Israel’s reputation is a national security matter: Here are 5 ways it can be improved – opinion

Post-October 7, Israel must realize that its reputation is an integral part of its national security. Continuing to ignore its reputational crisis can be costly.

Source: Jerusalem Post

t is almost unanimously accepted, especially by the country’s well-wishers, that Israel suffers from chronically bad PR. “Not good enough hasbara,” people complain.

“Hasbara” is the awkward Hebrew expression that describes the practice of self-promotion in advocacy on behalf of Israel. “Hasbara” (from lehasbir, to explain) is often perceived as “public relations” (PR). 

In times of great national anxiety, such as triggered by October 7, hasbara becomes an obsession. It is synonymous with a collective yearning for a positive image and messaging.

Yet Israel’s problem is not PR, it’s positioning. 

Positioning references actions, principles, and processes that, when implemented, can improve the performance and perception of a place, organization, or product. Positioning targets the consumer’s brain and is measured vis-a-vis the perceived competition. Good positioning requires a competitive edge and long-term vision. It is based on thorough research and the ability to articulate an effective overall strategy.

ONE OF the most common and discussed positioning in international relations is the “underdog.” 

The dichotomy of might vs right implies that whoever is viewed as the underdog enjoys a built-in advantage. Humans emotionally connect with underdogs for the same reason they develop attachments to babies, toddlers, and puppies: These are viewed as helpless creatures who need our help. We feel good when we care for the weak and the needy. 

The emotional, physiological and neurological mechanisms binding us to the underdog are so powerful that it is almost impossible for us to believe that the underdog can be wrong; let alone be brutal, vicious, or deadly. 

This concept could be described as the “purity of the underdog,” a philosophy originating in Europe. French Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre proposed solely examining the question of right vs wrong through the eyes of the disadvantaged. Some, conveniently, interpreted this as an automatic justification to any action taken by the perceived “oppressed.” 

As demonstrated by Western academia post-October 7, this simplistic, two-dimensional definition of humanism has become intoxicating. At least, they feel good about themselves. Indeed, the purity of the underdog concept leads to bizarre pairings such as “Queers for Palestine” and feminists who view rape as a legitimate form of resistance. 

Thus, Israel finds itself in an ongoing and acute reputational predicament.

HISTORICALLY, EVEN pre-statehood, Israel firmly held the position of the underdog. A series of dramatic events cemented Israel’s positioning as the “regional David.”

The ongoing refusal of Arab/Palestinian leadership to accept any political compromise, the 1937 Peel Commission, and 1947 UN’s Partition Plan deprived the Arab world of the favoritism that comes with the positioning of the underdog. 

Instead, the Arabs quickly became the “regional Goliath.” The horrors of the Holocaust were followed by the refusal of the British Mandate to take in Jewish refugees. Then, on December 2, 1945, the newly formed Arab League launched a comprehensive and aggressive Arab economic boycott of the Jewish community of Palestine. The 1967 Khartoum Resolution, with its “Three Noes” and the geopolitical predicament that led to the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War, further fortified Israel’s positioning as the underdog.

Underdog positioning provided the benefit of support by key international actors in the lead up to the United Nations Partition Plan vote, as well as important military figures; iconic Hollywood stars and executives, and, of course, a long line of philanthropists who created the country’s new civic, educational, and economic infrastructure.

But all that changed in June of 1982. 

Israel’s decision to invade Lebanon, following a series of PLO attacks – including an attempt to assassinate Israel’s ambassador to the UK – was viewed as controversial by the Israelis themselves. Israel slowly started vacating its position as the underdog and it has been deteriorating ever since. 

The First Intifada (1987), the Second Intifada (2000), and the periodic inflammations with the Palestinians produced an abundance of “bad news” and crowned the latter as the underdogs. 

How can Israel fix its image?

What can be done now? 

Israel must invest heavily in targeting the members of the international public who are uninterested and uninformed. Providing these demographics with opportunities to connect with Israel is a critical mission for the country. A recent Pew Research Center study (March 21, 2024) concluded that they accounted for 70% of Americans. In order to do so effectively, several things must happen:

First, the humanizing of brand “Israel” by broadening the scope of the country’s visibility, allowing the 70% to become familiar with the human face of the Israeli people. A robust national cyber force will be needed. 

Second, Israel must provide massive assistance to the wide range of initiatives organized in the Jewish world that pursue and prosecute Jew-haters and antisemites. Those who engage in antisemitic activities, spread hate, and threaten to harm Israel and the United States must be named, shamed, and pursued. This must be a long-term determent effort, involving legal action and beyond. 

Third, Israel must make financial investments in changing the academic conversation. This can be done by investing in young academics in the fields of humanities and social studies, endowing chairs, and supporting existing organizations that are trying to tame the currently out-of-control DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) culture. The establishment of Israel Studies centers at leading universities has been used by administrators as an excuse to exclude Israel-related content from mainstream academic venues. Israel must go back to basics and refuse to lock up all its content in one academic enclave.

Fourth, Israel must leave the uniform-wearing IDF officers out of the effort to boost its reputation. In many quarters of the Western world, especially among American liberals, military force is illegitimate (police force, too). The IDF’s dominance in the realm of PR (messaging predominantly designed for domestic consumption) is one of Israel’s main reputational obstacles.

Israel’s message must be imparted by civilians, preferably professional diplomats.

Fifth, there must be huge investment in the tourism industry, in exposing international trend-setters to Israel. Third-party endorsements are far more effective than classic hasbara. This effort should center around displaying Israel’s niche strengths and be led by the Tourism Ministry and individual municipalities. 

Post-October 7, official Israel must realize that its reputation is an integral part of its national security. Continuing to ignore its reputational crisis can be costly. 

IT IS critical for Israel’s decision-makers to internalize that this is not about being “right.” 

Sadly, truth and facts have become simply “alternative narratives.” 

This is about being “attractive” and “relevant.” 

There is no PR in the world that can overcome bad positioning. Israel needs to engage in a historical effort to nurture and boost its brand globally. 

Israel must invest in its own reputation, on a scale as never before – billions, not millions. ■

The writer served as Israel’s Consul General in New York (2010-2016), founded the Brand Israel Program after 9/11, and serves as faculty at both Tel Aviv University and Touro University.

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