Israel Cranks Up the PR Machine
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, October 6, 2013. (Reuters/Gali Tibbon/Pool)
In the post-Oslo era, as the strategy that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle refers to as “peace without peace” captured the Israeli consensus, human rights activists ratcheted up grassroots efforts to challenge the occupation of Palestine and Israel’s prevailing structure of ethno-religious discrimination. Popularly known as BDS, the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israeli institutions involved in occupation has generated shock waves in international pro-Israel circles and within the top levels of Israel’s military-intelligence apparatus. The government-linked Reut Institute has designated BDS as a key national security threat and produced a blueprint for sabotaging Palestine solidarity networks around the world.
While paranoia mounts inside Israeli policy circles about the rising tide of nonviolent global resistance, Netanyahu has grown obsessed with Israel’s withering image in the West. Under his guidance, the term “delegitimization” has become a household word signifying BDS and nearly everything done in the name of exposing Israel’s violations of international law. And thanks to Netanyahu’s instigation, Barack Obama has become the first American president to explicitly pledge to battle the pressure campaign.
Groping for a convenient solution to its public relations problems, the Israeli government has turned to hasbara. The literal meaning of this Hebrew word is “explanation,” but when put into practice, most informed observers recognize it as propaganda. The more the State of Israel relies on force to manage the occupation, the more it feels compelled to deploy hasbara. And the more Western media consumers encounter hasbara, the more likely they are to measure Israel’s grandiose talking points against the routine and petty violence, shocking acts of humiliation and repression that define its treatment of the Palestinians.
Under the leadership of Netanyahu—a professional explainer himself, who spent the early years of his political career as a frequent guest on prime-time American news programs perfecting the slickness of the Beltway pundit class—the Israeli government has invested unprecedented resources into hasbara. Once the sole responsibility of the foreign ministry, the task of disseminating hasbara now falls on a special Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, led until 2013 by Yuli Edelstein, a right-wing settler and government minister who has called Arabs a “despicable nation.” (Edelstein is now speaker of the Knesset.)
Edelstein’s ministry boasts an advanced “situation room,” a paid media team, and coordination of a volunteer force that claims to include thousands of bloggers, tweeters and Facebook commenters who are fed the latest talking points and then flood social media with hasbara in five languages. The exploits of the propaganda soldiers conscripted into Israel’s online army have helped give rise to the phenomenon of the “hasbara troll,” an often faceless, shrill and relentless nuisance deployed on Twitter and Facebook to harass public figures who express skepticism about official Israeli policy or sympathy for the Palestinians. These efforts have been complemented by the office of the prime minister, the IDF spokesperson’s unit, and the ministry of tourism and culture, each of which hosts newly created hasbara units. Even the Jewish Agency, a state-funded para-governmental organization primarily engaged in absorbing and settling new Jewish immigrants, employs a full-time social media operative named Avi Mayer, who spends his days on Twitter attacking Palestine solidarity activists with usually baseless claims of anti-Semitism and deception.
Whether they like it or not, every Jewish Israeli citizen is a potential recruit for the national hasbara brigade. While Tel Aviv University sends hasbara delegations to campuses across Europe and the United States, the National Union of Israeli Students offers Israeli college students $2,000 to spread propaganda “from the comfort of home.” El Al Airlines deploys its flight attendants in American cities to make the case for Israel during specially allotted paid vacation days. Meanwhile, back at Ben Gurion International Airport, large billboards posted by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy instruct Israelis to “be good diplomats” when they travel abroad. By corralling an entire population into promoting Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” the state strengthens a culture that treats dissent and critical inquiry with instinctive hostility.
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In 2005, the American reality TV program The Apprentice reappeared in Israel as The Ambassador, a hit show featuring hundreds of Israeli citizens engaging in heated hasbara competitions before a national audience and a panel of judges that included top army generals and journalists. At stake were cash prizes, a chance to speak in international parliaments and the adulation of their fellow citizens. At a 2010 conference of liberal intellectuals in Herzliya sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the think tank of the German Green Party, I encountered the winner of the second season of The Ambassador. She was pretty in a classically telegenic way, slender and extremely poised. The 30-year-old woman in a gray pantsuit was Melody Sucharewicz, but to many Israelis who viewed her as a celebrity, she was simply known as “Melody.” Since her victory, Sucharewicz has spoken about Israel’s “quest for peace” at the United Nations and secured a plum position at the Peres Center for Peace.
During a question-and-answer session at the conference, Sucharewicz leapt to defend Israel against even mild criticism from various panelists, including the renowned Israeli historian Tom Segev. For five minutes she delivered a breathless, semi-coherent rant, as though she were in a contest to spin as many current events in Israel’s favor as possible. Finally, the moderator asked Sucharewicz to conclude her remarks with a question. “Of course you want me to stop talking,” she snapped at him. “You will never let a woman speak long enough to express herself.” Having shamed the moderator into submission, Sucharewicz plowed ahead for five more minutes of hasbara.
When I interviewed her in the hallway afterward, I found her unflappable. To my question about the wave of anti-democratic laws flooding the Knesset, she responded, “Israel is not perfect. They can only strive to be more perfect…. I wouldn’t go as far as saying there is pure discrimination.” On issues ranging from civilian casualties in the 2008–09 attack on Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) to the bulldozing of Bedouin villages in Israel’s Negev region, Sucharewicz always returned to one point: Israel is not perfect, but it is constantly improving.