The End of Hasbara

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February 19, 2010

The Reut Institute in Israel produced a report that elicited some harsh responses last week. The report analyzed what it called “the global de-legitimization movement.” Reut’s de-legitimizers constitute much, though not all, of the worldwide Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). It basically encompasses all those activists around the world who eschew the two-state solution and believe that only by casting Israel as a pariah state and eventually transforming it into a one-person-one-vote democracy can the conflict with the Palestinians be resolved.

I’ve been waiting for the full Reut report to come out so I can write my own analysis of it, but based on the executive summary and the small elaboration I read in Ha’aretz, as well as some of the Hebrew that I translated, I think the report makes some really important points amid some very laughable recommendations. Its proposed strategy for increased hasbara is silly, to be sure, and it does miss the point that the problem is the result of Israel’s policies, not its image.

But a crucial point in this report is the distinguishing between those termed “legitimate critics” and those it calls “de-legitimizers.” In the former camp, Reut puts the entire civil and human rights community, including Amnesty International, which calls for a global arms trade embargo against human rights violators, including Israel. This is Reut’s way of trying to argue against the view that human rights and Israeli legitimacy are mutually exclusive. I think that was a very important stance to take.

There is also a rather unusually nuanced view of the “de-legitimizers” in that Reut makes a clear differentiation between one-state activists and what it calls the “resistance network” which is led by international players like Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. It clearly attempts to undermine the linking of these two strands, and quite rightly so.

But the Reut report has incurred the left’s scorn in two major ways (there are more, smaller ways as well). One is its language, which, on one hand, contends that there is no organized “de-legitimization” movement, yet describes its various hubs around the world and speaks of “sabotaging” the network. The other, more prominent one is Reut’s recommendation, which is simply more of the same thing Israel has been doing—dealing with real problems caused by Israeli policies (a fact which the report implicitly acknowledges)- by increasing its propaganda and public relations efforts.

The recommendation is simply silly. It’s ludicrous on its face and, in any case, it’s been tried and failed. And while the report does offer a more nuanced view of the global BDS movement, it also fails to truly understand all of its strains.

One key place it fails to make a distinction is between efforts to target the entire state of Israel economically and those trying to target the Occupation. Indeed, it is the intentional blurring of this distinction that has closed the more moderate BDS options off.

Several years ago, to take one example, there was a flurry of attempts to divest and boycott the Occupation and make a clear distinction between that and a broader move against Israel. In Israel, this was led by Gush Shalom and its publication of a list of products made in the settlements, or by companies based in the settlements. In the United States, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) worked on a selective divestment campaign highlighted by its efforts at corporate lobbying of the Caterpillar Corporation, whose bulldozers, at the time, were the main Israeli tools for house demolitions.

JVP launched a full-scale communications campaign to make it clear that it was making a strong and concerted effort against the Occupation and not against Israel proper. Its thrust was well understood by those who wanted to understand, and mainline churches like the Presbyterians and Methodists attempted their own moves toward selective divestment.

The response was a campaign of disinformation that cast these efforts in precisely the opposite light. Opponents of any sort of organized action against the Occupation simply said this was a boycott of Israel, ignoring completely that it was only the settlement project and the Occupation that were targeted. The strategy worked, and the Methodists and Presbyterians as well as JVP were cast as anti-Israel and as opponents of the state itself, not merely the Occupation. Anyone looking at the groups’ work on the issue would have known this to be false. Unfortunately, most believed what their opponents said.

So, was that a victory? What was in fact communicated to anti-Occupation activists? In fact, what they were taught was that there is no point in trying to isolate only the Occupation because you’ll be targeted as anti-Israel (and quite possibly, anti-Semitic as well) in either case. Thus any forces within a larger BDS movement that called for targeted actions had already been proven wrong and the only course that could be pursued logically as a result was full BDS targeting the state. And Reut’s ‘de-legitimizers have a global movement.

Yet the Reut report learns nothing from this. While it does distinguish between critics (including Goldstone) and “de-legitimizers”, it fails to distinguish the different strains in the BDS movement. This doesn’t explain its silly recommendation, but rather amplifies the basic problem: very few in Israel, and even fewer in power there, grasp the threat to the state’s future created by its own policies and ongoing Occupation.

Consider, for instance, the comment of historian and political scientist Shlomo Avineri, an old-style Labor center-leftist in the New York Times on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s effort to enlist Israeli travelers in its hasbara campaign:

“The campaign stems from a genuine fear that Israel is misrepresented, sometimes in very vicious ways. On this level it is understandable. But I think it is puerile. Some of the information is ridiculous, and behind it I find a Bolshevik mentality — to make every citizen an unpaid civil servant for the policy of the government. There is never any intimation that some of our problems have to do with actual policies.”

But Israel has been doing this for years now. The government is convinced it can do whatever it wants and enough marketing and PR will cover it up. There are those in Israel who know that this won’t work and that Israeli policy needs to be looked at, up to and including the point that Israel’s “image problem” will never go away while it holds Palestinians under occupation, never mind the siege of Gaza. But those voices are not having impact. Bibi, Barak, Livni, none of them get it at all.

And so Israel will continue to act as it is in Gaza, and continue to employ a dual strategy: one tine of the fork being wining and wailing that everyone hates them and won’t let them defend themselves, the other being to try to “package” Israel as a beautiful and peace-loving country who would never harm an Arab it doesn’t have to.

It’s a dead-end strategy, and it’s so obviously failing that one wonders how so few Israeli leaders can see that simple fact. But this is the result of strategizing without an endgame. Israel continues to expand its hold on the West Bank and east Jerusalem, belying the pretty words that even Benjamin Netanyahu utters about a two-state solution, while having no plan about what to do with a growing Palestinian population that lives under military occupation with no guaranteed rights.

Israelis and their supporters rightly bristle at the mention of “apartheid.” But in the West Bank, despite some very real improvements on the ground in the past year, 50% of the people live under the poverty line. The Gaza Strip is under siege despite the fact that the siege has not prevented Hamas from becoming stronger today than it was before Operation Cast Lead, militarily. Settlers are encircling East Jerusalem and residency rights there for Palestinians are slowly eroding. Civil liberties in Israel are being attacked, and any group or individual that points out the realities of daily life that anyone can see merely by looking is increasingly being branded a traitor.

All this, and Israel is trying to portray an “image” to address its problems. Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have both publicly warned that apartheid is exactly what the future holds for Israel if the Occupation is not ended. It’s an obvious truth. And those, whether they are primarily concerned with Israel, the Palestinians or regional stability, who are willing to attack the Occupation and not Israel should be embraced, not demonized.

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