Monday, August 18, 2008

The failure of hasbara

Martin Sherman has this column at Ynet today, intriguingly entitled "Explaining Israel's PR failure." That's always a fascinating and frustrating topic. And he actually provides some answers. Or part of an answer.

For many, both in Israel and abroad, the failure of Israeli diplomacy and public relations (Hasbara) is difficult to understand. After all, the Jewish State has many features that, prime facie, should bestow on it the unqualified support of Western democracies: Free fair (and frequent) elections, general gender equality, religious freedom, an open press, tolerance of sexual preferences and so on. Even if in everyday practice there are flaws and imperfections in some of these areas, they are certainly far closer to the desired ideal than in any of its Muslim adversaries and certainly more so than the areas under Palestinian rule (or misrule.)

In fact, the explanation of the failure is very simple – although it may not be easy to accept. For the truth of the matter is that Israel is losing the battle for world opinion because…it simply has no desire to win! At first glance this explanation seems inconceivable. However, an even a cursory examination of the facts will suffice to provide solid evidence to support it.

But the evidence doesn't. Or does it? He goes on to say, for example, that both Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin were elected on the basis of tough, anti-appeasement platforms that they abandoned once they got into office. True. But his explanation for that turn of events doesn't work.

In actual fact, people who dominate the socio-political mechanisms and in effect are those who "make things happen" in Israel comprise a trinity of elites who, although unelected, impose their views on the general public with great effectiveness. These are the elites in the legal establishment, in the mainstream media, and in academia (at least that portion of academia that interfaces with the previous two elites – principally in the faculties of the social sciences and the humanities, where the politically-correct dominates the factually- correct.)

Thus for example the legal elite can obstruct any assertive initiative that the elected polity may wish to implement (as was the case with the attempt to cut-off the electricity supply to Gaza); similarly, the media elite can initiate any concessionary initiative that the elected polity may be loathe to implement (as was the case with the Disengagement and, to a large degree, with Oslo); and when the stamp of professional approval is required, the amenable academic elite is ever-ready to provide it.

But it was neither the courts nor the media nor the academy that drove the Oslo and disengagement engines. It was a change of heart inspired and/or encouraged by a trusted political sidekick (Peres, Olmert). Could Rabin and Sharon have gotten away with it if Sherman's triumverate of defeat (courts, media, academics) hadn't collaborated? Hard to say. Sharon ignored the consensus in his own party so surely he wasn't beholden to the popular will. But, anyway, what does that have to do with the failure of hasbara?

Sherman's analysis of the insecurities, the narcissism and the avoidance of cognitive dissonance that power the elites' world view is spot on, IMO. But it doesn't explain the government's seeming inability to do what the Arabs have done so well for so long: effectively represent its point of view in the court of world opinion. Israel's hasbara couldn't be muzzled by the courts, the media and the intelligensia ... if Israel actually had a program of hasbara. But it doesn't.

In this respect, Sherman is assuredly correct that Israel seems not to want to win the PR war. But of course that's ridiculous. Isn't it? Unfortunately, Deputy PM Ehud Olmert said it best, in front of the Israel Policy Forum more than three years ago:

We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies, we want that we will be able to live in an entirely different environment of relations with our enemies. We want them to be our friends, our partners, our good neighbors, and I believe that this is not impossible.
What or who is responsible for this fatigue? Is it the courts, the media, the academics? Surely they contribute, but it is has to be something more. That's what I'm still looking for and haven't been able to find yet. Sherman again.

Thus a situation has been created in which Israel finds itself unable to embark on a offensive strategic Hasbara initiative designed to defeat its adversaries, and thus restricts itself to tactical defensive responses, designed merely to temporarily ward of enemy offensives and doomed to inevitable failure.

This then is the explanation for Israel's abysmal performance in the fight for public opinion. Remedying this regrettable condition is not any easy task. While the difficulties should not be underestimated – neither should they be over-estimated. As with any problem, the first stage toward a solution requires an accurate articulation of the issues involved as a necessary condition for their diagnosis and for the formulation of ways to contend with them.

The precise details of these formulae for solutions constitute a topic for a separate discussion, but their overriding objective would be to publicly expose those responsible for the diplomatic debacle, unveil their myopia and their malice, undermine their standing, and erode their status. This is the only way to neutralize their influence and the enormous damage that they inflict on the nation.

But Sherman is mostly describing effects here, of whatever-it-is. Not so much the cause. Still looking ...