Two Approaches to Israel’s Public Diplomacy

As the news of the Flotilla started its advance through the world, very little information was coming from Israel. It was in the late evening hours of Sunday, May 30th, and Monday was Memorial Day Holiday in the United States. The Flotilla left on its break-the-blockade-or-die mission a week earlier, on or about the 24th of May. It was a surreal feeling – would there be any response as America was in a long holiday weekend?

The Tsunami waves started hitting, their height several stories high, threatening to swallow everything in their wake. I expected magical bubbles, made of very special material, to cover Israel and each and every one of her manifestations around the world – Jewish synagogues, community centers, businesses, diplomatic missions, the homes of Jewish families.

I expected a well-oiled, well-prepared mechanism to spring into action.

I awaited the dispatches in real time, succinct background information, talking points, presentations about Turkey’s historical account (vis-a-vis the Armenians, Cyprus and the Kurds), the participants on board the Flotilla, the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza (facts and figures in charts and videos) and the overall picture (Iran’s spread of fanatical Islamic terrorism around the world).

I waited for a cadre of spokespeople giving interviews in multiple languages but with one, clear message.

I waited for Israel to stand still and unite in prayer for the soldiers who were fighting for her.

I was mistaken on all counts.

Israel had the chance to prepare. Particularly, the humanitarian aid angle is one that became a hot issue during the seventh day of Operation Cast Lead in December of ’08. Interestingly, every member of the upper echelon of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in Sderot that Friday, along with various ministers and other dignitaries. The only one absent that day was the Foreign Minister herself (also Deputy Prime Minister and de facto leader of Israel).

The main lesson learned – inter alia – on that day was that the material was available, but the Ministry was not properly communicating with the IDF. All it took was one individual to affect change. To this day he remains the Spokesperson of the Ministry despite a change of the ruling party.

Exactly because I had the opportunity to work with him on that day and see how capable he is, I was waiting for great things to happen on Sunday night two weeks ago. I knew that even if he were not thinking outside the box, he was willing to take immediate action when shown the need and provided the reasons.

The magic protective bubbles I talked about should have been prepared and rehearsed time and time again. After all, Israel had a year and a half to prefect herself. All that was needed was to release them from the holding places.

We cannot put all our expectations on the shoulders of a single individual, be he as capable and creative as I witnessed. I understand the challenges when multiple ministries and other bureaucratic organizations exist. They compete with one another and their eyes are not always set on the goal of winning. Instead, they are distracted by who gets to travel, who gets to be interviewed, what perks are available and inter-office childish bickering that help no one in particular, most especially Israel.

I was at the Knesset and met with a minister who is in charge of two “offices” and discussed an invitation for him to come and speak on behalf of Israel. I was astonished, asking him why would he not cross the corridor (which is not very wide) to the office of one of his counterparts in charge of Public Diplomacy, so that such a visit could be coordinated.

Apparently I was a very difficult (or demanding) guest: I did not stop there. I said that there is at least one other minister who should be brought in on the plan. After all, the visit being discussed could have immense implications for Israel, especially if it is part of an on-going series, and a visit of a minister coming to a key “market” must be coordinated via the local embassy / consulate. They are part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so either the Minister or Deputy Minister must be “in” on the plan.

NO, I was told in no uncertain terms. If the two other ministers were brought into the picture, they would want their people to go. A discussion would ensue about budgets. The mission may not even be operational any more.

I left astonished when the meeting came to a conclusion. On the way out I saw the Deputy Foreign Minister. It was clearly meant to happen when we walked toward each other. The Deputy Minister remembered me well, for before he became Deputy Foreign Minister, he had offered me a job.

We stopped to talk. Without any hesitation I confronted him with a quick set of questions. I was livid from the ministers not seeing the obvious.

At the same time, the Speaker of the Knesset was focusing on utilizing the army at his disposal, the members of the Knesset, as emissaries of the Jewish State to remote and central parts of the world. The head of a Zionist organization in Israel was working at the very same time, although on a parallel track, on a very similar plan, albeit funded privately, to achieve the very same goals: Explain and promote Israel’s position outside of Israel.

There is a feeling that those who need to do the job are either uninterested or incapable of carrying the task out by themselves. Thus, individuals and organizations step up to fill the void. This, however, is not a good substitute for a well-coordinated plan executed in an organized, very-specifically-controlled manner. It is also an unhealthy state of affairs.

The inability of three ministers to talk among themselves to set in motion an executable plan to save Israel’s Public Diplomacy was alarming.

I was hoping that these very capable people who run the country would be able to digest some of my comments, the articles written on the subject or the events they needed to handle yet failed (like the Goldstone Report) and shape up.

Thus, on Sunday night at the end of May, 2010, I was full of hope. We started sending our first dispatches as part of the “Postcards from Israel – Postcards from America” series, in the very same manner we did each day of Operation Cast Lead. As each dispatch was sent, I WANTED to see ISRAEL IN ACTION.

I must give credit to two Governmental offices – the Government Press Office (GPO) at the Prime Minister’s Office and the Spokesperson’s Unit of the Defense Forces. They, it was evident to me, learned the lessons of Operation Cast Lead, and along with local NGOs like The Israel Project (TIP) have self-activated wartime operations.

And yet, even their own exemplary behavior, despite the positive results and the intense effort that was put into responding to the Flotilla of Lies, was insufficient. For the system to work, for Israel to withstand such attacks, the response must be different.

The system must act as one body, moving forward in unison. Think of the human body under great stress of a marathon. Despite my drinking constantly throughout the 26.2 miles, I was so dehydrated that I was completely “out” in an emergency room for several hours until four liters of liquids were infused into me.

Israel cannot afford to be “out of fluids” for any period of time. She is expected and has no alternative but to be at peak shape at any moment in time. This is not a question of over-reaching expectations, but of a simple necessity if Israel is to survive.

There are two ways to ensure Israel reaches the optimum level of readiness: by brut force or by leadership.

For a very long period of time those of us on Israel’s public diplomacy forefront, the foot soldiers on the ground, have warned of pending events, Goldstone One, Two and Three, Flotilla One, Two and Three. We did not know the exact nature or scope of the events, but we noticed them happening with greater frequency and even greater intensity with each occurrence.

It was obvious for anyone following Israel’s miserable performance during the Second War in Lebanon, Operation Cast Lead and most recently the Turkish Convoy of Terror that Israel is failing on multiple fronts. While the top advisers congratulated themselves every time, it was evident to us the performance was far from satisfactory.

The brut force approach is the one where Israel gets hit, falls to her knees, struggles to stand up again and then is hit again, and again, and again. Eventually she must fathom and improve. This is the method followed up to now.

The other approach is one where customary lines of thinking are erased, manners of working and operating change by decree and by personal example from the top and a new era begins. People realize by working together toward a common goal there are synergies, where the total is greater than the sum of its parts.

To subscribe to this approach in real time, rather than in retrospect, one must have patience, breathing room and trust. It is apparently contrary to modern nature to try and share resources, divide glory among many and harvest together for the common good.

It sounds great in theory, but the very existence of multiple ministries and organizations resists it with all their might. Bureaucracy will always be adverse to change.

Change can only come about if an individual or a group of individuals are willing to set aside their differences and work together to do something greater than themselves. I call it leadership.

Brute force has not faired well for Israel. A new approach is needed; a new leader must rise and lead the people to victory. This fight is for Israel’s very survival and cannot be lost.

This point-and often-counter-point presentation is sprinkled with humor and sadness and attempts to tackle serious and relevant issues of the day. The series began in 2008, appears both in print in the USA and on numerous websites and is followed regularly by readership from around the world.

In the series “Postcards from Israel,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers throughout the world to join them as they present reports from Israel as seen by two sets of eyes: Bussel’s on the ground, Zager’s counter-point from home. Israel and the United States are inter-related – the two countries we hold dearest to our hearts – and so is this “point – counter-point” presentation that has, since 2008, become part of our lives.