Stephen M. Walt

Truth and advertising

Last summer, the Israeli government announced a new effort to “rebrand” the country in the eyes of the world, and it hired a prominent British public relations firm to help out. In addition to various forms of cultural outreach designed to highlight Israel’s achievements, this effort included having a men’s magazine publish a photo spread ...


Last summer, the Israeli government announced a new effort to “rebrand” the country in the eyes of the world, and it hired a prominent British public relations firm to help out. In addition to various forms of cultural outreach designed to highlight Israel’s achievements, this effort included having a men’s magazine publish a photo spread of several women from the IDF (including the former Miss Israel) in various fetching poses, a decision that didn’t go over all that well back in Israel itself. You can read all about it here, here, or here.  

The Gaza operation, the sham peace process, and the recent election of the Netanyahu/Lieberman government aren’t making the “rebranding” effort any easier, of course. And if you want to know why this new hasbara campaign isn’t likely to work, start by reading English journalist and military historian Max Hastings’s sobering account, published last week in the Guardian. Drawn from an appearance in Balliol College’s Leonard Stein lecture series, Hastings recounts his own evolution from an enthusiastic cheerleader for Israel to a disillusioned critic who strongly supports Israel’s existence but openly opposes many of its present policies. Where once he “loved those people, and boundlessly admired their achievement,” he now describes himself as “one of those foreigners who progressively fell out of love with Israel.” I know the feeling.

The problem, as Hastings makes clear, is the reality of the occupation and the brutal treatment of the Palestinians that goes hand-in-hand with it. This situation can’t be disguised by more energetic public relations efforts.  There are too many video cameras and human rights groups documenting Israel’s actions — including Israeli groups like B’tselem. There are too many bloggers willing to write about the conflict from varying perspectives, and too many scholars and journalists like Hastings — plus a growing number in the United States — who no longer accept the outdated image of Israel as a plucky and virtuous David facing a looming and bloodthirsty Arab Goliath.  That image was easy to sell in 1948, perhaps, and it remained fairly convincing after the Arab states offered the infamous “Three Nos” at the 1967 Khartoum summit. But it’s a much tougher sell after Lebanon in 1982 and 2006, after Gaza in 2008-2009, and after the Saudi and Arab League peace proposals in 2002 and 2007 don’t even elicit an official response from Jerusalem.  

Israel’s achievements over the past sixty-one years are undeniable, and the officials responsible for the rebranding campaign won’t have any trouble finding artists, athletes, scientists and entrepreneurs to write feel-good stories about. But the dark side of the story won’t go away — 40-plus years of an increasingly brutal occupation, the construction of the apartheid wall (or if you prefer,”separation fence”), much of outside the 1967 borders, thousands of dead Palestinian civilians, a series of failed wars since 1982, and the repeated squandering of genuine opportunities to make peace. And every year the number of settlers grows. I don’t hold Israel solely responsible for this tragedy, but they are neither powerless nor blameless.

As Hastings observes, more in sadness than in anger, these policies have also had a deeply corrosive effect on Israeli society itself. In his words, “Morally, if not militarily, [the IDF] is a shadow of the force which fought in 1948, 1956, 1967, or 1973.” Not to mention rising political corruption, the polarization of the body politic, once-impressive universities in decline, and a worrisome tendency for younger Israelis to seek careers abroad.  In an era when information flows freely and where anyone with an internet link can read Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Star, the Guardian, etc., the Israeli Foreign Ministry is not going to control the story.

In fact, trying to “rebrand” Israel through a one-sided PR campaign could be counterproductive, because offering a uniformly sunny image that leaves out much of the story just undermines the credibility of the messenger. My sense is that few Israelis believe Shimon Peres anymore, and I doubt many of them think Benjamin Netanyahu means it when he says he’s interested in a genuine peace. It’s like when Bush and Cheney declared that United States doesn’t torture, Bill Clinton told us that he “didn’t have sex with that woman,” or Richard Nixon said “I am not a crook.” After awhile, smart listeners learn not to accept anything they’re told without double-checking it themselves. Even worse, when they hear one thing, they start to assume that the opposite is probably true.

Some readers may think that Hastings is employing a double-standard, or that he is “singling Israel out” for criticism. They could point out that Israel’s adversaries have often lied or prevaricated too, and that they have done plenty of brutal things themselves. They could also remind us that Israel’s neighbors are hardly models of tolerance or open discourse and that there is a far more open debate about these issues within Israel than there is in Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Syria. I agree, and the willingness of some Israelis to confront the past honestly and to question its present policies remains an admirable feature of Israeli society.  

But there is no double-standard at work here, and comparisons with states whose behavior may be worse miss the point. Israel’s actions are not being judged against the conduct of a Sudan or Burma, but by the standards that people in the West apply to all democracies. It is the standard Americans expect of allies who want to have a “special relationship” with us. It is the standard Israel imposes on itself when it tells everyone it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Israel is being expected to behave like Britain or Canada or France or Japan and not like some one-party military dictatorship, and it is certainly expected not to deny full political and civil rights to millions of Palestinians who now live under its constant control.  These other democracies eventually gave up their colonial enterprises; Israel is still trying to consolidate its own. 

As Americans have learned in recent years, whenever any country fails to live up to its own professed values, it is going to lose friends and admirers around the world. Barack Obama understood that he couldn’t restore America’s image in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the Bush torture regime by trying to change the subject or by talking about some cool or virtuous things Americans had done. (“OK, we tortured some people and invaded Iraq on false pretences, but weren’t the Founding Fathers great, aren’t Tiger Woods and Kelly Clarkson amazing, and have you seen that new Star Trek movie?”). The way a country regains the world’s admiration in the aftermath of  misconduct is to stop doing it, admit it was wrong, express regret, and make it clear that it won’t happen again. Restoring Israel’s image in the West isn’t a matter of spin or PR or “rebranding;” it’s a matter of abandoning the policies that have cost it the sympathy it once enjoyed. It’s really just about that simple.


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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