How did we get here? How is it possible? Consider the irony that after all these years Jews have become better soldiers than speakers, better at brute force than at persuasion. Israel has won the military battles, but lost on the battlefields of public diplomacy and world opinion, where it struggles to keep up with its enemies, who, over the decades, have managed to make their narrative of the conflict the dominant one in the world.
Even the most sympathetic voices often assume that the root cause of the conflict is Israel’s so-called “illegal occupation” and the denial of the democratic and national aspirations of millions of Palestinians. Many people grudgingly acknowledge that it is difficult to negotiate with extremists such as Hamas, whose human rights abuses and terrorism are well known, but nevertheless see Israel as having the moral responsibility, as well as political and military power to solve the conflict.
What is the way forward? The situation seems so dire that many have given up hope, attributing the lost narrative to anti-Semitism, fatalistically asserting that no matter what Israel does, the justice of its cause will never be seen, much less acknowledged. Whilst there is certainly some truth in this, I strongly believe, speaking from personal experience, that to accept the lost diplomacy and public relations battle is a terrible strategic mistake. Living and working in South Africa, which is a country that has a natural sympathy for the Palestinian cause, given the shared history of the ANC and the PLO, it has been my experience that aside from a small percentage of hardened antagonists, the vast majority of people are fair-minded and open to hearing Israel’s side of the conflict, provided it is rationally argued and well presented.
Reclaiming the narrative requires a radical revolution in Israeli government philosophy and policy. The Iron Dome, the main celebrity of the latest Gaza war, epitomizes the kind of paradigm shift that has to take place. The Iron Dome has become the newest symbol of Israel’s creativity and strength in establishing itself as the regional super-power with armed forces which inspire the admiration of friends and the trepidation of foes. Israel now needs what one could call ‘Iron Dome diplomacy’. The same kind of brilliance, resources and creativity that have dazzled the world with the Iron Dome, needs to be harnessed to dazzle the world in the realm of diplomacy and public relations. A paradigm shift is needed. Israel must invest the time, strategic thinking, financial and human resources necessary to create diplomatic and public relations capabilities to match its military supremacy.
Some things have improved, like the recent pro-active cyber campaign during the Gaza war. “Pillar of Defense” was a much better name than “Cast Lead”, which must surely go down in history as the worst public relations name for a military operation to protect Israeli citizens, but which made it sound aggressive and even brutal. Prime Minister Netanyahu has become Israel’s most effective public spokesmen to the world, and the government now has its own dedicated public relations ministry.
But this is merely tinkering with the system. What is needed is a paradigm shift to ‘Iron Dome diplomacy’, which requires a comprehensive and integrated strategy to persuade world opinion of the justice of the cause of the State of Israel. In broad strokes, it requires the Israeli government to, firstly, build a communications organization to rival the IDF in budget, human resources and strategic thinking. Teams of the best and the brightest must be assembled to create a world-wide dazzling and sustained communications campaigns in all print and electronic media, in a scientific manner testing messaging through polls and focus groups in key countries across the world. ‘Iron Dome diplomacy’, secondly, requires developing a comprehensive and pro-active plan to create and strengthen international alliances with leading people and organizations in all areas of society, such as government, business, religion, academia and media. This means Israel developing an organization, on the same level of excellence as its security forces, which can pro-actively reach out to these groupings in important countries, and engage with them through meetings, seminars and trips to Israel. Proactive and systematic analysis of the dynamics of a particular country to identify prospective allies and adversaries and to develop appropriate programs to interact with them, is crucial. An example of what is not ‘Iron Dome diplomacy, is that recently a multi-party delegation of South African members of Parliament who were planning to visit Israel were informed by the Israeli government that they could not host them due to the upcoming elections. Although the visit was later postponed because of the war, the decision to allow the delegation to be hosted by those hostile to Israel demonstrates a complete lack of commitment to defending and improving Israel’s global reputation.
At the heart and soul of these ambitious operations, whether creating media campaigns or diplomatic alliances, must be the conviction of the justice of the cause of the State of Israel, the belief that, accepting the obvious frailties of human error, the Jewish people and state have morality on our side, whether in terms of our Biblical and historical rights to the land of Israel, or the numerous peace-making efforts over the decades, including Israeli attempts to create a Palestinian state through a negotiated settlement, only to be rebuffed time and again. The conviction in the morality of the IDF needs to be conveyed through examples which demonstrate that Israel’s armed forces behave with more restraint than any military in the history of human civilization. Israel’s disproportionate contribution to human development needs to be spoken about. It also needs to be expanded. Israel’s humanitarian efforts, and especially using its creativity in technology, medicine and science, should be dramatically increased to help alleviate human suffering around the world, which fulfills the mitzvot of kindness and Kiddush Hashem, builds alliances and goes to the essence of the global debate around the morality and justice of the cause of the State of Israel.
This paradigm shift would be a revolution philosophically and historically. In Israel’s early years its leaders realized that a Jewish state in the Middle East would only survive if it had powerful military capabilities. Public relations and diplomacy, by contrast, were traditionally regarded as an after-thought at best, and un-Zionistic, at worst. For many of these leaders, leaving behind the exile to create a new kind of Jew and a free and independent country was expressed in the famous words of Prime Minister David ben Gurion, “It doesn’t matter what the gentiles think, but what the Jews do.”
Israel now needs a new way, one which is rooted in our eternal Torah principles. The Sages of the Talmud instruct us to implement the moral and strategic imperative of “darchei shalom” – good relations between the Jewish people and the nations of the world. This is not merely an abstract ideal but a practical Halachic principle: any action taken to avoid causing hatred towards Jews from the nations of the world, what the Talmud calls “eivah”, is governed by the laws of ‘pikuach nefesh’ – the mandate to save life, for which most other mitzvot are suspended.
The Halachah’s wisdom is particularly relevant in today’s political climate, which requires Iron Dome diplomacy and public relations to shoot down the barrage of lies and defamations that are just as lethal to the future security of Israel as suicide bombers and terrorist rockets. Negative attitudes towards Israel are actually life-threatening, to Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Crucial military and policy decisions are made due to Israel’s poor diplomatic standing in the world. Safety of soldiers and civilians is compromised because Israel not being able to deploy appropriate military strength for fear of world reprisal. Because of its weak public image, Israel is forced to fight under constraints that no other country in the recorded history has ever had to contend with.
Powerful international forces seek to deligitmize and demonize the State of Israel. This campaign presents an existential threat to Israel. Having grown up in South Africa during the height of the international sanctions and boycott campaign, I can tell you that a country treated as a pariah struggles to survive. Apartheid South Africa at the time was a very strong country from a military and economic point of view, and yet the sustained pressure of sanctions and boycotts broke the morale of white South Africans and, thankfully, contributed to the eventual demise of the apartheid regime. The international boycott movement directed against Israel seeks to draw the false and libelous analogy between South Africa and Israel. And even though it is a campaign based on lies and hatred, nevertheless it has a chance of succeeding, and needs to be fought with the same professionalism, comprehensive strategy and determination as any military battle would require. It is a matter of ‘pikuach nefesh’ – life and death.