Nadav Tamir, Senior Advisor for Governmental and International Affairs
The Israeli approach to dealing with it's public image is not effective and wrong - here's why
This article is the second in a five-part series
Most of the polls and surveys I found were flawed because they framed public opinion about Israel in the context of the conflict. This created a zero-sum choice where those surveyed had to choose which side they supported. In other words, they based their judgment on the favorability of Israel by comparing Israel with the Palestinians. It didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t a good indication to understand the favorability of Israel. Even if one used the comparative method, why not compare the public opinion of other strategic allies of the US such as the U.K. or South Korea?
The data that I found more telling showed a very interesting picture. Contrary to the assumption of most Israelis and Israel supporters in the U.S., the data showed that Israel got significant support from the American public with regards to the conflict. The challenge was rather to get people to feel that Israel was a worthwhile ally and an attractive place to visit and to invest in.
While I was learning these eye-opening facts, Ido Aharoni, a colleague and a friend at the New York Consulate, reached the same conclusions through research that he had conducted. His research showed that many Americans saw Israel as a war zone and a very religious place. It was not attractive and relevant even to those who supported us on the conflict.
How to address the real challenge
My first conclusion was therefore that our challenge is not to “win the debate” against our adversaries, but rather to “win the hearts and minds”. This paradigm is very different from the traditional “Hasbara” one, which puts the conflict at the center of the agenda and uses the “blame game” method in order to win.
The data which I gathered about the American public opinion on Israel showed that the traditional paradigm was moving the needle in the wrong direction. It made Israel less attractive and less relevant to the public who we expected not only to support us but also to visit and tour Israel, to do business in Israel and to invest in Israel.
While I was at Harvard, one of the pro-Israel organizations brought to Boston a bus that was bombed by Palestinian terrorists. They did this to show that Israel was the victim in the conflict and to get sympathy. I couldn’t understand how this bus would persuade people to go to Israel for a vacation, invest in Israel, or convince parents to send their kids to “Birthright”. It would probably achieve the opposite.
The results of the research showed how wrong the “Hasbara” paradigm was, both in terms of identifying the challenge, and even more in the way we communicated with the public. The “Hasbara” paradigm is arrogant on the one hand, trying to explain that we are right as if it was an argument about math or physics. We made the wrong assumption that people don’t get it right because they don’t know the facts. If we would just explain it to them, they will then understand. On the other hand, it was apologetic because it assumed that we must explain why we did what we did and therefore focused on the controversial issues.
It became evident that public opinion was about engagement with people and about meeting them where they were; not preaching to them like we always did.
So, just like Ido Aharoni, who initiated the “Israel Branding Project”, I looked for a way to expose people to the attractive and relevant aspects of Israel that we love – the creativity, the warmth, the diversity, etc. However, it was also clear to me that we couldn’t ignore the political issues and speak about our successes with drip irrigation and Waze GPS , when some people would like to get answers for their questions about the violence and the occupation.
I was trying to understand how we could connect with the public more effectively as we addressed the political issues, especially those related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This has been at the center of many people’s minds, especially Progressives, when it came to their perceptions about Israel.
Nadav Tamir is The Peres Center's senior advisor for governmental and international affairs and former personal adviser of Shimon Peres for diplomatic affairs.