Dispatch

Israel Punks Itself

Israel Punks Itself

If you use Facebook or Twitter in Canada, you probably caught this viral advertisement, subtly titled "Size Doesn’t Matter," last month.

Girl [peering down the camera’s frame]: Uhhh…

Boy: What?

Girl: Don’t be mad. But it’s small.

Boy: It’s small?!

Girl: I just … I don’t know if I can go there.

Boy: I consider this a spot of worship. It may be small, but it’s brought the driest places to life. Baby, this is paradise!

The camera then pans out to show the young couple, peering at a map of Israel and tourist guidebooks sitting in the boy’s lap.

Girl: OK. But, if I go down there for you, you have to promise you’ll go down south for me next winter.

The video, sponsored by the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students and the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), was met with ridicule — both in Israel and abroad. Bloggers went wild, and the bemused Israeli Foreign Ministry and CIJA were reduced to pointing fingers at each other, trying to shift the blame. (Though it is unclear whether the Israeli government funded this ad, overseas advocacy organizations generally take their cues from the homeland.)

The past year has brought many public-diplomacy own-goals for Israel — refusing to cooperate with a U.N. commission, deliberately humiliating the ambassador of a major ally, and snubbing a U.S. congressional delegation, for instance. But rather than addressing the problems underlying Israel’s lack of popularity abroad — the stagnated conflict with the Palestinians, and especially the brutal war waged on Gaza last winter — the government has gone for diversion, with a series of flashy (and, in the case above, idiotic) global ad campaigns.

Such ads have a lot more to say about Israel’s insecurities — e.g., its small size — than the world’s concerns. Another advertisement shows a camel ambling across a sandy vista, with a narrator deadpanning in English, "The camel is a typical Israeli animal, used by the Israelis to travel from place to place in the desert where they live." Don’t quite get the joke? It sends up Israelis’ concern that foreigners perceive them to be backward and Oriental.

There’s hardly an argument that the ads are falling flat with international audiences. It increasingly seems Israel is trying to persuade not foreigners, but itself. In March 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu created a ministry of public diplomacy (in Hebrew, hasbara). Last week, it launched a website called "Masbirim," or "Explainers," offering Israelis talking points to chat up foreigners when traveling overseas. (The information on the website is also available in booklet form.)

The Masbirim project does not just offer up harmless trivia about Israeli agriculture and inventions — for instance, "Israel invented the solar water-heater" and, crucially, "An Israeli electric hair remover makes women happy the world over." It also provides hard-line political arguments. We’re told the West Bank (described as "Judea and Samaria") settlements are "restored" ancient Jewish villages, not impositions on Palestinian villages or lands. The conflict is not about territorial disputes, but about Israel’s very existence as a state, it says. And the Golan is not only a strategic stronghold for Israel, but a place stuffed with Jewish heritage sites. The materials, unsurprisingly, do not mention the illegality of annexing occupied territory.

The campaign then marches into right-wing wilderness roamed only by the likes of the long-debunked 1984 book From Time Immemorial. It advises Israelis to tell new foreign friends that "there has never been a state called Palestine" and that most Palestinians are "immigrants from other Arab states" — many of whom were drawn to the economic prosperity created by Zionist Jewish immigration. Just in case the foreign folks had heard many Israelis’ central argument for a two-state solution — that discrepancies between Jewish and Palestinian birthrates mean Jews will soon be outnumbered in the territories currently under Israeli control — the Masbirim project’s materials explain that the Palestinian birthrate has actually dropped and the Jewish one is "underestimated."

The sensitive issues of historic rights, heritage, and demographics are not always well understood outside the Middle East. But Israeli walls cutting across Palestinian territory are. That topic goes entirely unmentioned on the website, as do contentious topics outsiders might want "explained": the Israeli sanctions on Gaza and the withholding of food, construction materials, books, and, bizarrely, musical instruments. Israeli strikes within Gaza and the overwhelmingly civilian casualties they incur also go largely unexplained, mentioned only as responses to the Palestinians’ (deplorable but nowhere near as devastating) rocket fire.

Rebranding the country without addressing the conflict is just plain stupid, Didi Remez, a advertising specialist and senior partner at BenOr Consulting, warns. "It’s unclear whether the campaigns are intended to achieve something diplomatic abroad or to boost the morale of Israeli audiences," he said in an interview. "[That] is a problem because in today’s world you can’t compartmentalize communications. So campaigns are picked up on and examined by audiences they were clearly not meant for — and then they boomerang."

Officials at the ministry in charge of the campaign push back on assertions of its ineptness. "People [have pointed out] we are [still missing] information on important issues — the security fence, for instance. We’re working to fix that," says Yuli Edelstein, a former Soviet dissident and the current minister of information and diaspora. "We’re not saying the conflict isn’t there or that the Palestinians don’t exist. But it’s also important to say: We’re explaining our position; let the other side explain theirs. I don’t have to reflect the Palestinian narrative on our website. I can’t lie if I know for a fact there’s no birthrate that explains the growth of the Arab population, from which I infer that they are immigrants. But Israelis are also immigrants. So what?"

He also denies that the project is aimed at the Israelis. "Domestic hasbara is not my portfolio," he says.

But to Remez, such campaigns are most keenly felt at home. "The bottom line is: Israelis don’t like losers. A government that cannot put together any kind of agenda to keep Israel in a legitimate place on the world stage will find itself facing problems," he says. "Unfortunately, Israeli governments tend to deal with this type of policy dead end by escalating the conflict or going to war."

Thus, while ostensibly making every effort to reach out, Israel is instead curling deeper and deeper into itself, engaging not so much in public diplomacy as in navel-gazing. Rather than changing the policies that are rapidly turning it into an international pariah, or even honestly arguing its viewpoints, the state is inoculating its citizens against realistic and very real outside criticism. In the long run, this means it will become even more difficult to persuade Israel to change its course — and to save it from the damage it inflicts upon itself.