Carlo Strenger
Haaretz (Blog)
September 23, 2011 - 12:00am

In 1955 Ben-Gurion coined his saying “Um-Shmum”, the expression of disdain against the UN that was followed by: “It doesn’t matter what the Goyim say, but what the Jews do”. This may have been charming when Israel was a young country, and when Dayan’s not wearing a tie was seen as refreshing chutzpah. The disdain for the international community is now turning into Israel’s tragedy and failure with the Palestinian bid for UN recognition.

The UN has, of course, given Israelis many reasons to think that it is biased against Israel: the infamous resolution that Zionism is racism; the dismal record of the Human Rights Council with its preposterous bias against Israel and the anti-Israel spectacle of the Durban racism conference. Many Israelis have come to see human rights discourse as nothing but a cynical ploy used by Israel’s enemies to score diplomatic points.

This view, while correct in certain cases, has led to dangerous myopia. Research by the Foreign Ministry has shown years ago that the global creative class’s attitudes are critical for Israel’s standing in the world, as it comprises most of the world’s opinion leaders: most serious international journalists, commentators and filmmakers; most academics in the social sciences and humanities, and the majority of Liberals in the Free World including the majority of liberal Jews, for whom insistence on the sacredness of human rights is the main lesson from the Holocaust.

This global class takes human rights paradigm very seriously indeed, and sees it as a moral vision in which individual rights are truly sacred, meant to prevent national sovereignty from being used as cover to kill and torture citizens. Ideally the global human rights regime should, in the future, be able to prevent genocide and human rights abuse worldwide, even though we are far away from this ideal, as the international community’s lackluster response to Assad’s carnage in Syria shows.

Israeli politicians aware of the importance of this class’s attitude towards Israel often ask me what PR trick could get Israel out of the negative spotlight of the international media because of my research on the global creative class. They tell me things like “Brazil’s image is good, despite its terrible social conditions and high crime rates; why can’t we get them to talk about our beaches instead?”

My answer is best summarized in the words of Joseph Nye, a Harvard political scientist who coined the term “soft power” referring to a country’s the ability to get what it wants without its military and economic power: “Even the best advertising cannot sell an unpopular product. Policies that appear as narrowly self-serving or arrogantly presented are likely to prohibit rather than produce soft power.”

The Netanyahu government has depleted Israel’s ability to influence world opinion to an absolute low. Nye’s description of soft power makes it easy to understand why: “The soft power of a country rests primarily on three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).”

Israel’s foreign policies, particularly the occupation of the West Bank and the siege on Gaza, are seen neither as legitimate nor as having moral authority, and its political values are seen as chauvinist. As simple as it sounds, this is something that the current government seems incapable of understanding. As a result they behave with arrogance, assuming that the world is too stupid to realize how right they are: Netanyahu’s lectures Obama; Lieberman’s offends foreign diplomats and politicians, and Amidror’s pontificates to foreign Ambassadors.

Israel does have an attractive culture with artists respected worldwide like Amos Oz, David Grossman, Daniel Barenboim and Idan Reichel. But none of this increases Israel’s soft power, because these artists represent the politically disenfranchised minority of Israeli liberals that is diametrically opposed to the Netanyahu government’s policies.

The price of this government’s myopia in terms of Israel’s credibility, standing and popularity is phenomenal. Whatever the exact result of the Palestinian’s UN bid will be, we must not let Netanyahu’s spin, that Israel scores a moral victory if some major European countries will vote against it or abstain, confuse us; Israel’s loss of soft power is no less than a catastrophe. The day when global public opinion will consider Israel as another South Africa and push for sanctions against the country is drawing ever closer.

When it comes to the economy, Netanyahu perfectly well understands that Israel has to adhere to international standards, but he has never understood that the human rights paradigm is the new global gold standard in international politics. As a result, Israel’s financial rating has gone up to A+, but its political rating is sinking towards the analogue of bonds issued by the Greek government.


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