I often hear Israelis and our friends abroad ask the same question, with varying permutations, over and over again:
Why doesn’t the world understand us?
Why does the world favor the Palestinian narrative? [The Palestinians say the exact opposite.]
What’s wrong with our public diplomacy, with our hasbarah?
Well, to answer that question I think we need to look at two glaring examples of how Israel operates on the diplomatic/ public diplomacy level.
In 2009, just after taking office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech at Bar Ilan University in which he said that he supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Officially, Netanyahu has never repealed that policy statement – and when a prime minister makes a diplomatic speech it is a policy statement.
The next example is from one of Netanyahu’s senior ministers, Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein. Now, to my mind, the job of a minister of public diplomacy is to explain the Israeli government’s position on diplomatic issues.
Here’s what Edelstein said at the Third Annual Conference on Annexing Judea and Samaria which took place three weeks ago:
“By annexing this land we signal to the international community that this whole thing about 1967 borders, an agreement with small border adjustments and territorial swaps – this talk is essentially over, we are saying loud and clear, in a clear and unmistakable voice, that we have rights over this land, and that we have exercised our sovereignty. From this point onward we can look for ways to coexist, we obviously acknowledge that there is another population, and we need to find a modus operandi on how we can live together. We have to return to the public discourse the fact that we did not occupy a Palestinian state, that there never was a state like this.”
So, in a nutshell folks, the international community doesn’t understand us because we haven’t yet officially, formally, decided what we want. And if we don’t know what we want, how are we supposed to convince the rest of the world to support us? The Palestinians know what they want: they want a state [whether it's inside the 1967 or 1948 borders is up to you to decide], but their message is simple: they want a state, they want self-determination.
Our message is not so simple: We have historical, legal, religious and cultural rights to much of the land that is called the West Bank [we call Judea and Samaria]. We tried several times to offer the Palestinians a great peace deal, and they have refused time and again; every time we withdrew from territory they responded with terror. Distilled, our official message [and when I say official I mean from the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry] is “we want peace, but we don’t believe the Palestinian side is willing.”
But when the [official] Minister for Public Diplomacy gets up and tells the world that “we want to coexist with the Palestinians after we annex much of the West Bank” you can forgive our friends for not understanding what we want. So either Edelstein doesn’t understand what his job is, or, and this is more likely the case, he has been told by the Prime Minister that he is free to explain whatever policy he deems fit to explain, which puts the rest of us citizens in an awkward position.
By the way, there’s no guaranteeing that even if we decide what we want as a nation, and even if we find a coherent way to explain that policy, that our friends will agree with us on it. But at least we’d be deciding; at least we’d be setting our own course; at least we’d stand a realistic chance of convincing our friends to support us.
What a pity that these elections aren’t about that. Maybe they will be next time round. At some point in time, they will have to be about this.
- Likud minister and two party MKs say they want to annex the West Bank (timesofisrael.com)
- Israeli politics swerves to right (bbc.co.uk)
- Don’t wait up for peace (amirmizroch.com)