June 8, 2003

How to go about presenting an updated message to the Arab world.

The impending renewal of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the resumption of Arab-Israeli contacts across the region is an appropriate occasion for reassessing one of the weak points of Israel’s foreign information effort. For since its establishment in 1948, Israel has not developed an effective strategic public relations policy for the Arab world.

Despite several PR initiatives beginning as early as 1919 when some of the region’s Arab leadership supported the Zionist movement, Israel’s subsequent information efforts toward its Arabs neighbors have been ad hoc, at best. Israel’s longstanding failure to adopt a communications strategy for the Arab world even attracted the attention of State Comptroller Eliezer Goldberg. In a report released in late 2002, Goldberg documented Israel’s longstanding shortcomings in this area and highlighted its inadequate responses to Arab propaganda and incitement against the existence of the Jewish state.

Perhaps of greatest concern, Israel has failed to dispel the overarching Arab perception that its creation was the result of the Jews’ exploited claims of Holocaust victimization that justified “Zionist crimes” against Palestinians.

Only recently has Israel’s Foreign Ministry moved to establish a separate department of Arab affairs and media after recognizing the failure to grasp the complexity of Palestinian self-understanding and political culture during the Oslo peace negotiations.

The demise of Sadaam Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq has created an opportunity for Israel to relaunch diplomatic contacts with the Palestinians and perhaps Syria. However, as an essential part of the diplomatic process, the Sharon government should craft an effective public relations strategy to the Arab world that communicates Israel’s rightful place in the region alongside Muslim and Arab peoples based on a shared ancient Semitic heritage, language, and roots in the land.

Israel must engage its neighbors in this ideological dialogue in Arabic as an integral part of its larger struggle against anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incitement and propaganda. At the same time, Israel’s message must reflect a deeper awareness and respect for Arab and Muslim civilization and political culture.

The 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, held shortly after America’s victory over Iraq in the first Gulf War, and co-sponsored by the United States and the former Soviet Union, represented a major breakthrough in Israeli-Arab relations. For the first time since 1948, Israel was engaged in direct, face-to-face, political negotiations with all of its Arab neighbors, other than Egypt which had signed a full peace treaty with Israel in 1978.

Israel successfully exploited the multilateral framework of Madrid to promote regional normalization with Arab states whose interests in developing diplomatic, trade, and cultural ties with Israel were not conditional on Israel’s first signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Significantly, Madrid’s principle of “normalization” of relations that had been advanced by Israel was framed in the language of “mutual respect and acceptance,” and the rejection of incitement.

Eytan Bentsur, Director General of Israel’s Foreign Ministry at the time, noted, “There was a perception by the Arab states of a light at the end of the tunnel for the entire region.” For the first time, Israelis were received as desired guests in most Arab capitals.

Equally dramatic at Madrid was the Arab media’s “PR baptism” by then Deputy Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu exploited the “reigning spirit of normalization,” in the words of a senior Israeli diplomat, to present Israel’s side of the Arab-Israeli conflict to a handful of curious reporters from Arab and Muslim countries. The small meeting quickly turned into a major press conference. Netanyahu provided scores of reporters with articulate explanations of Israel’s positions that the Arab media had never heard.

At another press briefing, Netanyahu pulled out the PLO Covenant from his coat pocket and began reading from the document, particularly articles 19 and 21 that called for Israel’s destruction. Dr. Dore Gold, an advisor to Netanyahu during the Madrid Peace Conference, noted that Arab reporters were intrigued to hear Netanyahu despite the fact that he was firmly defending Israel’s rights and its battle against Arab terror.

Many of Israel’s key public relations and diplomatic gains made at Madrid were lost during the eight-year Oslo peace process. One senior foreign ministry official admitted that Israel’s negotiating posture opposite the Palestinians suffered from being overly “Israel-centric” and reflected a lack of understanding of the complexities of Arab self-identity and its consequences for Arab political culture. Notably, neither Israel’s negotiating teams nor its advisory groups fielded experienced Arabic-speaking diplomats, media advisors, or experts in Arab political culture.

As early as 1994, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, in his book The New Middle East, wrote that Israel would lead a new Middle East to become economically borderless and integrated similar to the European Union and the Benelux states.

Uri Savir, Israel’s chief negotiator at Oslo from 1993 to 1996, wrote in The Process, 1000 Days That Changed the Middle East, published in 1998, “The Casablanca [economic] conference unleashed strong forces of economic change in the region…the new Middle East was under way.”

A senior foreign ministry official has characterized as “naive” the Israeli notion promoted in 1994 at Casablanca that the Arab world was ready for broad economic cooperation with Israel. In fact, the Israeli delegation’s aggressive economic designs for the Middle East scared Arab delegates and seemed to confirm their perception of Israeli economic imperialism, according to one Israeli diplomat.

Bentsur, who had formulated Israel’s strategy at Madrid, noted that Israel’s “paternalistic” approach to the Palestinians at Oslo contributed to the ultimate collapse of the process. Benstur said Israeli negotiators appeared to be “conquering rather than negotiating with their Palestinian counterparts with a self-serving, triumphant vision of peace.”

Perhaps the best example of Israel’s political and cultural misunderstanding of its Palestinian negotiating partners was the “end of conflict” declaration made by Prime Minister Ehud Barak as a non-negotiable condition at the Camp David summit in July 2000.

As an Arab Israeli lawmaker recently alleged, “The Arab mentality is influenced by revenge and honor. Barak may have been ‘generous’ in the land concessions he offered but he was ‘cheap’ in the honor he showed Palestinian negotiators.” A leading Israeli authority in Arab studies has noted that Arab political culture is as sensitive to how negotiations are conducted, as much or more than it is to what is being negotiated.

Palestinians also perceived that Israel seemed too eager from the outset of Oslo to negotiate over national Jewish symbols such as Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Israel’s concessionary attitude was interpreted as a lack of national self-respect and a sign of Israeli capitulation, that Arafat sought to advance more quickly through the use of terror.

Some senior IDF intelligence officials say Barak’s decision to pull IDF troops out of Lebanon unilaterally in May 2000 was also perceived as Israeli capitulation by many in the Arab world, particularly the Palestinians. The spin put on Israel’s retreat by the Lebanon-based Hizballah terror group would motivate Arafat to launch a terror war on Israel four months later.

Some Oslo-period PR initiatives to the Arab world were successful, however. Dr. Fawaz Kamal, Head of the Government Press Office’s Arabic Press Division and an Israeli Druse, hosted a number of visiting delegations from Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf States from 1997 to 1999. Kamal noted that his Arab guests were very impressed by their personal experience with Israelis, which stood in contrast to violent Arab television images of Israeli soldiers battling Palestinians.

He emphasized that personal relationship-building initiatives with Arab leaders, officials, and journalists are critical to their acceptance of Israel.

The launch of Arab satellite television in 1994 would provide Israel with direct access to millions of Arab and Muslim viewers throughout the Middle East. In theory, Israel would now have a platform from which to disseminate its own message directly into Arab living rooms. Prior to 1994, Arab state-controlled television news would not mention Israel by name, referring to it as the “Zionist entity” or the “enemy state.”

Over the past nine years, however, enormous competition for audience share among privately-owned Arab satellite channels has had a democratizing effect on Arab television as they emulate the CNN style and approach.

Dr. Raanan Gissin, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s foreign media advisor, is regularly interviewed on the leading Arab channels, Al Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television, both of which have Jerusalem-based operations. Gissin noted that his interviews are not edited or censored even when his responses are not what Arab audiences would want to hear.

The Israel Broadcasting Authority’s new Arabic-language Middle East Satellite Channel is perhaps Israel’s most concerted government-funded effort to influence Arab and Muslim public opinion. The channel was the brainchild of current IBA director general Joseph Barel, one of the founders of Israel’s Arabic news service in the late 1960s. The satellite channel was launched in July 2002 with a reported $20 million annual budget, amidst much fanfare, in order to provide balanced Arabic-language news and programming about Israel, and to combat Arab incitement and propaganda that is rampant on many of the more than 100 Arab-language cable and satellite channels.

Despite the channel’s high standards of news programming, reported and produced by professional Israeli Jewish, Druse, and Arab journalists, critics claim that the channel’s purchased entertainment programming is old and of poor quality, and that the station is not widely viewed in the Arab world because it is recognized as an Israeli government-controlled and funded operation.

A more successful Israeli media initiative was unveiled in late 2001 when the leading Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot launched ArabYnet, an Arabic translation of its popular Ynet Hebrew news website. The site’s advisor, Dr. Guy Bechor, a leading Israeli expert in Arab affairs, noted that ArabYnet won reader trust from the beginning. “The site stated up front that it was a private commercial Israeli news service, thereby eliminating user fears that the Israeli government exerts editorial control.”

ArabYnet presents Israel to millions of Arab and Muslim Internet surfers from an Israeli point of view, but with no particular political agenda. Bechor emphasized, “The site has no message, and that is its message.”

ArabYnet empowers users, whose knowledge of Israel is largely shaped by Arab propaganda, to control a private cyberspace experience of Israel. Missing is the user suspicion that Israel is trying to feed them Zionist propaganda. According to the site’s editors, ArabYnet is the most interactive news site on the Arab Internet, as evidenced by thousands of reader emails that the site receives every month. ArabYnet logs nearly a million unique monthly users, and its fame has spread largely by word of mouth. Saudi Arabia ranks first in the number of visitors to the site residing in Arab countries. Seventy percent of the site’s users have been traced to computer servers in North America because Arab governments have blocked direct access due to the site’s popularity. Dr. Fawaz Kamal sees ArabYnet as a model for Israeli media initiatives in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

An Israeli public relations strategy for the Arab and Muslim worlds should strive to incorporate cultural principles, metaphors, and terminology that relate to Arab and not Western terms of reference.

1. Show respect and honor for Arab civilization. Israeli leaders should consider that the Arab world does not see its strength on the world stage as based on the West’s standards of economic, technological, and scientific prowess. Therefore, Israeli leaders and diplomats should avoid presenting Israel as the twenty-first century high technology savior of a technologically backward Middle East. A mistaken assumption of the Oslo process was that Arab states would welcome the idea that Israeli technological knowhow would educate the “ignorant” Arab states and transform the Middle East. One useful idea would be to encourage Israeli media outlets to co-produce and distribute documentary programming with Arab partners about ancient Arab and Muslim civilizations.

2. Engage the Arab world in a new ideological dialogue to diffuse rampant anti- Israeli and anti-Jewish incitement and propaganda. Israeli officials should avoid presenting Israel in English to the Arab world primarily as a modern refuge for victims of anti-Semitism. Rather, Israel should be presented by Arabic-speaking diplomats, academics, and journalists as an ancient civilization seeking to live in peace and honor with other Semitic civilizations in an Arab and Muslim Middle East. Israel should also encourage the development of relations with pro-Western Arab regimes and freethinking Arab and Muslim intellectuals.

Spokespeople and diplomats should also be equipped to engage Arab media personalities and intellectuals in Arabic over rampant anti- Israel and anti-Jewish incitement in Arab media, political, educational and religious institutions. Israel should draw lessons from its significant diplomatic and PR successes at Madrid which prohibited incitement and promoted “mutual respect and acceptance” as guiding principles for Arab-Israeli normalization.

3. Advance Israeli humanitarian initiatives. Israel had been successful in promoting health and agricultural extension services to the Arab world via radio and Internet before the programs were ceased. Humanitarian medical response initiatives in Turkey following a deadly earthquake there in 1999 also earned Israel public relations accolades with the Turkish press and public.

4. Consider Arab political and cultural perceptions. Israeli government leaders should consider the profound psychological aspect of engaging in diplomatic efforts with the Arab world, particularly, the Palestinians. An advisor to Abu Mazen told this author that Palestinian collective identity with regard to Israel has been shaped by a deep sense of humiliation and failure among fellow Arab and Muslim states. An Israeli PR approach should avoid the danger of being perceived as dictatorial and threatening by the Palestinians, who have always perceived Israel as the far stronger side in the conflict. Senior Arab and Palestinian sources emphasized that Prime Minister Sharon should consider offering the Palestinians the “respect” of sincere Israeli recognition of Palestinian suffering, even without accepting direct responsibility for it. At the same time, the government should send a symmetrical message to the Arab world regarding the forced transfer of 800,000 Sephardi Jews from Arab countries after 1948.

5. Show Middle Eastern honor and respect to Arab and Palestinian leaders. A leading Palestinian human rights activist noted that Sharon’s public treatment of Abu Mazen will influence the Palestinian street’s approval of the newly-elected Palestinian prime minister. “If the correct opportunity comes, and Sharon were to invite Abu Mazen to the Knesset, announce jointly that 50,000 Palestinians could work again in Israel, issue a public statement in Arabic and treat the Palestinian Prime Minister with the same honor he would accord a European head of state, many Palestinians would begin to understand that Arafat is irrelevant.

(Reprinted from The Jerusalem Letter and Jerusalem Viewpoints, published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs – jcpa@netvision.net.il)

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Jason Harris

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