Israel’s ‘Lousy PR’ vs. its national defense needs

 By Shoshana Bryen

Shoshana Bryen

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a strange conversation, a journalist called to ask how badly Israel’s image had been damaged by the flotilla incident. Our first thought was, “Not as badly as if the precedent was set for ships to land in Gaza without Israeli inspection, or if the millions of Euros in their pockets had actually reached Hamas.” But that wasn’t what he was asking. He really wanted to know whether countries or people who had previously “liked” Israel “liked” Israel less now, and if Israel would have “done better” if it could have explained itself better. 
It was, in fact, the dreaded “Israel’s lousy PR” question.
 
In a second strange conversation, an admittedly cynical diplomat told us to disregard the posturing anti-Israel statements at the European Parliament, the UN Human Rights Commission and other international bodies. “People don’t really know anything, they just say things.” But, he added, Israel couldn’t expect to get a fair shake in those places because it doesn’t spend enough time making its case to European diplomats. 
 
Again, “Israel’s lousy PR,” was the issue, not the reality of the Arab/Islamic threat to Israel or the reality of Israel’s defense.
 
Our belief is that the flotilla incident actually made people and countries behave more like themselves. 

There are those inclined to dislike Israel for ethnic or religious reasons; or because they see only the limited view of Israel their media-controlling governments want them to see; or because they reflexively support people who look sad. 

There are those, on the other hand, who are inclined to appreciate the difficulties of Israel in the Middle East and find in Israel a like-minded, democratic ally under attack by radical forces that also threaten the West. This group often includes post-Soviet countries including Poland and the Czech Republic, and in this case includes Italy and The Netherlands. 

And there is a third type, those who travel in groups or packs – among them the media, Western Europeans, and left-wing Democrats – who don’t necessarily want Israel to disappear; and who do in fact understand the substance of Israel’s difficulties; and who would never think of themselves supporting Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran; but who can’t defend Israel in public because it isn’t fashionable; but won’t condemn it more than absolutely necessary; and will still do business with Israel where they find it useful. Cynical diplomats often find themselves here.

All reacted to the flotilla in predictable ways.

Arabs governments, Arab and other media, Turkey and Iran trashed Israel. 

Americans were far more supportive of Israeli actions than Europeans, but President Obama and Congressional Democrats walked a finer line in their support than conservatives. 

And while the EU Parliament – a body responsible to no one for anything – loudly denounced Israel for the raid, the European countries on the UN Human Rights Commission largely abstained from the slander of Israel and the call for a UN-run investigation (Norway always, sadly, excepted).

The actual elected leaders of the G-8 – the United States, Canada, Japan, Britain, Germany France, Italy and Russia – people who have a responsibility for policy, put forward a communiqué calling for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks (as Israel has), welcomed Israel’s own investigation (not mentioning the UN or any other international investigation) and Israel’s own decision to change the rules of the embargo, noted that the “legitimate security concerns of Israel that must continue to be safeguarded,” and called for the “immediate release” of Gilad Shalit. 

And, interestingly, while Iran naturally trashed Israel and threatened it with future flotillas, faced with the reality that Israel would not permit future ships to land and would consider blockade busting to be an act of war, the Iranian government called the whole thing off. Ditto the government of Lebanon.

Israel and supporters of Israel have to make the best possible case for Israeli defensive activities with the full understanding that there is a double – and triple – game out there. The requirements for national defense have to trump PR. If Israel (or America, for that matter) allows itself to be undone by the PR ramifications of defense, or if PR becomes the ultimate determinant of rightness or wrongness in security matters, defense will become impossible – for Israel, for the United States and for the West.

*

Bryen is senior director of security policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.  Her column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, longtime JINSA supporter and national board member.

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