February 21, 2011

Public diplomacy without credibility

I should, by most units of measure, be a strong supporter of Israel. I grew up in the US, usually considered pro-Israel to a fault, have many Jewish and even a few Israeli friends, and am politically open to new information. But I don’t buy their public diplomacy machine. Why?

The term hasbara means “explanation” but it has come to characterize Israeli public diplomacy as a whole. Its all about information, and lots of it, from videos to press releases and targeted news articles. But a quick google gives more information about the Israeli “propaganda machine” than any of their own diplomatic releases. Again, why? Because “‘the failure of the State of Israel in the realm of Hasbara [explaining] ... especially in everything related to the Israeli–Palestinian con´Čéict, is an established fact’” (Gilboa quoting Schleifer). Even Israeli National News has run a story to that effect.

Sure, the ongoing Palestinian conflict is a lot to overcome, but for a long time Israel’s world image was much better than it is now (PD wiki). The problem seems to stem from how they go about their public diplomacy (at least according to critics): heavy handed, explanation-heavy to the point of propaganda (Huffington Post). And as soon as the word propaganda gets thrown around, your credibility is gone.

My first semester of graduate school, in a class on, yes, propaganda, an Israeli student who did a lot of PR work brought a client, an Israeli PD-type official, to class to speak during an official US PR tour. His prepared speech was fine, informational even. Then he (yes, the PD official) and a Muslim student (yes, just a student) spent the next hour arguing policies and actions. Like, really arguing to the point that no other student could intervene, and we all left. (Quietly, in case we suddenly became targets.) Not his finest hour, I’m sure, but it also seemed to reflect on the Israeli policy as a whole – “deny, deny, deny.” (Huffington Post)

Given the Huffington Post’s how-to list for Israeli “propaganda,” its easy to call its tactics strategic communication: define the debate, have a unified message, anticipate your opponent’s actions. But it is in no way engagement, or even communication, doesn’t build social power, soft power, or any other type of power. As Hayden mentioned in class, (quoting Ben Moore?) establishing credibility is an act of power in and of itself. And that’s soft power that Israel doesn’t have.

Gilboa’s defense of Israel might not be unwarranted, given the tone of the most media outlets, but most of all he points out how important an effective PD campaign is to their foreign policy objectives and world image. Their legitimacy as a state depends on it.

Huffington Post, “How Israel's Propaganda Machine Works,” 9 January 2009.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-zogby/how-israels-propaganda-ma_b_156767.html

Etyan Gilboa, “Public Diplomacy: The Missing Component in Israel’s Foreign Policy.”

PD Wiki, Israel, http://publicdiplomacy.wikia.com/wiki/Israel

Israel National News, “Melanie Phillips: Israeli Public Diplomacy is a Joke,” 11 January 2011.


  1. Interesting post, Lindsey! We may have to check out a few of these links for our group paper. So out of curiosity, what would you propose for an "effective" PD effort?

  2. Nice post. Part of the problem with Israeli PD- as well as many others, I could offer a long list- is that they do zero listening. Listening isn't always especially part of Israeli culture (Check out a funny book on Israeli diplomacy called "Shut up, I'm Talking). The PD is often explanation overdrive, without ever listening to the critiques. Israel does do some PD very well. It is often an early adopter of new systems (Facebook, twitter) and also has some great hybrid initiatives like Israel21c that promote Israel beyond the conflict.