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Date posted: May 10, 2011
By Harriet Straughen for MIFTAH

The power of image is important to anyone who is concerned about how others view them. The way one is perceived, especially on first impression, is integral to the opinion of the outside world and their reaction/action towards them. This, it seems, is no different for a government or a whole nation. Politicians strive to perfect their image on behalf of their party in order to secure more votes, and whole countries put across a global image in order to attract people to their shores and boost their tourism industry. But the global image of a country is significant in other, more politically-driven, ways. This essay will look at how Israel understands the importance of its’ image in shaping other countries’ foreign policy towards it and how it manipulates the media in order to refine and justify the actions of the military in news reports, focusing particularly on the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid coverage.

Background: Propaganda, public diplomacy and soft power

In order to disseminate such an image, a government can employ what was originally labeled as propaganda. Following the harmful yet effective propaganda that was in circulation throughout the Second World War and the following Cold War, such image-shaping efforts have now been renamed in order to avoid the negative connotations. Governments now talk about ‘public diplomacy’.

Public diplomacy can affect the foreign policy of another country and thus influence their treatment towards one’s own country. While this can be done through diplomatic, economic and military means, it can also be achieved through ‘soft power’. Therefore governments target civilian audiences whose opinion has a bearing on the government’s policy. As the academic Manheim points out ‘public relations are more likely to have effect in foreign affairs than in domestic affairs because there is less knowledge and experience on part of the citizens’, therefore the coverage of foreign affairs becomes tantamount. In this way, outside governments began to realize that they can have a positive effect on the opinion of civilians and, in turn, on that country’s foreign policy through carefully grooming their public image and explaining their actions to the rest of the world through information.

As governments acknowledged the importance of such ‘information activities’, they began to devote more and more resources to the endeavor. The United States has the Office of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs which is dedicated to ‘supporting the achievement of US foreign policy goals and objectives, advance national interests, and enhance national security by informing and influencing foreign publics…’ The British government also employs their own methods of public diplomacy through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office which undertakes ‘a process of achieving the UK’s international strategic priorities through engaging and forming partnerships with like-minded organizations and individuals in the public arena.’ According to the FCO, ‘it’s not just about delivering messages but holding a two-way dialogue, listening to and learning from audiences around the world, in order to get a better understanding of the changing perceptions of the UK and its policies.’

Following suit, the Israeli government takes the role of public diplomacy very seriously and as such devotes a number of resources to educating and influencing foreign audiences, particularly those in the United States. The Israeli government has its own word that has been used since the 1970s in relation to their own public diplomacy work. Hasbara is roughly translated as ‘explanation’ and is used under the context of Israeli policy and actions. Along with the work undertaken by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, the government has created other ways in which the image of Israel can be explained and promoted around the world, from person to person.

Public diplomacy and hasbara are employed as tactics of ‘soft power’. When Hilary Clinton became Secretary of State, she remarked on the importance of a ‘smart power’ strategy, that being the attention to both hard and soft power. While hard power concerns military prowess and financial coercions, soft power deals more with development and education.

For example, the Hasbara fellowships bring young people from the US to Israel to learn more about the country so that they may become ‘effective pro-Israel advocates on their campuses’.

Perhaps, one of the most challenging obstacles to the image of Israel is the action of its military in respect of the occupation. For this reason, the Israeli Defense has its own department which deals with media relations concerning their own actions. The IF Spokesperson’s Unit is organized into a number of branches ranging from international media, strategies, public affairs and film. The last mentioned produces films and footage about the Israeli military and will be looked at more closely further on in this essay.

Such efforts of public diplomacy have been developed and stream lined so that, following Israeli military action, the appropriate process of ‘explanation’ and justification can be put into place. In order to show how the Israeli public diplomacy or ‘PR’ machine works, I will look at the media coverage following the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010.

To View the Full Special Study as PDF (100 KB)

Harriet Straughen is a Writer for the Media and Information Department at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mid@miftah.org.

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