The National – 16 March 2010
A new government campaign to train Israelis in how to use propaganda in order to improve their country’s image when they are abroad has been condemned for advancing a right-wing agenda.
The public relations drive, which includes giving travellers tips on how to champion the country’s illegal settlements, is the government’s latest attempt to shore up support abroad following the harsh criticisms of Israel’s attack on Gaza last year made by the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report, which produced evidence of war crimes.
According to a recent government survey, 91 per cent of Israeli Jews believe foreigners have a strongly negative view of Israel. Nearly as many – 85 per cent – say they would be willing to use holidays or business trips to engage in hasbara, Hebrew for “public advocacy” or “propaganda”.
Critics, however, have accused Yuli Edelstein, who is in charge of the recently created hasbara ministry, of exploiting the campaign to promote not just Israel’s technological and cultural successes but also its hawkish agenda.
The campaign website approved by Mr Edelstein, a member of the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and a settler in the West Bank, has repeatedly denied both that the settlements are an obstacle to peace and that a Palestinian state is desirable, backtracking on commitments made by Mr Netanyahu to the US.
The predominance of such views was highlighted this week when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 settler homes in occupied East Jerusalem, creating a diplomatic crisis just as Joe Biden, the US vice-president, was in Israel to shore up support for new peace talks.
Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of Peace Now, Israel’s largest peace group, has written to Mr Netanyahu demanding that he take down the website. “Israel’s positions as presented on this site reflect an extreme right-wing ideology, and are not even in keeping with your own statements … regarding two states for two peoples.”
Others have argued that Israel’s image needs more than good PR. “No amount of hasbara will help if Israel refuses to make peace and uses assassination teams,” said Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom, a peace activist.
Mr Edelstein refers to the millions of potential volunteers as the “Israel Hasbara Forces”, a play on the name of the country’s military, the Israel Defense Forces.
“In light of Israel’s negative image in the world, we realised that Israel had to counter the vast sums of money available to Arab countries for propaganda by taking advantage of our human resources,” Mr Edelstein has said.
The campaign, which includes a series of TV adverts, encourages Israelis to consult a government website for advice on how to win over locals in the countries they visit. Pamphlets are also being handed out at Israel’s international airport.
Training courses will target public figures and community leaders, including politicians, diplomats, businesspeople, tour guides, celebrities, athletes and retired generals.
The TV ads are designed to motivate Israelis to join the PR push by poking fun at the foreign media for misrepresenting Israel. In one, a British reporter assumes the camel is the country’s main means of transport, and in another a Spanish journalist claims barbecues are so popular because Israeli homes have no electricity.
“Fed up with how we’re portrayed abroad?” asks the advert. “You can change the picture.”
But the government’s approach has been lambasted not only by peace groups but also by an editorial in Yedioth Aharonoth, Israel’s biggest-circulation newspaper. It wondered whether the website and pamphlets were promoting the state of Israel or the Netanyahu government’s policies. “A perusal of the site reveals that many of the opinions we are supposed to learn by rote are not part of any consensus,” it said. “In fact, they mainly reflect the right-wing side of the political spectrum.”
Mr Edelstein said hundreds of thousands of Israelis have visited the website since it launched, with some requesting training.
A number of “myths” are listed which Israeli holidaymakers are expected to explode, including that the settlements are holding up the peace process.
Instead the website says of the settlements: “Their creation does not involve uprooting any Arabs. Most of the Arab towns and villages in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] have biblical names, and are testimony to Jewish roots in this area.” Israelis are advised to deny that a place called “Palestine” ever existed, and told to stress that keeping the West Bank is important to stop a military attack. “Many people say hundreds of Arab tanks on [Israel’s] coastal plain will put an end to the entire Jewish state,” notes the website.
The site also says “it is crucial that Israel retains the Golan Heights”, Syrian territory occupied in the Six Day War, adding that its conquest has “renewed Israel’s connection to Jewish heritage and the ancient history of the Jewish nation”.
Apart from a reference to Rana Raslan, the first Arab woman to win Miss Israel, in 1999, a section on the country’s 1.3 million Arab citizens is devoted largely to the “demographic threat” they pose to Israel’s Jewish majority.
In particular, the site celebrates the rapid drop in Arab birth rates over recent years and the accelerating emigration of Palestinians, observing that, whereas 10,000 left in 2004, the figure had risen to 28,000 four years later. “Some 85 per cent of those who emigrated were of reproductive age,” the site notes.
The hasbara ministry has also announced that it is recruiting volunteer internet bloggers to post pro-Israel comments on websites in what it termed “PR warfare”. They are expected to work in tandem with a team of undercover staff created in the foreign ministry last July whose job is to pose as ordinary surfers and post good news about Israel on websites.
Despite Israeli government concerns, a Gallup poll last week showed that 63 per cent of Americans view Israel favourably, the fifth-highest-ranking country and Israel’s best rating in nearly two decades.
Israeli officials, however, are reported to be increasingly concerned that the attack on Gaza has damaged Israel’s popularity in the rest of the world.
A report presented to the Israeli cabinet this month by the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think-tank, argued that Israel was facing an unprecedented “global campaign of delegitimisation” that should be treated as a “strategic threat”.