Analysis from Israel

Commenting last week on Israel’s surprising ninth-place Eurovision finish, achieved thanks to votes from millions of usually anti-Israel Europeans, Avshalom Halutz of Haaretz wrote sarcastically that the dramatic improvement over previous results “seems to validate Israel’s decision…to send its carefree ‘Golden Boy’ party anthem to Eurovision, after years of trying in vain to find favor with the Europeans with apologetic and hypocritical songs about peace and tolerance, and failed gimmicks like candlelight or a duet between a Jewish and an Arab singer.” Despite being an exaggeration, there’s something to what he says. And it’s something that goes to the heart of what’s wrong with Israel’s public diplomacy effort.

Because while most of Israel’s Eurovision entries don’t actually focus on peace (aside from the one Jewish-Arab duet Halutz mentioned), its real-world public diplomacy definitely does. Indeed, public relations experts have told us for years that only by constantly stressing Israel’s desire for peace can it possibly win Western hearts. Yet somehow, this “expert” strategy keeps failing – and this failure shouldn’t actually surprise anyone.

To understand why, consider one of history’s epic PR battles: the American-Soviet one. During their five-decade Cold War, Americans and Soviets fought militarily, economically and diplomatically. But they also waged a worldwide battle for public opinion – just as Israel and the Palestinians are doing (on a smaller scale) today. The USSR, for instance, funded pro-Communist front groups throughout the West, while America created global radio stations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

But ultimately, America won on the PR front no less decisively than it did on other fronts. So it’s worth examining how and why.

Clearly, one factor is that America invested heavily in this fight – something Israel, unlike the Palestinians, has signally failed to do. But since the Soviets also invested massively in public diplomacy, resources alone can’t explain America’s victory.

Another factor is that America had a genuinely compelling narrative to tell about itself: one of freedom, opportunity and economic growth. But at least initially, the Soviet narrative – of economic development combined with equality and social justice – seemed no less compelling. Indeed, the Communist vision attracted millions of adherents worldwide throughout the Cold War.

So why did America’s vision ultimately triumph over the equally compelling Communist one? The answer is that America sold a vision it could actually deliver on: America really did provide freedom, opportunity and economic development. In contrast, as the decades passed, it became increasingly clear that the USSR couldn’t deliver on its vision. The Soviet Union ultimately provided neither equality nor social justice nor economic growth. And a failed promise is not a compelling narrative; it provokes deep disappointment that can easily morph into anger and disgust.

Yet a failed promise is precisely what Israel has been trying to sell the world for 20 years now. For two decades, the main story Israel has told about itself is that it wants peace. And since peace is clearly an attractive value, this story initially generated global enthusiasm.

But 20 years later, Israel still hasn’t achieved peace – which means that judged on its own terms, Israel is a failure. And a failure is the opposite of a compelling story: It provokes disappointment, anger and disgust.

What’s shocking about this is that Israel has numerous compelling stories to tell that it really has delivered on: the Jewish people’s rebirth from the ashes of the Holocaust, the only democracy in the Middle East, making the desert bloom, the ingathering of the exiles after 2,000 years, the West’s front line against Islamic extremism, the start-up nation, and much more. Each of these stories could be attractive to particular audiences. For instance, making the desert bloom might not resonate in water-rich Scandinavia, but it certainly could in drought-stricken places like California and China, both of which signed bilateral agreements last year under which Israel will share its water-management expertise and technologies with them.

Indeed, if you examine Israel’s supporters around the world – and it still has many – you’ll find very few who admire it mainly because of its desire for peace. Israel’s supporters admire it for its successes, not its failures. In America, for instance, Israel is admired as the Mideast’s only democracy and an ally in the battle against Islamic terror. Evangelical Christians worldwide support Israel because the Jewish return to Zion after 2,000 years resonates with Biblical prophesies. In China and India, Israel is generally admired for its high-tech innovations. And so forth.

Moreover, these successes have far more to do with what Israel is all about than its failure to make peace does. While peace is obviously a good thing, and it would be nice if Israel could achieve it, it isn’t Israel’s raison d’etre. Israel’s raison d’etre is to create a thriving Jewish state in the Jewish people’s historic homeland – something at which it has been stunningly successful.

But in contrast to American public diplomacy during the Cold War, which talked constantly about the public goods, like freedom and opportunity, that America really provided, Israel’s public diplomacy over the past 20 years has focused almost exclusively on its desire to make peace and to create a Palestinian state. In short, it has focused on Israel’s failures rather than its successes. And it has thereby created the impression that Israel itself is a failure – because it has created the impression that Israel should be judged by its success or failure in making peace rather than its success or failure in creating a flourishing Jewish state.

This year’s Eurovision entry, by contrast, reminded audiences not of Israel’s failures, but of one of its myriad successes: The admittedly inane lyrics were about the fun life in Tel Aviv. And millions of viewers responded.

This, on a more sophisticated level, is precisely what Israel’s public diplomacy should be doing. Because if Israel reduces itself to nothing but a failed effort at peace-making, it can hardly blame the world for doing the same. Only by portraying itself as it really is – a rousing success on multiple fronts – can Israel hope to persuade the world to see it the same way.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on June 3, 2015

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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