After taking a beating in the media, being compared to the Nazis in the European press and often described in the U.S. as bullies toward the Palestinians, the Israeli government is planning to fight back, at last.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon this week approved the creation of a beefed up public relations effort, professionally and financially. It would include unprecedented coordination among several key ministries and increase the paltry $9 million budget for PR efforts outside of Israel. (By comparison, major companies in Israel spend three and four times that amount to promote their products.)
Gideon Meir, deputy director general for media and public affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Jewish Week here Tuesday that, as a result of two successive cabinet meetings the last two weeks focusing on hasbarah and the need to improve it, the Israeli ministers now recognize the strategic importance of improving public opinion.
“It sunk in,” said Meir, who said the key to his presentation at the cabinet meetings was that hasbarah — he prefers the phrase “public diplomacy”— is not a luxury but a vital component of national security and foreign policy.
The government is set to vote on a foreign ministry proposal within the next six weeks that calls for Meir or another key staffer to attend cabinet meetings and advise the ministers on the impact on public opinion of the planned actions.
Meir was in the U.S. this week to promote three private pro-Israel efforts: The Israel Project, which works to improve Israeli public relations; Israel21c, which emphasizes Israel’s scientific, technological and business successes; and Access Middle East, a major Web site in formation.
Meir said it was unique for the Foreign Ministry to work so closely with such groups, but that they were performing an important service for his country, a gift of talent worth millions of dollars to Israel.
In his fast-paced presentation to a group of about two-dozen people interested in the Israel Project, he asserted that “90 percent” of Israel’s problems with public relations is not the fault of the Israeli government or the Jewish people. Rather, he said, it was a complex mix of factors, including media bias, sympathy for the Palestinian cause, a complicated pro-Israel message compared to the Palestinians’ harping on “the occupation,” and a disadvantage for Israeli government spokesmen who insist on accuracy rather than spin.
“The Palestinians are quicker to get on television while we are checking our facts” after a violent incident, Meir said. “The key to spin is who gets his message out first, but our trademark is credibility. We never lie.”
Recent polling by the Israel Project, based in Washington, shows that support for Israel among Americans is slipping as the suicide war grinds on.
Meir said the biggest public opinion problem Israel faces now is the security fence it is building. “Our message is that it’s simply something we need. No terror, no fence. If the Palestinians want a better life, let them stop the terror.” He noted that the fence was directly responsible for capturing two would-be suicide bombers last week whose plan was to blow up a large Israeli school.
In Europe, where anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments have created a dangerous situation, elites in the media and intellectual circles are openly questioning the legitimacy of a Jewish State, Meir said. He is also worried about the increasing talk in this country about a one-state solution to the conflict, which in effect was “a code word for end of the Jewish state.”