Conflict & Justice

Israel's public image problem

israel1.jpg

(Photo: Yoel-f)

By Matthew Bell

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that the country could face a "diplomatic tsunami" later this year. He was referring to an effort by the Palestinians to win recognition from the United Nations as an independent state. If that were to happen, Israeli officials have said that the country could experience unprecedented international isolation. These fears help explain a renewed Israeli effort aimed at boosting the country's global image.

That effort was on the agenda when a small group of Israeli lawmakers visited Brandeis University Monday as part of a US speaking tour. Brandeis would seem like friendly location. The school outside of Boston is named after Louis Brandeis, a Supreme Court Justice and Zionism supporter. It also has a lot of Jewish students, and a handful of them chose to disrupt the event with heckling.

One of the heckled officials was Avi Dichter, a member of Israel's parliament and former head of internal security. From the stage, Dichter shrugged off the interruption.

"Well, thank you very much. It"?s much easier than to crack down against terrorists," he said.

But afterward, Dichter suggested he and the other Israeli lawmakers didn't come to the United States to dismiss criticism from American Jews; they came to listen.

"It's the first time to really listen and not to brief," Dichter said.

When Israelis hear criticism from their Jewish friends abroad, many have the same reaction: if you want Israel to change, then move to Israel and vote; otherwise, keep quiet. But Dichter said Jews living in the US and elsewhere should have a say in shaping Israel's policies.

"They have many rights to tell us what should be done in order to increase the engagement and to strengthen the links between the Jews overseas and the state of Israel, not only with Judaism, but with the state of Israel," Dichter said.

Israel is intent on strengthening those links, especially at a time when the country is feeling increasingly isolated.
Global image problem

This week at Bar Ilan University outside of Tel Aviv, experts in public diplomacy and some Israeli officials gathered to talk about Israel's global image problem. Miri Eisen, a former spokeswoman for the Israeli military, said it's urgent.

"Israel now is the Goliath, the Palestinians are the David, and we still see ourselves as a David versus Goliath," she said.

Eisen said Israel needs to do a better job of explaining its actions to the rest of the world. Sometimes that means Israeli military action, she added, like the war in Gaza two years ago that killed an estimated 1,400 Palestinians.

"One of the aspects that we need to do is say, in very non-PC terms, we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't," Eisen said. "Israel needs to make our policy choices. When it comes to defending our civilians, we need to be able to act."

In the past, Israel has used the word "hasbara" to describe its efforts at explaining itself. But Israeli commentator Ron Ben-Yishai said the term is too repentant.

Hasbara includes a strong element of apology: "Like the famous saying in America – every time someone is being caught doing something wrong, you hear, it's not what you think it is," he said.
Israel as the bad guy

Others suggest Israeli diplomats might want to consider just changing the subject. Nicholas Cull, a professor of public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, said the Palestinians have a powerful narrative that paints Israel as the bad guy. Cull said Israel could put forward other narratives.

For instance, he said, there's an Israeli government program called The Voices of Israel"? that makes a point of seeking out people who are Israeli, but also happen to be black, or gay, or Muslim, or from Arab families, and asks them to talk about what Israel means to them.

"And what you find," Cull said, "is that these people are proud to say that they enjoy rights and a quality of life that they wouldn't enjoy anywhere else in the region."

Early this month, there was an indication of just how tough Israel"?s public diplomacy challenge is. A BBC-sponsored survey about global attitudes suggested that Israel is among the least popular countries on earth. Just three countries had more negative ratings: Pakistan, North Korea and Iran.