How Avigdor Lieberman’s Policies Will Ravage Hasbara

Israel has never been the most popular of nations. Since its inception, the Jewish state has consistently found itself in the precarious position of having to choose between shielding its public image and implementing arguably necessary security measures that inevitably … Read More

By / February 10, 2009

Israel has never been the most popular of nations. Since its inception, the Jewish state has consistently found itself in the precarious position of having to choose between shielding its public image and implementing arguably necessary security measures that inevitably undermine that same image. When faced with the choice between accolade and survival, Israel has routinely opted to take those steps which it deems necessary to its survival, no matter the damage done to its credibility nor the Jewish People’s. Never so much has this been the case as with the second Palestinian intifada, which, since its outset, has compelled an Israeli military response staggering in its appearance of disproportionality and consequently staggering in its appearance of brutality. Worse yet for Israel, these events bear the unfortunate circumstance of coinciding with the advent of the Internet era, unfolding at a time that has inevitably placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at center stage among all international conflicts — at least online. Throughout the last eight years, the World Wide Web has been an unyielding source of horrifying images and, to put it mildly, unflattering news emanating from the Middle East, as well as heart-rending appeals by Palestinian solidarity activists and an infinite stream of ill-informed and conspiratorially-minded (if not outright antisemitic) screeds demonizing the actions of Israel and the influence of its supporters in Washington. All of this has lent to the increasingly popular view — whether held by individuals in whole or part — that Israel is a racist, apartheid state engaged in ethnic cleansing and war crimes and, furthermore, that the American Jewish community is exerting undue influence in support of Israel’s purportedly Naziesque policies, which Jews "of all people" should know better than to pursue. In the specter of this image, is it any wonder that Israel’s 2006 operation in Lebanon and its recent assault on Gaza inspired more public outcry and protest against the Jewish state than ever witnessed before? For most Jews and Israelis, of course, such a depiction of Israel could not be any more outrageous, further from the truth, nor threatening to the security of the Jewish state and Jewish people around the globe. The lopsided vilification of Israel, as it’s perceived, not only overlooks the nuances and mischaracterizes the nature of the conflict, but it also negates the legitimate concerns and rights of the Jewish people who are entitled to live in peace and security within their own state. For this fact, countless Jews have tasked themselves with the role of stating Israel’s case publicly and defending the Jewish state from its detractors whether in the media, on college campuses, or in the political arena. In the U.S. alone, dozens of Israel advocacy or "hasbara" (public relations) projects infused with tens of millions of dollars annually are focused full-time on countering such anti-Israel sentiment, from large community supported initiatives like those spearheaded by the Anti-Defamation League and the United Jewish Communities, to smaller initiatives like Fuel for Truth and Stand With Us, which were founded by independent activists. Many of these organizations provide training and assistance to college students to help combat anti-Israel activism on campus, including challenging the tenure of professors who are alleged to discriminate against Zionist students. Others have zeroed in on the online threat, with groups like GIYUS and the Jewish Internet Defense Force mobilizing Jewish Web surfers to tilt online polls and combat anti-Israel submissions to popular User Generated Content Web sites. The Israeli Consulate has even launched a Twitter account and its own various blogs in order to engage in the online debate. Often, the case for Israel — whether made in a blog entry or in a shouting match across a campus quad — is stated with a series of standardized talking points: Israel is the only true democracy in the Middle East, it is the only reliably pro-Western ally in a notoriously anti-Western neighborhood, and it is an important strategic ally of the U.S. economically and militarily. In rebuffing claims made against Israel in its treatment of the state’s Arab minority, it is claimed that the Arab population of Israel has full equal rights and protection under the law, that Arabs are free to vote in Israeli elections and to run for and serve in public office, and that the quality of life maintained by Arab citizens of Israel is unsurpassed by that of any other Middle Eastern nation.   But what would happen to Israel advocacy efforts should those talking points cease to reflect reality of the situation? Or to be more exact, what happens when a prominent Israeli politician pursues proposed policies that would explicitly disenfranchise Israel’s Arab minority or even eliminate its very presence from the state all together? As chairman of the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman has, throughout his political career, proffered many extreme ideas, from drowning Palestinian political prisoners in the Dead Sea to executing Israeli Arab legislators who maintain contacts with the Hamas government in Gaza. His most recent controversial proposals include redistricting the state of Israel to exclude Arab-majority regions all together and requiring the remaining Arab population to take a loyalty oath or otherwise forfeit citizenship. Both policies would be enacted without the democratic consent of the Arab population. As ludicrous as these policies may seem, the party’s strong showing in today’s elections evidences that Lieberman’s ideas are gaining traction among a war and peace process weary Israeli electorate hungry for new ideas that adequately address Israel’s oldest challenge: maintaining both the Jewish and democratic character of the state. In their biggest polling victory to date, Yisrael Beiteinu won 15 seats in the Knesset, coming into third place ahead of the once dominant Labor party. While the party has seen moderate electoral success in the past, neither Yisrael Beiteinu nor its chairman has ever enjoyed so much public support nor media attention. Now Yisrael Beiteinu may very well decide whether Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima party or Benjamin Netanyahu’s moderate right Likud party forms the next government coalition. What this means for Lieberman’s proposed agenda remains to be seen. It’s quite unlikely that such policies would ever see the light of day under a Likud or Kadima administration. Yet the fact that a prominent Israeli politician is gaining ground on such a platform itself gives cause for concern, as it risks further undermining an already considerably weakened pro-Israel position. Should such policies ever come to pass, experts say that defending them would be untenable. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a former press officer at the Israeli Consulate General in New York said that should Lieberman’s policies gain footing, "It would be a hasbara disaster." "The state is already criticized in the media for the poor conditions under which Israeli Arabs currently live," he said. "These policies would only lend weight to the accusations that Israel is becoming an apartheid state." "A lot of people on the center left in Israel and even on the right are already pretty concerned about how it looks to the outside world," says Amos Kamil, director of the Israel Advocacy Initiative at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. "The ‘Zionism is racism’ crowd is going to seize onto this and we’re never convince them of anything." Of greater concern, says Kamil, are those who have not yet made up their minds about the conflict. "It’s going to be tricky for those in the middle. If an advocate is trying to convince people who are undecided, this might be a problematic turn of events." Steve Rabinowitz, a former Clinton White House aide and a media strategist for several Israel advocacy organizations, concurs. Were such policies to be implemented, says Rabinowitz, "it would brutalize mainstream public support for Israel." "Politically savvy American Jews who want to maintain mainstream American support for Israel would have to jump through a lot of hoops separating how they feel about Israel as a country, Zionism as a concept, and their lack of support for the Israeli government and its policies," says Rabinowitz. "We’d hear so much more of that than ever before, especially among those Jews trying to keep non-Jews in the pro-Israel fold. It’s tough enough now as it is." "I think it would definitely challenge us as a community whereas many of those positions are ones we don’t agree with," says Amos Kamil. "But I don’t think, as Israel advocates, that you can throw out the baby with the bathwater." That one may disagree with the policy, he said, "doesn’t necessarily change our need to advocate for Israel. We can openly disagree with the policies and still defend Israel’s right to exist." Jon Loew, founder and chairman of Fuel for Truth, believes that Lieberman’s policies could have both negative and positive effects. "I think that some people will view his policies as extreme and become alienated further from Israel," he says. "But I also think other people will be able to relate to his policies and further embrace Israel." When asked what kind of rhetoric to expect from Israeli officials and Israel advocates should they be forced to defend Lieberman’s polices, the former consulate press official said, "There would likely be a major effort to paint Israeli Arabs as people who have not shown loyalty to the country. You would likely see statistics and images promoting the notion that Israeli Arabs support Hamas and the like. And I think that strategy will fail miserably."   Loew, on the other hand, sees a silver lining. He believes Lieberman’s proposals could have the potential benefit of reprioritizing the activist agenda. "Right now the world is obsessed with stopping Israel from expanding their townships in disputed territories," says Loew. "Maybe if Lieberman is successful in implementing these even more controversial policies, the world will focus on that instead of nitpicking every brick that’s laid in Efrat [a West Bank settlement]. It may end up giving Israel more room to negotiate." For those wary of such an outcome, "The good news," says Rabinowitz, "is that there is nearly zero chance" of Lieberman’s policies gaining real ground. "I think the only way that Lieberman makes it into the coalition is if the coalition is so broad that he could never bring the coalition down by himself. [The winning party] would be foolish to build a narrow coalition with him, lest they be held captive by him." "I would be surprised if his positions would be adopted by any coalition government in which he’d be asked to serve," says Kamil. Noting that Lieberman had previously served in both Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert’s administrations to little effect, he says that, "Although Lieberman’s policies might be repugnant to some, they have still never been part of any government he’s been asked to serve in." "I don’t have to tell you that what somebody says in Israeli politics before and after an election are two very different things," he added. The former consulate press officer also agrees. "He’s going to be reined in. You’re going to see his position move towards the center because the Israeli public won’t tolerate it and Netanyahu [the expected winner at the time of this interview] won’t tolerate it. If he wants to stay in the government and have his constituency’s interests met, he’s going to have to toe the party line."

For the moment, a reprieve.

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