The Delegitimization Challenge: Creating a Political Firewall

This report analyzes and provides a conceptual response to the erosion in Israel's diplomatic status over the past few years, which reached its peak with the Goldstone report . This attack possesses strategic significance, and may develop into a comprehensive existential threat within a few years.

Click here for the full document.

Executive Summary: Background and Introduction

1. In the past few years, Israel has been subjected to increasingly harsh criticism around the world, resulting in an erosion of its international image, and exacting a tangible strategic price. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict serves as the 'engine' driving this criticism, which peaked with and around the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead. In some places, criticism has stretched beyond legitimate discourse regarding Israeli policy to a fundamental challenge to the country's right to exist.

2. Two forces and dynamics link these phenomena and the frustrating outcomes of the Second Lebanon War (07/06) and Operation Cast Lead (01/09):

  • The Resistance Network, based in the Middle East - and comprising nations, organizations, and individuals - rejects Israel's right to exist on the basis of Islamist or Arab-nationalist ideology under the leadership of Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas;

  • The Delegitimization Network, primarily comprising organizations and individuals in the West - mostly elements of the radical European left, Arab and Islamic groups, and so-called post or anti-Zionist Jews and Israelis -negate Israel's right to exist based on a variety of political and philosophical arguments.

Both groups derive their inspiration from the collapse of the Soviet Union, East Germany, or apartheid South Africa.

Diagnosis: Systemic and Systematic Assault on Israel's Political Model

3. Israel's recent diplomatic and military frustrations are driven by the maturation of two parallel processes:

  • The Resistance Network advances the 'implosion strategy' that aims to precipitate Israel's collapse based on three principles: 'Overstretching' Israel by undermining attempts to end its control over the Palestinian population; delegitimizing Israel; and conducting asymmetric warfare in the battlefield and against Israel's civilian population to counter IDF military superiority;

  • The Delegitimization Network that aims to supersede the Zionist model with a state that is based on the ‘one person, one vote' principle by turning Israel into a pariah state and by challenging the moral legitimacy of its authorities and existence.

4. The dynamics of each of these processes derive from a set of ideas that are increasingly sophisticated, ripe, lucid, and coherent, even if inconsistencies persist and debates continue, and notwithstanding that the above-mentioned logic has not matured into a 'strategy' that has operational objectives, timelines, or milestones.

5. Asymmetrical approaches of Israel and its delegitimizers to Israel's fundamental legitimacy:

  • Israel tends to work 'from the center to the periphery' or 'top-down,' emphasizing formal relations with political and business elites; focusing on mainstream media; and often being guided by the mindset that "if you are not with me you are against me"; meanwhile

  • Israel's delegitimizers work 'from the periphery to the center' and 'bottom-up,' focusing on non-governmental organizations, academia, grassroots movements, and the general public; using social networks over the internet; and being guided by the mindset that "if you are not against me, you are with me."

Hence, while Israel's formal diplomatic position remains relatively strong and solid, its standing among the general publics and elites is eroded.

6. The effectiveness of Israel's delegitimizers, who represent a relatively marginal political and societal force in Europe and North America, stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others by blurring the lines with Israel's critics. They do so by branding Israel as a pariah and 'apartheid' state; rallying coalitions around 'outstanding issues' such as the 'Gaza blockade'; making pro-Palestinian activity trendy; and promoting grassroots activities such as boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) as a way to 'correct Israel's ways.'

7. The maturation and convergence of these two processes is exacerbating Israel's predicament in the Palestinian arena:

  • While the Resistance Network undermines the separation between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the Two-State Solution;

  • The Delegitimization Network tarnishes Israel's reputation, constrains its military capabilities, and advances the One-State Solution.

8. The Resistance Network and Israel's delegitimizers leverage the Palestinian condition to advance their cause, yet they do not seek its resolution or accept ideas such as 'co-existence' or 'peace' that embody an acceptance of Israel's existence. Their objectives dictate that any compromise with Israel should be temporary, and even borders that are based on the June 4, 1967 lines would only be provisional.

9. A tipping point in this context would be a paradigm shift from the Two-State Solution to the One-State Solution as the consensual framework for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

10. Clearly, an Israeli and Palestinian comprehensive Permanent Status Agreement that establishes a Palestinian state and brings about an 'end of conflict' or 'finality of claims' would weaken the grounds of Israel's delegitimization. However, even given such an agreement, the logic of the delegitimization campaign would persist.

11. The issue of Israel's Arab citizens may become the next ‘outstanding issue' driving delegitimization in the event that an Israeli-Palestinian Permanent Status Agreement is secured. In fact, the Resistance Network has already attempted to mobilize this community albeit with very limited success.

Here too, credible and persistent commitment for full integration and equality of Israel's Arab citizens would weaken the grounds of Israel's delegitimizers, but will not end their campaign, whose logic is rooted in challenging Israel's existence and not its policies.

12. Similarly, while public relations (Hasbara) are critically important, they cannot and will not neutralize the delegitimizers.

13. Therefore, Israel is likely to experience setbacks in its attempts to ensure its security and identity, which merges its Jewish and democratic character, unless it is able to meet the challenge of Israel's fundamental delegitimization effectively.

Prognosis: Strategic Challenge, Potentially Existential

14. Israel faces a systemic, systematic, and increasingly effective assault on its political and economic model. Its inadequate response reflects a crisis in its foreign policy and security doctrine, as well as its conceptual inferiority.

15. Strategic implications are already apparent: Increased international interference in Israel's domestic affairs; greater limitations on Israel's ability to use its military force; economic boycotts and sanctions; and travel restrictions on officers, officials, and politicians due to application of universal legal jurisdiction (known as lawfare). In addition, in many places Israel has been successfully branded by its adversaries as a pariah state that deserves the fate of South Africa's apartheid regime.

16. The working assumptions underlying Israel's security and foreign policy doctrine - viewing military capabilities as the only potential existential threat facing Israel - have stagnated for decades. These assumptions yield the conclusion that the security establishment constitutes Israel's primary response mechanism, and resources are allocated accordingly.

17. Meanwhile, Israel's foreign affairs establishment is ill-structured and ill-equipped: Resources are meager: budgets are scarce and diplomats are few in number; there is no clear responsibility for key foreign policy issues, and thus no clear policy; and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is organized according to geographic regions and designed to operate vis-à-vis countries, and therefore lacks the ability to wage a global campaign on the non-governmental level.

18. Hence, there is a mismatch between Israel's foreign policy and security doctrine, on the one hand, and the challenge Israel faces in the diplomatic and political arena, on the other hand.

19. Such political, diplomatic, and economic dynamics may pose an existential threat. They have brought down militarily powerful nations, some of them even nuclear superpowers. With the effective mobilization against apartheid South Africa as inspiration, and given the significant strides they have made against Israel, the Resistance Network and Israel's delegitimizers are increasingly emboldened.

20. Hence, Israel's diplomacy and foreign policy doctrine requires urgent overhaul.

Treatment: Policy Directions

21. This document focuses on Israel's structural response to its delegitimization. Its scope does not cover a discussion of closely related issues such as Israel's policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians or its Arab citizens; the battle of narratives, i.e. the substantive response to delegitimizers' arguments; or the relation between Israel's delegitimization and anti-Semitism.

22. Neither changing policy nor improving public relations will suffice in the battle against delegitimization. Clearly, a credible and persistent commitment by Israel to reaching peace and ending control over the Palestinian population, as well as to full integration and equality of Israel's Arab citizens, are essential for effectively battling Israel's delegitimization. In addition, hasbara has great significance in articulating Israel's positions. Nonetheless, the logic of delegitimization stems from a rejection of Israel's existence, and therefore can not be made to disappear by PR or policy.

23. Israel's foreign policy and security doctrine must seek 'synchronized victories' in a number of arenas simultaneously, i.e. not just on the military front, but also on the home front, in politics and diplomacy, and in the media. As these arenas are intertwined within a complex system, they should be addressed as systemic whole.

24. Faced with a potentially existential threat, Israel must treat it as such by focusing its intelligence agencies on this challenge; allocating appropriate resources; developing new knowledge, designing a strategy, executing it; and debriefing itself.

25. It takes a network to fight a network1 - The power of human networks is determined by their 'hubs' and 'catalysts':

  • Hubs are units of the network that have extraordinary influence on the values, priorities, and patterns of conduct of the network due to a very high number of links to other units;

  • Catalysts are units of the network that dedicate themselves to its cause by mobilizing financial and human resources, collecting information and turning it into knowledge, and developing the ideology.

Hence, in order to effectively face the Delegitimization Network, Israel must embrace a network-based logic and response by:

  • Focusing on the hubs of delegitimization - such as London, Paris, Toronto, Madrid, and the Bay Area -and on undermining its catalysts;

  • Cultivating its own network by strengthening its hubs and developing its own catalysts.

26. Clash of brands: Israel's re-branding is strategically important. As mentioned, Israel has been successfully branded by its adversaries as a violent country that violates international law and human rights. With such a brand, even the most outrageous accusations may stick. A different brand would not only make Israel's communication more effective, but would also make it more immune to attacks by its offenders. Finally, it is equally important to brand the other side by associating them with values that reflect their actions and reality.

27. Relationship-based diplomacy with elites - The hearts and minds of the elites - individuals with influence, leadership, or authority - are the battleground between Israel and its foes. The most effective barrier against the spread of delegitimization in these communities is a network of strong personal relationships. Israel and its allies should maintain thousands of personal relationships with political, financial, cultural, media, and security-related elites, particularly in the hubs.

28. Engage the critics; isolate the delegitimizers - Obviously, criticism of Israeli policy, even if harsh or unfair, is legitimate as long as it does not amount to demonization and delegitimization, and does not blatantly deploy double-standards. Often, Israeli government policy fails to differentiate between critics and delegitimizers, and thus, pushes the former into the arms of the latter. Reut recommends the opposite: Israel should engage its critics, while isolating the delegitimizers.

29. NGOs to engage with NGOs - Israel's governmental agencies will have a hard time dealing effectively with non-governmental organizations that criticize Israel's policies. NGOs are more likely to do a better job in this respect. Many of them can be mobilized toward this task. In this context, it is particularly important that the International Department of the Histadrut, Israel's labor union, be reinvigorated to engage labor unions around the world.

30. Mobilizing Jewish and Israeli Diaspora communities; let the local pro-Israel community lead - Israeli Diaspora, as well as Israelis who travel overseas, can be mobilized by Israel. Additionally, because Israel's delegitimization is often a modern form of anti-Semitism, Jewish communities can and should be mobilized toward this cause as well. Finally, the local pro-Israel community is more likely to have a nuanced understanding of the local dynamics and the appropriate response than the Israeli delegation.

31. Re-organization of the foreign affairs establishment - As mentioned, Israel's foreign policy establishment is ill-structured and ill-equipped to meet the challenge of delegitimization. Its meager resources fall short of the bare minimum, and its structure, mode of operation, incentive system, and human capital are not designed to meet this challenge. Hence, meeting the delegitimization challenge requires instituting a zero-based budget that is based on a comprehensive assessment of needs, as well as conducting a comprehensive reform within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.