Palestinians gain ground in PR, diplomatic war


In the long-running Palestinian-Israeli conflict, score some recent victories for the Palestinians.

It’s not that Israel has given an inch in the territorial dispute over the West Bank, or that the Palestinians in Gaza have achieved new military victories against the Israelis, despite increased rocket and mortar fire from the coastal strip in recent weeks.

Rather, the Palestinians have scored a series of diplomatic and public-relations successes against a Jewish state weakened by fraying relationships and a declining reputation internationally.

On the diplomatic front, Palestinian leaders announced this week that 10 European Union countries were upgrading their ties with the PLO. Earlier this month, three Latin American countries—Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia—issued formal recognitions of the state of Palestine.

On Sunday was the much-publicized lunch hosted by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for Israeli politicians and activists in Ramallah. Numerous Op-Eds followed in the Israeli media and overseas noting that there is a Palestinian partner for peace even if there isn’t an Israeli one.

Then there was the early December decision by the Obama administration to drop its effort to persuade Israel to agree to an additional 90-day freeze of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. Commentators cited Israeli intransigence as the primary reason.

“Israel,” columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in a Dec. 11 Op-Ed in The New York Times, “when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not ‘How much?’ It is: ‘Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.’”

Over the last few months, Israel’s declining international reputation has given the Palestinians and their allies an opening they have exploited by effectively casting Israel as the bully and the unyielding party in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

It is a message that is promoted relentlessly by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to make Israel an international pariah, and it is reinforced by negative assessments of Israeli actions such as the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza two years ago, the deadly Turkish flotilla incident of May 31 and Israel’s daily treatment of West Bank Palestinians.

If the goal is to increase pressure on Israel to accede to the creation of a Palestinian state, a strategy that focuses on diplomacy and PR appears to have a greater chance of success right now than the Palestinians’ decades-long strategy of terrorism and war.

That strategy—call it the violent one—was snuffed out in recent years by Israeli military operations, Israel’s erection of the West Bank security fence and a recognition by leading Palestinian figures that the violence was doing more harm to the Palestinian national cause than good.

“We tried the intifada, and it caused us a lot of damage,” Abbas told an interviewer with the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat in September.

Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would not revert to violent uprising even if peace talks collapsed.

With relative moderates like Abbas in charge of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank—the primary public face of the Palestinians—there is a greater understanding that to achieve statehood the Palestinians must win the world to their side. That, after all, paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel, after the United Nations voted in November 1947 to recognize a Jewish state in Palestine.

Now the Palestinians are setting their sights on this same goal.

U.N. recognition would shift the conflict from one over “occupied Palestinian territories” to a conflict over an “occupied state with defined borders,” Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. “We urge the international community to salvage the two-state solution by recognizing a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders.”

While U.N. recognition of Palestine might make a diplomatic end run around Israel, it hardly would result in an immediate Palestinian state. The United Nations would have no way of enforcing its decision, and Israeli troops and settlers would remain in the West Bank.

What it would do, however, is significantly ratchet up the pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinians.

“Widespread international recognition of Palestine’s legitimacy and existence has very significant consequences,” Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, wrote on his blog earlier this month.

That pressure isn’t just coming from outside Israel.

“The Palestinians will declare a state. Virtually the whole world will recognize it. And we will be left without security arrangements,” Israeli Trade and Industry Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer warned in October.

There is pressure even from inside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. Likud veteran and Cabinet minister Michael Eitan has proposed moving settlers willing to accept compensation and relocation out of the West Bank and into Israel proper to signal to the world that Israel is serious about wanting peace with the Palestinians.

This week, Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar wrote that Israel needs to be saved from itself.

“Almost no day goes by without some other country recognizing a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders,” Eldar wrote. “According to the WikiLeaks documents, even the Germans, Israel’s steadfast supporters in Europe, have lost their faith in the peaceful intentions of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.”

Whatever criticism there is inside Israel about the Israeli government’s approach toward the Palestinians, the criticism outside Israel is sharper.

The main holdout is the United States, where recent polls show that the American people overwhelmingly favor Israel over the Palestinians, and Congress remains steadfastly pro-Israel.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is aiming to change that. Using everything from campus activism to boycotts of stores that sell Israeli food products to bus ads promoting pro-Palestinian messages, the movement is hoping to sway public opinion.

Starting Dec. 27, the two-year anniversary of the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, a group called the Seattle Midwest Awareness Campaign will be running ads on the sides of Seattle buses featuring photos of children looking at a demolished building under the heading “Israeli War Crimes: Your tax dollars at work.”

At Princeton University in New Jersey, DePaul University in Chicago and on the streets of Philadelphia, pro-Palestinian activists have campaigned to have Israeli brands of hummus removed from campus cafeterias or store shelves. In New York, boycott supporters demonstrated outside a store belonging to the Israeli chocolatier Max Brenner.

“The relics of the past boycotts—from Nuremberg to Damascus—are back,” Ethan Felson, vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in a JTA Op-Ed. “Its proponents seek to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into every sphere of American life.”

In the zero-sum game that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that’s good news for the Palestinians.

Toronto film fest calls Israeli PR strategy into question


When Amir Gissin helped come up with an idea to remake Israel’s international image several years ago, it’s unlikely he imagined that the showcasing of Israeli films in Toronto would spark a star-studded Hollywood brouhaha over artistic expression and cultural boycotts.

But that’s what happened as Israel became the major flashpoint at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

In an interview last year with the Canadian Jews News, Gissin boasted that his new marketing idea, known as Brand Israel, would help reshape public perceptions of the Jewish state and culminate in a major presence at the 2009 festival.

The presence turned out to be the focus on Tel Aviv as part of the festival’s new City to City program, which included an appearance by the city’s mayor and VIP receptions in addition to the screening of 10 Israeli films.

“The way to fix negative images of Israel is to present Israel in a positive light elsewhere,” Gissin told the paper.

But the effort appears to have backfired as a string of celebrities, including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen and Harry Belafonte, signed on to the so-called Toronto Declaration claiming that the Tel Aviv spotlight is merely an attempt by the Israeli government to divert attention from its treatment of the Palestinians.

So rather than talking about Israel’s rich cinematic culture, the buzz this week in Toronto has centered on the one thing Israeli officials had sought to avoid: the conflict with the Palestinians.

Israel has long sought to divert the focus from its conflict with the Palestinians out of concern that in the eyes of many, the country is a Middle East backwater engaged in an interminable tribal conflict.

The 2007 “Girls of the IDF” photo shoot for Maxim magazine and the recent transformation of a spit of land in Manhattan’s Central Park into a replica of the Tel Aviv beach were of a piece with the Foreign Ministry’s efforts to broaden public perceptions of Israel and, in effect, tell the Western world, “Hey, we’re just like you.”

Last year, the Israeli government dedicated $10.6 million to the effort, according to Joel Lion, Israel’s current consul for media affairs in New York, who in an earlier post in Germany arranged for the prime minister of Saxony to cook falafel and couscous with an Israeli chef.

Increasingly, cultural events featuring Israeli artists have been the focus of protests in North America. But the debacle in Toronto appears to have drawn a much higher level of attention, raising questions about the rebranding strategy.

The trouble began when filmmaker John Greyson pulled his short film from the festival. That spurred a group of filmmakers and activists—among them Fonda, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and the historian Howard Zinn—to sign a declaration titled “No Celebration of Occupation.”

“We do not protest the individual Israeli filmmakers included in City to City, nor do we in any way suggest that Israeli films should be unwelcome at TIFF,” the statement said. “However, especially in the wake of this year’s brutal assault on Gaza, we object to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign on behalf of what South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, and U.N. General Assembly President Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann have all characterized as an apartheid regime.”

Within days, the Jewish federations in Toronto and Los Angeles had organized a group of Hollywood stars to sign a statement protesting the Toronto Declaration. The statement—its signatories include Jerry Seinfeld, Natalie Portman and Sacha Baron Cohen—ran as a full-page advertisement in the Tuesday edition of the Toronto Star.

“Anyone who has actually seen recent Israeli cinema, movies that are political and personal, comic and tragic, often critical, knows they are in no way a propaganda arm for any government policy,” the statement said. “Blacklisting them only stifles the exchange of cultural knowledge that artists should be the first to defend and protect. Those who refuse to see these films for themselves or prevent them from being seen by others are violating a cherished right shared by Canada and all democratic countries.”

Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center argued in an opinion piece for the Toronto Star that those backing the declaration criticizing the focus on Tel Aviv had signed on to something that was “intentionally or unintentionally nothing more than a recipe for Israel’s destruction.”

Fonda took it personally, responding with a statement in which she described her support for various Israeli causes and stressed that the declaration did not call for a boycott of Israeli films. Several Atlanta Jewish leaders, including rabbis and a former federation president, issued their own statement defending her.

However, Fonda then issued a second statement standing by her opposition to the official focus on Tel Aviv, but saying that the declaration was one-sided and poorly worded.

In interviews Tuesday, those involved in Brand Israel disputed the notion that the festival controversy rendered their strategy inoperable. Several compared the effort to New York City’s campaign to rebrand itself the Big Apple in the 1970s after years in which the city was seen as a hotbed of crime and ineffective government.

“You’re always going to have people imbued with politics and seeing things through that lens,” said Barak Orenstein, a brand manager in Toronto who gave the keynote address at a Brand Israel conference last year. “But there’s definitely a need to share Israel’s contributions with the world. And I think the country has to be proactive about the wonderful things that it’s sharing.”

Lion was even more dismissive, saying that the protesters were a small group and “nothing new.” He noted, as did several others, that the festival stood by its decision to highlight the Israeli films and festival-goers would still have a chance to see them.

“People see that films from Israel are coming to an international film festival,” Lion said. “They see that the films are there. So it’s also a part of the branding effort, even if there’s controversy. Controversy only helps.”