Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jul 20, 2017
The thirst of developing countries to copy Israel's model of success — that some say “Jewish Success Story" — needs focus on technology.
Israel's growing public diplomacy focus on Asia and new media

In the last few years, there has been a growing attention in Israel to the importance of Asian markets and challenges to the perception of western-oriented Israeli diplomacy. This has been mainly because of Asia’s economic growth over the past two decades. Other reasons for this tectonic geopolitical shift from the West to South and East Asia were the financial crisis in the West which led to the weakening of the US and Europe. The stirs of the global recovery awakened questions of redistribution of power, which was integrated into the external players' field of vision.

Implications for these changes have begun to become visible in the policies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel — its increased number of consulates on the Chinese soil, rising frequency of diplomatic, academic and economic expeditions to the East or vice versa, etc. Moreover, formal agreements, such as the sale of advanced Israeli technologies to the Indian army, a deal estimated at 2 billion dollars, prove that this growing interest is not one-sided.

In the recent years, Israel's advocacy efforts called 'Hasbara', meaning explanation in Hebrew, have been carried out mainly in specific destinations like Europe and the US. Even the 'Hasbara strategy' has not been without criticism. While its supporters see it as "Israeli soft power", its critics point out many deficiencies, even arguing that the assumptions of the strategy are wrong. They argue that even the description "Israeli soft power" is a misused term because of its unnatural and negative core and the case of the Israeli discourse in the world media doesn't fall under this category.

Since its Independence in 1948, Israel has felt lack of a long-term Asia policy. Instead, its focus had been on responding to emergency situations.

Now, the warming of diplomatic relations with Asian countries with structured economic interests has further sharpened the need for transformation in the 'Hasbara' focuses. Also, today we are witnessing a transition from discourses based on explaining to educating. For this purpose, active cooperation between the foreign ministry and NGOs has begun. They are currently working on replicating the Israeli success of Birthright delegations to countries such as India and China in order to expose and encourage delegations of young professionals and students as an essential part of the new long-term policy.

This change, however, comes with partial dilemmas. Since the work of explaining can be performed by any person, it is sometimes done by inexperienced and unskilled agents. This is a challenge being faced by 'Hasbara' in Asia. The success of 'Hasbara' lies in understanding target audiences and designing the message accordingly. The Director of Asia at StandWithUs organisation says: "Our biggest obstacle is dealing with culture and language gaps. Another difficulty is the unfamiliarity with the history of the region. For these communities, showcasing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes almost irrelevant. Japan and India are the leading countries in which a political discourse of this rational can be seen, perhaps because of a collective feeling that gives significant value to pacifism."

Digital diplomacy

The internet revolution has provided ability and opportunity to address citizens of other countries directly in a non-mediated manner that has been described as the "21st century politics." Through the years, foreign policy practitioners learn the growing values and benefits of such groundbreaking explanatory methods. The new media also presents challenges to public diplomacy, both because it tears down the filters, delivering a raw version of what is happening, without the influence of external factors such as government censorship or news editors. Moreover, ministries can now react to gradual or swift changes in the public's perception and amend it if necessary.

Considering the changes brought in by the new media, Israel has devised new strategies. For the first time in Israel, an international conference on digital diplomacy was launched last year. With China as the most active social media environment, with more than 300 million users, and India with an estimated 250 million users, it is only wise to follow the basic marketing strategy: go where your customers are. According to a recent study, these efforts have positive impacts. Israel's Foreign Ministry is now the 8th largest investor in official digital diplomacy – even above important countries like Germany, Japan and Switzerland. There are 477,000 followers on the official Israeli MFA facebook page. Also followed are the MFA's activity on many other new media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.

New nation branding

Israel's image in the world sometimes can be described as a "Startup Nation". The active approach of the Israeli government to invest in technologies, reflected in the creation of a high tech supportive environment, which includes minimal regulation, low taxes and great competition, is a strong gust of wind that is blowing in the sails of the eastern partners. In this spirit, in July 2015, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, approved the transformation of the Office of the Chief Scientist to Israel Innovation Authority. The fact that this change originated from the country's leader was taken as a surprise by the Asian partners.

The thirst of developing countries to copy the Israeli model of success, which some may call it the "Jewish Success Story," created the need to focus branding of the nation on technology.

Efforts by other countries, especially in Asia, to decode and replicate the secrets of the 'Jewish Success Story' is reflected in a temporal trend of Talmudic studies in South Korea, considering the Chavruta method to be an inseparable part of shaping the creative mind. This leads to the general assumption that the roots of the Israeli successes are embedded, as seen on the street level, in its religious and cultural foundations, as seen in China and India. It may also explain the large attraction in countries like China, India, Korea, Singapore to the famous book, Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Shaul Singer.

Today, Israel recruits young entrepreneurs to the ranks of informal diplomacy. There are many senior managers in their 30s, against the rooted perception in the eastern countries, where leadership batons are held by the older class.

Israel have not yet fully utilised the great potential in these countries. So far, only 10 percent of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs' budget is devoted to the Asian continent, even though its population accounts for half of the world's population. The awareness about the importance and centrality of Asian markets might have percolated among people and a fundamental change is taking place at the policy levels, especially public advocacy. Of course, there is no question of the importance of the US and the West to Israeli interests, but at the same time, there is need for more efficient implantation of the "Look East" policy, as other countries have done.

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