Once and for All, Israel Must Increase its Soft Power

by Gedalyah Reback

“Disproportionate power, sometimes called ‘hegemony’, has been associated with leadership, but appeals to values and ideology also matter, even for a hegemony . . .”

These are the recent words of American political scientist Joseph S Nye, in an article entitled “Recovering American Leadership.” He is widely credited with having pioneered the conceptual theories of “soft power,” which contrasts with the ability to economically or militarily exert influence over other political entities, i.e. “hard power.”

Israel has built up an incredible military strength out of necessity, surviving numerous attempts to jeopardize the existence of the country and the ability for it to sustain itself. In so doing, it has developed a perhaps unmatchable sense of self-reliance when it comes to military conflict, showing a willingness to battle with several state and non-state actors at once without the help of allies.

The last ten years has coupled this attitude with a general sense of anger and isolationism in Israeli society. Israelis and their supporters the worldover have more and more lost faith in a workable agreement with any Palestinian political faction, and a willingness to rely on more aggressive military campaigns to intimidate rivals Hamas and Hezbollah from attacking Israelis and their interests.

These efforts have worked. But analysts near universally say those efforts only result in a temporary payoff. The war in 2006 certainly prevented Hezbollah from attacking Israel during Operation Cast Lead. Operation Cast Lead itself led to the quietest year for Israeli security since the inception of the state. But the price of these operations is building a bigger tinderbox with each future war.

These efforts rely entirely on hard power – military onslaughts and economic sanctions. The failure by Israel’s leadership to cultivate soft power has enabled simple PR stunts to isolate the country diplomatically, be it under the Likud-led right wing coalition of Benyamin Netanyahu, or the Kadima-led center-left alliance of Ehud Olmert.

Israel has yet to reconcile itself with the changing winds in the Middle East, namely the undeniably growing influence of Islamist parties. The myth that they are universally opposed to reconciling themselves with the existence of the State of Israel has to be undermined.

Israel’s policy toward Islam is seemingly non-existent. More often than not, the country’s leadership relies on the Western prejudices toward Muslims to cultivate support for the country’s policies against Hamas and Hezbollah. This is a risky attitude, because it fails to detail the precise reasons the country finds itself in conflict with these entities and prevents policymakers from drawing distinctions between these Islamist groups and other Muslim political actors.

Israel’s relationship with Turkey had long been based on military pragmatism. Given Turkey’s recent realization ties with Israel were an obstacle to cultivating its own soft power over its neighbors – political mediation and trade cooperation for example – that foundation is obviously floundering. Turks, especially those who affiliate with the views of the AKP, see no reason to maintain any ties with Israel, especially given the strength of Turkey’s own armed forces.

Israel will itself have to invest in positioning itself like Turkey has. Without a natural bond with neighboring countries like the same religion, it will have to be based on values and pursuit of certain mores. It would entail emphasizing what values Jews would hold common with Muslims.

Islam itself is in a state of crisis. While religious violence is a symptom of it, the greatest problem the religion faces is the quality of its educational structures. The stability and credibility of many major religious figures is lower than it has been in generations, and the standards implemented for resolving religious disputes and questions are criticized as simplistic by many Muslim theologians and academics.

With that leaves an opening for giving a little while getting a little. It is in the interests of Israel to couple any political outreach to Palestinians, or Jewish outreach to Israeli Arabs, with a growth in Islamic institutions in Israel that host the most respected and moderate scholars in the Islamic world, giving them much more presence and labeling Israel as a country where the freedom of Islamic thought actually does exist in contrast to the countries around it.

But all this carries minimal benefit to the country and would have to be conjoined with several other efforts directly aiming to increase Israel’s softpower on a global scale.

The deteriorating relations between Israel and the diaspora is scandalous. The tremendous resources of the Jewish community and its disproportionate involvement in charitable, investment-worthy causes worldwide should be utilized as a conduit for Israeli involvement in humanitarian projects, global political campaigns and efforts to help the third world that will cultivate a stronger diplomatic and economic card in developing nations.

Given most of the Jewish resources linked with innumerable amounts of aid efforts are heavily rooted in the American Jewish community, Israel has to renew its efforts to reach out to that community and address its needs. What is viewed as idealism is in reality a matter of national interest not beyond the political capabilities of the state. The government here has to turn its Ministry for Diaspora Affairs into something serious, aimed at helping every major movement in American Judaism and pushing their leaders to form more cohesive streams of Jewish religion and culture in the country.

Without the influences of language and religion, Israel will lose its pull with the Jewish communities of the United States and Europe in the next generation. On the other hand, the demand for a stronger education system within the Jewish communities of the world leaves a wide opening that Israel has to fill. Students in Jewish schools should not only be able to manage a prayerbook, but also communicate freely with Israelis or read modern Hebrew newspapers. Recent generations of American Jews have shown how the crippled education structure has left a void in tangible support for the Jewish state.

Financial power is a necessity that needs more expansion rather than development.
The Jewish communities of the world carry disproportionate weight in the economies of developed countries. These resources need to be sought after, and encouraged to open up new bases of operation, if not completely shifting major business headquarters, to Israel’s major cities.

The obvious need to increase the number of immigrants relates to the matter of human resources. Israel can challenge its competitors in the region with its rapidly growing population and ability to affect economic development in neighboring states. Be they Jewish or not, people who are distinctly Israeli should be more often crossing borders to conduct trade, consulting and planning foreign investments.

But most importantly comes the need for more political influence in neighboring countries. For too long, Israel has been afraid to engage friendly politicians publicly for fear of resprisals against those allies. With the tremendous abuse of minority groups in most of Israel’s immediate neighbors, it is in the interest of the country to be seen as refuge and redeemer for those groups. Tens of thousands of non-Muslim refugees from Iraq and non-Arab victims from Darfur have been left broken by the last decade’s conflicts. Israel should make its business the be the regional advocate for abused minorities, identifying with their respective plights as long disposessed victims of oppressive, majoritarian societies. What restrictions currently exist on refugee intake have to be eased and a center for support be developed in the country, with a path open to integration into Israel’s society.

Whatever value crisis the State of Israel is currently having with the strong liberal tendencies of the world’s Jews sees alleviation in a massive campaign to not only reshape Israel’s image for image’s sake, but to actually alter Israel’s attitude toward the world around it and simultaneously increase the quality and breadth of the country’s power. Self-reliance cannot be allowed to consolidate itself in the form of isolationism. The tenaciousness of the country to resist the world’s own disproportionate political demands was ensnared this week in a situation that should not have been so difficult to explain to the world. The country’s existence may not be on the verge of destruction, but the ability of it to control its own destiny certainly is.

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