NEW YORK — This week brought another political and diplomatic disaster for Israel — further proof that Jerusalem must change dramatically its hasbara efforts, not just to persevere but perhaps even to survive.
The deadly encounter between Israeli armed forces and boatloads of pro-Palestinian activists seeking to break the blockade in Gaza is but the latest example of the increasingly aggressive and successful campaign being waged by Israel’s enemies to marginalize and delegitimize the Jewish state.
Counting on Israel to use force when provoked, and then, when it does happen, portraying Jerusalem as a cruel, oppressive pariah deserving of universal condemnation, is consistent with a pattern of behavior in recent years that has seen Israel’s status as a state become openly questioned, and opposed, in Europe as well as the Arab world.
Indeed, there are those who believe that the delegitimization efforts — negating Israel’s very right as a state — may soon rival the Iran nuclear campaign as an existential threat to Israel.
The Gaza flotilla episode pinpoints the weakness of an Israeli mindset that maintains that the greatest threat remains the military battlefield and is caught flat-footed in dealing with political assaults, resulting in major blows.
By sending a few boats toward Gaza, the anti-Israel activists had no intention or possibility of confronting Israel militarily. Rather they manipulated the Israelis into overreacting, and the diplomatic and public relations fallout was huge, with the loss of contact with Turkey, a longtime key Muslim ally, a strategic disaster.
Unfortunately, we should expect to see more such diplomatic forays aimed at piercing Israel’s sense of invincibility.
The Re’ut Institute, an independent think tank based in Tel Aviv, earlier this year issued a detailed “conceptual framework” for countering these types of danger, identifying the two separate forces driving the delegitimization campaign, and urging the Israeli government and pro-Israel community to become far more focused and sophisticated in combating the effort.
Gidi Grinstein, the founder and president of Re’ut, asserted in an interview that the “systematic and systemic assault” on Israel’s economic and political model has “potentially existential implications.”
The 92-page Re’ut report notes that in addition to the military resistance movement in the Mideast, composed primarily of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, there is a relatively small group of networks, or hubs, that are loosely based but share a hatred of Israel and seek to disseminate information globally that challenges Israel’s moral and legal legitimacy.
Working through NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), the media, academic institutions and strong local Arab or Muslim communities, these groups initiate protests, boycotts, sanctions, divestments and lawsuits, as well as campus events, with an emphasis on branding Israel as an apartheid state.
Other key concepts being promulgated are that the notion of a Jewish state is religiously or ethnically biased and unacceptable, and that a one-state solution is the only equitable way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (That would result in an Arab majority doing away with Israel as we know it — through democratic elections, and without firing a weapon.)
One goal of the militants and strategists is to “overstretch” Israel’s capacity to control the Palestinians and, under increasing criticism, gradually implode from within.
Go on Offense
The Re’ut report identifies the most prolific hubs around the world as operating in London, Paris, Montreal, Toronto, Paris, Sydney and the San Francisco Bay area, and urges the Israeli Foreign Ministry to aggressively respond to their charges — not by defending and countering, but by going on the offensive.
“We call for moving from a local, situational defense to a global systemic offensive,” says Grinstein, insisting that Israel should point out that the anti-Israel forces stand in violation of human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, due process of law, control of arms, etc., while Israel is a true democracy.
Israel too often engages in debates that are “too close to our goal line,” according to Grinstein, like defending the right of Jews to have their own state. “We should be pushing toward the other goal line,” he says, leaving our comfort zone to name and shame the delegitimizers and brand them as haters, attacking them on facts, substance, and statistics.
One thing we can learn from the delegitimizers, who include a wide array of radical activists and anarchists, is that they utilize what Grinstein calls “the open tent approach,” accepting anyone who opposes Israel, regardless of their other beliefs. This gives the delegitimizers more clout than their numbers would indicate.
Many pro-Israel activists, by contrast, make up a closed tent community, quick to say, in effect, “if you’re not with me on every issue, I’m against you” — from Evangelical Christians, whose theology is seen as suspect, to J Street-type activists, often critical of Israeli policy.
The Re’ut report argues that such thinking is dangerously limiting, and encourages accepting as “pro-Israel” anyone who supports a Jewish state and the right of Jews to self-determination. That would include, for example, someone like Richard Goldstone, a Jew and self-defined Zionist whose report on Israel’s behavior during the Gaza War has been widely criticized as biased.
His findings may be unfair and intellectually dishonest, but he should not be thrown out of the pro-Israel tent, according to this argument, because he supports a Jewish state.
Target liberal progressives
The real battleground in strengthening the case for Israel’s legitimacy is “the hearts and minds of the liberal progressive elite,” according to Grinstein. Such thinking dovetails with the rationale of the recent essay by former New Republic editor Peter Beinart that has generated so much discussion and debate in the Jewish community. The article, published in the New York Review of Books and titled “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” argues that young American Jews, raised with liberal values, are becoming increasingly disenfranchised from Israel, which they see as an occupier and oppressor of Palestinians.
The Re’ut report seems to confirm Beinart’s plea to embrace rather than marginalize critics of specific policies of Jerusalem who nevertheless define themselves as Zionists.
Easier said than done.
Yet while it may be emotionally difficult for groups like AIPAC and the Zionist Organization of America to sit at the same table and strategize with folks from J Street and Peace Now, if the common cause is the survival and flourishing of our only Jewish state — and the realization is that the current effort is floundering, or worse — we must put our secondary differences aside and work together.
More than that, Grinstein insists that the Israeli Foreign Ministry, an institution that he says has not changed since the 1950s, is in need of a complete overhaul in its thinking and activities, from beefing up its staff in “quality and quantity” to increasing its representation in places like London and Sydney, where anti-Israel networks are particularly effective.
He sees Re’ut’s role as making the pro-Israel community “feel uncomfortable,” challenging traditional thinking by offering hard-nosed facts and careful analysis.
“We can be a catalyst,” he says, to help Israel utilize its strategic forces by establishing networks of its own to offset the damage of the anti-Israel networks.
“We can’t make them go away,” says Grinstein of the hostile networks, “but we can cut them down to size” by mobilizing the Israeli elite — intellectuals, policy makers and the media — as well as an American Jewish community that Grinstein believes “has lost a substantive amount of its capacity to stand together on this issue.”
The first step, though, is recognizing the depth of the problem and the need for a fresh approach. Maybe in that way, this week’s disastrous encounter on the seas near Gaza will chart the course for an effective new strategy.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and Publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@Jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)