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Is effective hasbara possible?

Israeli hasbara has an uphill struggle. In fact, some believe it has an impossible task; that the EU and others are so far advanced in their anti-Israel, anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian sympathies that hasbara is a waste of time, effort and money. In this view, the usual instruments of persuasion, facts, reason and logic will fail because they will be trumped by political interests. That is, regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the EU and others are happy to swear that a penny is square.

In assessing this theory, the background assumption adopted is that the Palestinians are incapable of and unwilling to accept Israel as the nation-state of Jews or the legitimacy of Jewish nationalism. This is the driving force of the conflict. To put this less rigidly, Palestinian acceptance may be possible – but only on a distant and imaginary horizon. This means that the conflict has many years to run before a decisive victory or peaceful accommodation.

Therefore, on the basis of this war of attrition, the issue of how to persuade those such as the EU to be less hostile to Israel and less supportive of the Palestinians assumes a long-term importance. However, if the reasoning of the opening paragraph is accurate, the inevitable conclusion is that placing any reliance on more or better hasbara is doomed.

If two further propositions are added to the equation, these difficulties are compounded. The first is that Israel cannot somehow outsmart the EU, USA and others towards greater support. The second is that Israel does not possess the clout to coerce them into a more favorable position, to drop their opposition to settlements or their support for the PA and the Palestinian narrative.

This amounts to a significant predicament. Because in common with all human relations, institutions and agreements, international relations operate by a combination of consent and coercion. Therefore, the above reasoning produces the conclusion that these avenues are either useless or closed to Israel. If this is the case, the position for advancing Israel’s interests would be grim. And it is no wonder that desperate attempts periodically surface for a decisive breakout by means of a demonstrative unilateral action by Israel (see, From Occupation to Annexation: a desperate miscalculation).

A counter-perspective

Even if only partially true, this hypothesis means that outside an emergency that requires the imposition of martial law in the Territories, the international weakness of Israel’s coercive and consentive abilities needs to be corrected. It also indicates that the hypothesis should be probed and its assumptions placed under a little pressure to see if the task of persuasion is as impossible as maintained.

In truth, Israel is not doing too badly at broadening its international economic and diplomatic connections. New relations with Greece and Cyprus show that self-interest can trump ideological and perhaps anti-Semitic attitudes. In the same spirit, the recent reconciliation deal with Turkey is also a good indication of the triumph of self-interest over ideology. Along with new developments in Israel’s relationships with several African countries and more overt cooperation with Egypt, these may prove important in the event of a breakdown of relations with the PA and/or showdown with the EU.

But the reality is that for the foreseeable future, due to the weight of its economic relations with Israel, its political power, cultural links, and so on, the EU cannot be ignored. Therefore, prospects for influencing the EU need to be assessed. It is assumed here that the political interests that are said to trump reason, truth and logic are in reality a mix of factors. These include:

  • disguised geo-political interests (such as oil, trade, investment);
  • concern to appease their own Muslim populations;
  • pressure from the media, academia, and public opinion;
  • anti-Semitism.

But the key question is this: is it true that the EU states work within a political framework dominated by mindless unreason/political self-interest removed from logic, truth, and fact? Alternatively, is it merely that they use facts, logic, reason and truth primarily in their own self-interest? If so, can this necessarily be expected to lead in a pro-Israel direction? If not, why the surprise or despair when such behavior has existed amongst European states at least since Richelieu?

Likewise, are the member states of the EU and their constituencies so monolithic and unreasonable that anti-Israel positions are inevitable? If so, how to explain the vote of 335 to 287 to accept the Goldstone Report in the European Parliament? This was hardly a wipeout of those most sympathetic to Israel. In fact, a swing of around 8.5% would have produced a different decision. This not a slight amount, but nor is it unimaginably huge or inconceivable.

This shows that Israel has many friends and a fund of good will, sympathy and influence to build upon. It also shows that it is not necessary to win everyone or even a massive majority. In any case, the political positions of a state and its actions are not necessarily in complete harmony (for example, see Robin Shepherd’s book A State Beyond the Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel for the military/diplomatic divergence).

All this demonstrates what we already know: that the mix of factors that motivate the policy of states are typically weighted differently at different times. As a result, the normal variance of interests within and between states also creates, in the case of the EU, inner-EU struggles of rival interests, currents of opinion and priorities. In short, the EU is not a monolithic or static bloc.

A friend with double-standards?

As a result, despite their hostility to the occupation of Palestinian territories, the EU states are not as hard on Israel as they might be. In fact, given their frequent critical statements and resolutions, the level of forbearance with Israel is striking. They are very happy to deal with Israel and the practical effects of their censures are mild. Of course, to ensure that these remain mild and can be ignored or rolled-back requires some method of influence – supposedly not available according to the grim hypothesis.

Unlike numerous tyrannies round the world, with which the EU states have little difficulty in dealing, Israel is seen as a state akin to themselves: modern, liberal and democratic. Consequently, unlike the really nasty regimes, Israel enjoys substantial support and has many fans within the EU. Obviously, this is not uniform, absolute or necessarily open. Yet this familiarity, closeness and sympathy, impossible with the really nasty regimes, makes EU criticism of Israel seem unwarrantably harsh. As a result, many see this as a sign of hypocrisy and double standards. So it is – especially when contrasted to EU indifference to and collaboration with the occupation of Northern Cyprus and Western Sahara.

But the proposition here is that this has less to do with anti-Semitism but is more a matter of the civilizational affinity of European and Israeli societies. As a result, the double standards of over-the-top criticism of Israel is sometimes scathingly referred to as the political correctness of post-colonial guilt. But this misses the point that its moral root is a sign of a far more secure relationship to the EU than typically admitted. This provides the source for political, cultural and moral opportunities that are currently impossible with Egypt or Turkey.

Historical and current vulnerability to outside pressures inevitably increases Israeli anxiety. Therefore, not to engage with reason, logic, truth and, above all, morality is to hand all these cards to the enemies of Israel. It gives a near-monopoly to the Palestinian narrative; it eases the passage for our enemies and makes it harder for our friends. It offers zero prospects of a way forward – only complaints of victimhood (compare to Palestinians habitually playing the victim).

But there is an additional set of circumstances that Israel must operate within which might offer opportunities regarding Europe. This is that the international scene is currently unusually fluid and dangerous. Apart from threats from Iran and IS, some of the most important features worth noting are:

  • US exhaustion with the ME;
  • the economic and political disarray within the EU and the resurgence of overt national interests;
  • the historic disintegration of the Sunni Arab states.

Because of the latter, the prospect of even greater regional catastrophe is not far away. For example, the possibility for the disintegration of the Egyptian state apparatus if President El-Sisi drops dead is probably high. Alternatively, if regime change in Egypt or economic or other circumstances compel the Saudis to halt subsidies to Egypt, the prospects for Egyptian economic and social collapse would soar. Even greater levels of violence and an almost limitless number of Muslims heading for Europe will result.

None of these circumstances is likely to be temporary. Therefore, Israel needs a cautious leadership that improves the economic and diplomatic positions and options for Israel incrementally without pushing the boat out too far. This is not to say that foolish and dangerous EU initiatives are impossible, but that they are unlikely. In the current situation, EU capacity and will to harm Israel is decreasing whereas Israel’s capacity to resist is increasing. At the same time, this growing economic and diplomatic weight also enhances the ability of Israel to impose stronger military measures in the West Bank if they become necessary or expand the application of Israeli sovereignty and settlements.

Morals and political positioning

Therefore, an approach to the EU is needed that emphasize Israel’s cultural and moral affinity with European liberal democratic values. Just as Catholicism expressed European ideology and interests in medieval times, so Human Rights plays a similar function now (according to Jonathan Sacks who I follow on this latter point).

A simple 2-point moral and diplomatic stance provides the basis for this:

  1. Yes, we are concerned for Palestinian dignity, human rights and their rights of national self-determination. All we require is that they reciprocate with a parallel concern for ours. Instead, they insist on denying the Jewish people the same rights they claim themselves. This is unfair, immoral and more or less unknown to the international public.
  2. Yes, the ideal solution would be the 2SS to end the conflict and accommodate both sets of national rights. All we require is that they offer reciprocal acceptance of our national rights. Instead, the Palestinians refuse Jews the same rights they claim for themselves. As before, this is unfair, immoral and not well-known internationally.

But the message is that without this acceptance by the Palestinians, how can Israel permit a state to be established on its borders that opposes its right to exist? Therefore, Israel’s perennial question to the international community and public needs to be how the creation of such a state could possibly end the conflict rather than be a recipe for further war – precisely what the UN was formed to prevent.

In any case, how could Israel rest its security on an agreement with an organization so unreliable, unstable and corrupt as the PA, which not only rejects Jewish national rights but also the HR of its own population? And how could Israel possibly rely on vague promises for normal diplomatic relations (the Saudi initiative), or warmer relations (El-Sisi) from an Arab world disintegrating before our eyes in blood?

Likewise, the existence of a government in Gaza dedicated to the destruction of Israel is a permanent threat to the core UN purpose of preserving peace. Yet endless news, analysis, interviews and press articles are churned-out in the foreign media without a single reference to this. At best, the international public may witness inconclusive references to whether Hamas is or is not a terrorist group, but absolutely nothing on its aim of permanent war to destroy Israel.

In other words, in relation to the international community, and the EU in particular, Israel has a good hand that is often badly played or not played at all. Naturally, no approach is capable of winning everyone or all EU states; there are always those prepared to insist that a penny is square. But this is not to say that no one can be won-over – although the fairly certain way to ensure that no one is won-over is not to fight.

All this points to the need to place questions at the center of Israel’s international and public diplomacy that are very important to Israel instead of allowing them to remain unheard and unknown to the international public – and thus easily avoided by international institutions. How well does Israel perform in this area? To give just three examples:

  1. President Rivlin has recently spoken to the European Parliament. In many ways a nice speech. But not a single word about any of the above or the key issues, such as settlements or legalities of the Palestinian Mandate.
  2. Ya’ir Lapid did OK on BBC’s Hardtalk, but not a word on these points.
  3. Likewise, Naftali Bennett did OK on Deutsche Welle’s Conflict Zone where he did mention the lack of Palestinian acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, but only in passing. No attempt was made to draw out the practical implications.

Coming across as nice guys and doing OK was, well, OK. But in all essentials, with an important audience such as the European Parliament and extended TV interviews seen by international audiences of MILLIONS, they totally missed key points that Israel needs to be known and understood. That is, there was no education of international audiences about Israel’s rights and claims or the real causes of the conflict. Precious opportunities were again missed (see, A Counter-Propaganda Project: message, means and method).

In conclusion, if EU states are capable of receiving, is Israel capable of transmitting? The answer is, of course, that it is. In which case, why is it not willing to transmit? Presumably, the reason is political. That is, hasbara explains and follows policy – although the difference may be hard to spot. Therefore, this presumably points to a policy-gap?

 

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