Many Israelis think that hasbara (public diplomacy) is a good speech in flawless English by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accompanied by colorful audiovisual aids, at the United Nations. They’re right, but that’s only a small part of this country’s ramped-up effort at presenting its case to the world.
What truly shined over the past week of warfare with Hamas in Gaza was Israel’s human infrastructure in public diplomacy. Everyday citizens of Israel and supporters of Israel around the world, especially young people, took to the airwaves and Internet bandwidth to defend Israel. Through new media and social media and from any and every home-based computer station, Israel’s case was well-broadcasted and backed-up. Colorful, easy-to-comprehend graphics and snappy videos were produced quickly and shared on Facebook, Twitter and other web-based platforms in the millions.
Even The New York Times and The Guardian were forced to take notice and run (not completely hostile) stories on the pro-Israel social media blitz.
A good deal of the credit for this new and welcome phenomena goes to Minister for Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein, who early-on understood the growing importance of non-official publics in public diplomacy and equipped Israel accordingly. What we saw this past week is partially the result of 3 1/2 years of quiet preparation and training under his leadership.
Edelstein went into the universities and colleges in Israel, including the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Ariel University Center of Samaria, and Bar-Ilan University, and opened training courses in web-based hasbara. He trained and sent cadres of young spokesmen for Israel abroad on repeated tours of campuses. He brought-in teams of graphic artists and video designers, and taught them to work together with messaging professionals, and readied a Jerusalem “emergency” command center to concentrate all this activity in wartime.
This past week, it all came together. Hundreds of college students devoted 18-hour days to web advocacy in the command center and at additional hasbara rooms set up on the college campuses. The Internet was flooded with pro-Israel maps and cartoons that emphasized Israel’s morality and Hamas’ depravity; that accentuated the long suffering of Israel’s rocketed southern towns, and Israel’s much-too-long military restraint; that highlighted Hamas’ anti-Semitism and jihadism, and contrasted this with Israel’s outstretched hand for peace.
Edelstein, himself, appeared on every television news program in the world, with clear messages and well-spoken verse.
Edelstein came-up with a few creative public diplomacy exercises, as well. One of the most simple but effective, never-before-tried, exercises, was this: For several days in a row he led groups of foreign correspondents into the 106 hotline rooms of municipalities in the south. These are the telephone call-banks in Ashdod, Ashkelon, Kiryat Gat and similar towns that receive the calls for “help” and assistance of plain-old, beleaguered Israeli citizens under fire — the elderly and infirm; the poor and the lonely; new immigrants and veterans, in dozens of languages.
Edelstein had foreign reporters sit-in and monitor the calls in the languages of their choice. They were exposed to the plight of Israelis under terrorist fire in the most unvarnished, raw way possible.
It was a simple, brilliant, and effective initiative. No correspondent could accuse the Israeli minister of public relations grandstanding or Hollywood-style glitz. It was unfiltered and authentic. It was typical of Edelstein’s modest manner and effective leadership style.
One of Israel’s top newspaper editors, who hails from the political Left, was on an American TV talk show this week with Edelstein. Afterward he told me that he was surprised and impressed by the minister. “In Israel, we don’t generally accord too much importance to hasbara, nor too much regard for ministers viewed as hacks for Netanyahu, nor too much respect for Russian immigrants in politics,” he admitted to me. “Edelstein, however, was an exceptional spokesman for Israel, even stirring and intellectually-formidable. I speak very good English, but compared to Edelstein, I sounded childish.”
Yuli Edelstein’s hasbara leadership is one of Israel’s secret weapons. In drawing up a balance sheet of Israel’s gains and losses over the course of Operation Pillar of Defense, and in calculating the ballots in Sunday’s Likud primary vote, Edelstein should get a lot of credit.