Analysis from Israel

Responding to last week’s column about the importance of stressing Israel’s achievements rather than its failures, a reader wrote that while she agreed with me, this alone wouldn’t suffice to fix Israel’s broken public diplomacy. And of course, she’s right, because that column addressed only one of two major flaws in Israel’s public diplomacy. The other is no less important: Quite simply, Israel needs to stop arguing the Palestinians’ case and start arguing its own.

I can’t think of another conflict in history where one side devoted so much time and energy to selling the world the other side’s narrative rather than its own. And then, after two decades of actively supporting the two most important Palestinians claims against it, Israel actually wonders why the world views it as the villain.

Claim number one is that the West Bank and Gaza are “occupied Palestinian territory.” This is a crucial issue, because if Israel is just a thief occupying stolen Palestinian land, then it has no right to retain any of this land or set any conditions on its return, and deserves opprobrium for even daring to pose such demands. In contrast, if Israel has a valid claim to these lands, then it’s being laudably generous in offering the Palestinians a state there and has every right to impose conditions on this generosity, like retaining certain areas or demanding specific security arrangements.

Official Israeli spokesmen don’t back this Palestinian claim in so many words. But they do talk constantly about the Palestinians’ “right” to establish a state in these lands, while talking only sporadically about Israel’s own legal and historical rights there. And needless to say, Palestinians don’t return the favor: They talk constantly about their own rights and never about Israel’s rights.

Moreover, Israel’s talk of Palestinian “rights” actually undermines the credibility of its own claims. After all, if Israel truly has the best legal claim to the land, why would Palestinians have any right to a state there? So by declaring that Palestinians do have such a right, Israeli spokesmen imply that even Israel doesn’t quite believe its own claim.

Thus for most of world, deciding who really owns the land becomes a no-brainer: The Palestinian claim looks much stronger. After all, both sides agree unequivocally that the Palestinians have rights there, so that must be true. In contrast, Israel asserts its own claims only half-heartedly, while Palestinians deny them outright; hence Israel’s claims seem dubious.

Or in other words, Palestinians are fighting the PR war full-time on their own behalf, while Israel is fighting only part-time for itself, and part-time for the enemy. And needless to say, that’s no way to win a war.

Claim number two is that Israel is the main obstacle to peace. Again, official Israeli spokesmen never back this claim in so many words. But they do constantly refer to the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, as “partners for peace” and other such terms, whereas they only sporadically accuse the Palestinians of being peace rejectionists. And here, too, Palestinians never return the favor; their official spokesmen relentlessly term Israel the principal obstacle to peace – and usually, a genocidal apartheid state to boot.

Moreover, even when Israel does try to claim that the Palestinians are the main obstacle to peace, the credibility of this claim is undermined by its constant talk of the PA and Abbas as partners for peace. After all, the Palestinians can’t simultaneously be genuine peace-seekers and serial peace rejectionists. Hence by constantly making the former assertion, Israeli spokesmen imply that even Israel doesn’t quite believe the latter.

Thus when the international community must decide whom to blame for the lack of peace, it’s a no-brainer. Both sides agree the Palestinians are genuine peace-seekers, so they obviously can’t be the guilty party. Hence the PA must be right that Israel is to blame.

Or in other words, on this issue, too, Palestinians are fighting the PR war full-time on their own behalf, whereas Israel is fighting only part-time for itself, and part-time for the enemy.

Admittedly, Israel’s public diplomacy is hampered by the fact that sizable portions of the Israeli left openly back both Palestinian claims. And since Israel is a democracy, the government can’t change this.

But it can and must change the way official spokesmen effectively support the Palestinian narrative every single day. Israel must stop pleading the Palestinians’ case rather than its own, and instead start fighting on its own behalf as continuously, unequivocally and single-mindedly as the Palestinians do.

Israel should relentlessly expound Israel’s own rights to the land (for a primer, see here), while casting its offers of Palestinian statehood as unprecedented generosity rather than a Palestinian “right.” It should relentlessly paint the Palestinians as serial rejectionists who have turned down every peace plan of the last 20 years. It should relentlessly highlight the nonstop incitement by senior PA officials and the official PA media – like Abbas’s award of a “military star of honor” last month to a terrorist who tried to blow up a movie theater; or a recent sermon declaring that Jews use children’s blood to make matzah, delivered at a venue (Al-Aqsa Mosque) where all activities require prior approval by the PA Ministry of Religious Affairs; or PA soccer association chairman Jibril Rajoub’s famous statement that “If we had a nuke, we’d have used it [against Israel] this very morning.” And it must relentlessly highlight the Palestinian refusal to acknowledge any Jewish connection to the land, to the point of blatantly falsifying history – for instance, its denial that the historically well-documented Second Temple ever existed.

Israel has one huge advantage in this war: All the claims it can and should be making against the Palestinians are true, whereas Palestinian claims against Israel are frequently egregious lies. But the Palestinians tell their lies consistently and wholeheartedly, never offering any support for Israel’s truths, whereas Israel tells its truths sporadically and half-heartedly, while offering frequent support to Palestinian lies. And as long as that continues, the lies will be victorious. You can’t win a PR war by fighting on the enemy’s side.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on June 11, 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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