Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech is an exercise in public diplomacy, but is it a good one?
Israel’s public relations have been the subject of debate for some time now, leaving many wondering if Israel’s standing in the world should be better despite international pressure. Professor Eytan Gilboa, an expert in American-Israeli relations at the Begin-Sedat Center for Strategic Studies, sees Netanyahu cultivating the American base.
"Obviously his visit to the US, his speech at AIPAC and his speech in Congress are part of a public diplomacy effort. He wants to mobilize support for his position on the negotiations in Congress, whose representatives are a reflection of public opinion," Gilboa told Arutz Sheva.
He was quick to emphasize recent poll by CNN and Gallup polls showing a plurality of Americans support Netanyahu’s speech, a similar plurality are critical of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, and that sympathy for Israel relative to the Palestinian Arabs in the conflict is as high as ever (70%-17%).
Simply stated, the United States is still a strong platform for the Prime Minister, and he wanted to increase support for his position in a place with a strong base.
Yet those numbers can be a distraction for public diplomacy advocates. Beyond the US, Israel faces a very different challenge.
“Right now, the UK is the most hostile country outside the Muslim world because of such distorted media coverage of Israel. Problems are also apparent in France and Germany," Gilboa said.
That by no means implies Europe should be written off, he explains, noting Eastern Europe is not the hotbed of hostility that Western Europe is right now. Still, it would be better to consider expanding Israel’s area of focus in order to promote itself.
For Professor Gilboa, the focus has to shift to the east.
"Asia is interesting. Most people don’t know enough about the Middle East, so many choose not to have an opinion," he noted. “Public opinion in India and China is more sympathetic to the Palestinians, but the majority has no opinion. The challenge then is to cultivate that crowd. Even in Japan there is a lot of lack of knowledge, even apathy (to the Middle East).”
His comments seem to be indicative of what some like Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett have suggested: shifting east to reduce dependence on Europe.
But doing that still requires some changes in the resources Jerusalem allots to its public diplomats. It also includes taking a more strategic approach and becoming more assertive.
Nation branding is applying corporate branding techniques to countries. In Professor Gilboa’s mind, Israel has relied possibly too heavily on its so-called “hard power” relative to its “soft power.” Hard power should be understood mainly as military strength, perhaps also economic. Soft power refers to a country’s influence in culture, technology, diplomacy, religion and media, to give several examples.
But Professor Gilboa sees Israel’s brand as "hijacked."
“A term I coined to describe Israel’s is ‘brand-jacking.’ Israel has allowed its enemies to define the country, including alliance of radical leftists, the anti-Semitic right and Islamists. They are selling their own narrative at the expense of Israel’s," he warned.
His call includes hitting on a USP – a “unique selling point” – that would distinguish Israel as a country in the perception of people around the world. Marketing Israel as “The Start-Up Nation” is part of that effort. But Gilboa feels public diplomacy has not been applied well in Israel’s foreign policy.
“I think this summer we actually saw better results with public diplomacy during Operation Protective Edge, especially in social media," Gilboa stated. "But we do not see enough trained people or money going into it, let alone official diplomacy. The resources are minimal, small and insufficient.”
He says that Europe is not a lost cause, and even goes so far as to say that Israel has “given up” on the Islamic world with very little effort.
“Israel is not trying to reach the Islamic world. People there are hungry for more information," he said. "They do not know a lot about the country.”
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
“Many private organizations, NGOs, are ready to do public diplomacy for Israel. Yet, there’s not enough ammunition or coordination. There is also too much duplication," he opined.
The professor’s last point argues that with little coordination among dozens of independent organizations, some issues are being addressed in the public sphere while “certain areas have been totally neglected.”
“Trying to show the other face of Israel – ‘The Start-Up Nation’ – attracts attention, but it is very difficult for that to obscure the negative effects of other issues," he added, noting detractors would say "that’s great that you have a lot of start-ups, but you’re still occupying the Palestinians."
“Israel is not doing enough offense – it’s either weak or non-existent. Attack back. Let’s talk about issues in other countries.” When it comes to peace, Israel “needs to appear as the interested party, then expose the other side’s faults and actual lack of interest in making peace.”
Think Outside the Box
At the end of our discussion, the professor brought up an example.
“I was at an expo in Beijing. Israel had a booth there, which was very popular. Something that the organizers did was they brought a statue of Albert Einstein and placed it at the entrance, directing people to the Israeli booth," he said.
The professor concluded "I thought that was clever. Many Chinese, again, don’t know much about Israel. Associating Einstein with the country communicated something smart and sophisticated to the attendees."