the hasbara question. Israeli leaders seem to pride themselves on their willingness to ignore world opinion in pursuit of their nation's security. But then, when the world reacts, they panic about bad hasbara.
Good hasbara does not take place in a vacuum; it is not unrelated to policy or to other events. If Israeli leaders want better PR, they will have to make a choice to place world opinion higher on their list of priorities.
It does not take a fancy PR company to do that, just a hard political choice.