© Carlos LATUFF
Stuart Littlewood shows how Israeli public relations fodder pumped out in London and Tel Aviv fails a crucial PR test. He argues that, if the Palestinians and other Arab were to get their media act together, they could “make mincemeat” of Israeli propaganda.
When Ron Prosor arrived in London last year to take up his post as Israeli ambassador he was eager to step up public relations. He told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "I'm not afraid to appear anywhere, and there is no platform ... that I will not utilize for PR work."
We are familiar with the usual Israeli PR mantras:
► having to contend with suicide bombers
► how Arafat turned down former prime minister Ehud Barak's so-called 'generous offer' in 2000
► how the Israeli public has moved to the left in recent years whereas Palestinians have moved to the extreme right
► Israel is a democracy under attack
► Jerusalem is the capital of Israel forever
► Israel is against any negotiations with Hamas because it as a terrorist movement.
This last is all the more preposterous when echoed by the US, Britain and the EU, which have connived to keep Palestine under Israel’s military jackboot for 40 years.
Israel, of course, is an ethnocracy with racist laws, not a democracy as we know it in the West. This week an Israeli human rights organization, Gisha, is appealing against a decision by Israel’s so-called ‘democracy’ banning radio advertisements to highlight the plight of Palestinian students enrolled at foreign universities but prevented by Israel from leaving the Gaza Strip. The director-general of the Broadcast Authority said the subject was “politically and ideologically controversial”.
I wonder if the Ambassador is aware that in the UK PR campaigns are supposed to observe rules set down by the Advertising Standards Authority? In short, all marketing communications must be legal, decent, honest and truthful. The main difficulty for Israeli PR, as others have pointed out, is that Israel is probably the world's worst brand, followed closely by Zionism. Any marketing effort that is remotely decent, honest or truthful would sink both.
Let's take the recent Telegraph article, in which the Ambassador says "the constant barrage of rockets being fired on Israeli citizens... the average British citizen is painfully unaware that, since Hamas seized control of Gaza last year, 1,400 rockets and 1,500 mortar bombs have landed on Israeli soil." He fails to mention that these crude, home-made projectiles are nothing compared to the thousands of high-tech munitions fired by Israeli F16s, helicopter gun-ships, armed drones, tanks, troops and warships at the 1.5 million civilians imprisoned in the Gaza Strip. Is that honest?
Under the rules "no marketing communication should mislead, or be likely to mislead, by inaccuracy, ambiguity, exaggeration, omission or otherwise".
Ambassador Prosor claims that "Britain has become a hotbed for radical anti-Israeli views ... Israel has been cast as a pantomime villain... a climate of hatred is fomented on campuses". This would be hard to prove. Under the rules he must hold documentary evidence to support all claims, whether direct or implied, that are capable of objective substantiation.
If anti-Israeli views do exist, I imagine they're directed not so much against Israel and its people as the Zionist Tendency that rules it.
As for hatred, the Israeli government provides a running master-class on how to stoke it up. Take the latest example. A report by Peace Now, an Israeli non-governmental organization, says that at least 2,600 new Israelis-only homes are currently under construction illegally - in Palestine’s West Bank, an increase of 80 per cent over last year. In occupied East Jerusalem, which Palestinians justly claim as the capital of their future state, the number of new Israeli government bids for construction has increased from 46 in 2007 to 1,761 so far this year.
This breaches earlier agreements as well as international law and obviously undermines final status talks. Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, says the construction will not affect talks. "The peace process is not, and should not be, affected by any kind of settlement activities" and the settlement building programme should not be used as an excuse to avoid negotiations, she tells Palestinians. What planet is the woman on? Everybody knows perfectly well that settlement building, like the Separation Wall, is a Trojan horse used by Israelis to bite deep into Palestinian land, seize control of precious water resources and fragment any future Palestinian state. The Israel government is busily creating ‘facts on the ground’ that are likely to prevent any peace deal, so cannot be regarded as a real ‘partner for peace’.
Enter Condoleezza Rice, having lost all touch with reality and ignoring Peace Now and other reports. She says she has faith in Israeli intentions. "I don't believe that it is Israel's policy to increase activity in the settlements, rather it is to decrease activity," she remarked during a press conference. Rice is supposed to be bright but evidently inhabits the same planet as Livni.
Devious PR goes unchallenged
Let's dwell for a moment on Barak's 'generous offer', another of the myths Israelis love to peddle. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip, seized by Israel in 1967 and occupied ever since, comprise just 22 per cent of pre-partition Palestine. When the Palestinians signed the Oslo Agreement in 1993 they agreed to accept the 22 per cent and recognize Israel within ‘Green Line’ borders (i.e. the 1949 Armistice Line established after the Arab-Israeli War). Conceding 78 per cent of the land that was originally theirs was an astonishing compromise on the part of the Palestinians.
But it wasn't enough for Barak. His 'generous offer' required the inclusion of 69 Israeli settlements within the 22 per cent remnant. It’s plain to see on the map that these settlement blocs create impossible borders and already severely disrupt Palestinian life in the West Bank. Barak also demanded the Palestinian territories be placed under "Temporary Israeli Control", meaning Israeli military and administrative control indefinitely. The 'generous offer' also gave Israel control over all the border crossings of the Palestinian State. What nation in the world would accept that? The truth contained in Barak’s maps was hidden by propaganda spin.
At Taba, Barak presented a revised map. The Palestinians considered it a basis for negotiation but Barak repudiated it after his election defeat. You don’t have to take my word for it – the facts are well documented and explained by organizations such as Gush Shalom.
Another rule to remember is that you "should not exploit the credulity, lack of knowledge or inexperience" of your audience.
Several weeks ago I and others, describing ourselves as Friends of Mohammed Omer, wrote to Ambassador Prosor asking for an explanation after the young journalist was beaten up and admitted to hospital by Israeli security thugs when he arrived at the Allenby Bridge border crossing on 26 June. Mohammed, who had committed no crime, was on his way home to his family in Gaza after receiving the coveted Martha Gellhorn prize for journalism at a ceremony in London.
Mr Prosor ignored our request and several reminders, and finally had his Deputy Head of Mission send a woefully inadequate response to an MP. In it the Israelis tried to demolish Mohammed’s ‘testimony’ and discredit him. But according to Mr Omer no Israeli investigator contacted him and no-one asked for medical reports. Refusing an independent inquiry or tribunal in such a case, and not even interviewing the victim or his doctors, or the Dutch diplomats who accompanied him, spells whitewash – and a PR blunder of the first magnitude.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, when the two Free Gaza boats broke the illegal blockade last week Israel’s propaganda machine lashed out to brand the 40-odd multi-national and multi-faith activists who undertook the voyage a "handful of provocateurs seeking a public relations stunt… aimed at boosting Hamas”. This ridiculous claim didn’t end there. The siege-breakers, said Israeli officials, “support Hamas suicide bombers and rocket attacks on Israel towns and cities” and show "a complete and total disregard for innocent Israel terror victims".
Unable to say anything intelligent about the voyagers – or indeed Hamas – the Israelis as usual resorted to nasty accusations that could not possibly be justified.
Most of the PR fodder pumped out relentlessly by Israeli propagandists in London and Tel Aviv could never hope to pass the ‘decent, honest and truthful’ test. Those responsible for it are plainly incompetent in the professional marketing sense. If only the Palestinians and the Arab League would get their media act together they could make mincemeat of their Israeli tormentors in the all-important battle for hearts and minds.
But I hear on the grapevine that the Palestinian Authority – that den of collaborators in Ramallah – promised their US sponsor not to embarrass Israel in public. So the PA, knowing which side their bread is buttered, make no effort. Thus Israel’s devious PR goes unchallenged – except by Hamas.
It’s a mistake to think you can turn around a poor brand by throwing more PR at it. You have to improve the product. In Israel’s case they’ll have to cut out the crime and racism, hand back what they have stolen, scrupulously observe international law and UN Charter obligations, and show contrition for past sins. Only then will it be possible to begin turning Israel into an acceptable and marketable entity with a fine reputation for justice and good neighbourliness, which surely is what most people wish to see.
When that’s on track is when good PR kicks in.
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© 2008 Stuart Littlewood