The diplomacy of empathy

Yoav Karny

Israeli diplomacy should adopt a new tone: thoughtful, candid, and capable of self-criticism.

A longstanding complaint by Israelis about Arab leaders is that they speak with a forked tongue; that they speak one language to their subjects, and another to the outside world. One of the most important tasks of public diplomacy attaches at Israeli missions abroad has been to distribute translations of the Arabic press; to show, for example, what Yasser Arafat said for Palestinian ears only about his goals and methods.

This was important criticism, because it was correct. The development of the media has made spreading the word about this easier. Thanks to MEMRI and other organizations, the world has learned to read Arabic. It is no longer possible to present a moderate face to the outside world while presenting to one's own constituency a face that projects hate and violence. Of course, the Arab spring projects those very faces inwardly and outwardly, and who knows what the summer and autumn will look like.

There is some irony therefore in the following complaint about Israeli leaders: they are sincere. They speak one language to their voters, and exactly the same language to the outside world. There is no need to distribute translations. There is no need to instruct the reader on how to understand the nuances of their positions. There are no nuances. Our leaders see a virtue in talking "dugri" ("calling a spade a spade"), a word the prime minister was kind enough to include in his speech to the UN General Assembly.

Even when they open their mouths to speak English, they sound the same. I'm not talking about richness of vocabulary: the prime minister's English is far superior to his Hebrew in usage and grammar. But the content and feelings, the music and the intonation, stem from the same state of mind.

At least one opinion survey (published in "Haaretz" before Rosh Hashanah) showed that most Israelis endorsed the speech, or at least the Hebrew subtitles in the live broadcast.

It's true that, in a democracy, the majority decides, and that majority will probably be repeated and re-elect the ruling coalition in Israel in two years' time. But the majority is easily impressed, always easily impressed. The patriotic impulse, admirable in itself, leads them to support their prime minister. When they feel they have suffered an injustice, of whatever proportions, they have limited interest in the argument that not everything always has to be said, even when it's true.

It doesn't work any more

Israel is defending itself. It is always defending itself, even when it attacks. It defends itself aggressively, sometimes very aggressively, because it has only the tiniest margin of error. That has to be clear to anyone who looks at the map without bias. Whatever their opinion may be about Zionism and the character of Israel, they must concede that Israel's borders do not permit it to retreat to a second line of defense. It cannot afford to sustain a first blow. It was saved from the consequences of the first blow in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 only because the Sinai and the Golan Heights separated it from the front.

Israel is not being devious when it says it cannot accept the risk of Hamas missiles on the West Bank. Unfortunately, it doesn't work. Israelis rightly bite their tongues, and lose the desire to conduct a sensible dialogue with the outside world. But that is precisely how they lose out in the international arena.

That loss is currently mainly a matter of PR. The trade and investment boycott of Israel is limited for the time being to ephemeral organizations in the West. The academic boycott is more painful, but has not so far impaired the creative power of Israeli academic institutions. That doesn't mean that the situation might not change. Too heavy an Israeli finger on the trigger, a local commander seized by panic, an unbridled politician who loses the last of his inhibitions, and Israel will find itself in the international corner.

It will find it hard to take comfort in New York Jews cheering from the stands. We know Israel is popular in New York. The UN General Assembly, the prime minister said, can decide that the sun rises in the West. About that one could say that New York could decide by a large majority that the Palestinians are on the moon. The battle at the UN is not a battle for the hearts and minds of donors to Israeli fund-raisers.

A discarded legacy

A sharp-minded colleague wrote to me, when he heard about the subject of this piece, "The failure of Israeli diplomacy? What are you talking about? It's a phenomenal success. Any other country attacked in the same way, rightly or otherwise, would have been ostracized from the family of nations." There's something in that. Israelis will find this hard to accept, but the world has been a great deal more patient with Israel than it has in other disputes. This happened because in the Western democracies there is still a substantial residue of guilt feelings and of goodwill.

Israel exploits these guilt feelings, generally legitimately, sometimes not. But Israel cannot depend on them lasting. They are being pushed aside by other guilt feelings. The Western democracies have changed, not just towards Israel.

In Europe, there has developed a re-evaluation, critical, sometimes destructive, of national history. A legacy that once aroused pride now arouses shame, even revulsion. Patriotism, and religious faith, have lost validity. This is especially true of Britain, it's taken for granted in Germany, but it's happening in other countries too. The traces of change are less noticeable in the US, which is the main reason that the erosion of Israel's standing there is less severe.

Israel is associated with the legacy that has lost its appeal. It is the brainchild of European imperialism, which dealt in ethnic engineering and ethnic cleansing of native peoples. Unlike almost all the other brainchildren, Israel has survived well beyond its life expectancy. With guilt feelings from the Holocaust period generally passing by this generation, Israel enjoys no allowances. Its idealization and romance have long since faded. Young people will find it hard to comprehend how great the idealization of Israel was, and how authentic was the warmth towards Israel and the concern for its fate.

Sympathy 2.0

Israel the underdog, its life in danger, aroused the sympathy of the masses, for example in the lead-up to the Six Day War. Paradoxically, Israel lost that sympathy because it managed to stay alive in 1967. Israel owes no-one any apology for surviving, but it can never recover that sympathy. It can however try to win sympathy of another kind. In the argot of today, let's call it Sympathy 2.0.

I'll refrain from going into the content of policy here. I'm not about to propose that the Israeli government should decide on a full withdrawal to the 1967 borders. I do want to propose though that Israeli diplomacy should adopt a new tone: thoughtful, candid, and capable of self-criticism. In other words, I suggest that Israel's leaders should speak to the outside world in a language they do not speak in the domestic arena.

I need no reminding that Israel's main problem lies in is its policies, not in its style. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility, however, that Israel could get across its dilemmas more successfully if it were to change its style. The prime minister's speech to the General Assembly was therefore the opposite of what Israel ought to do these days. There is very little point in standing before an international forum, and letting it know that Israel doesn't take it seriously. Even among Israel's allies, or at least its non-enemies, such words reinforce the impression that Israel is arrogant, bullying, stubborn, and unprepared to listen.

An Israel with a hint of doubt in its voice, not because its cause is unjust, but because it understands that it does not have a monopoly on justice, would be an Israel less grating on the ear. Israel can occasionally lower its voice, express understanding of the other's pain, recognize the wrong that its (just) victory caused to the Arab population of the country even before they were called "Palestinians". Israel could take a constructive interest in the views of its critics, not because it is about to concede to them, but because it knows that that is how grown people behave.

Israel could even apologize now and then. Once, they called it "shooting and weeping." Not a bad formula. Israel will not be deprived of any weaponry if it sheds a tear. Where would we be today, if Israel had had the tactical sense to apologize to Turkey, and to offer compensation to the families of the dead of the Mavi Marmara? What do we care about a degree of damage to national pride if an apology could reduce the damage to our strategic interests and our international standing? If "sorry" would have spoilt Tayyip Erdogan's schemes, should it not have been forthcoming?

"The egoism of the victim"

Israel need not look like storming off every time the game goes against it. Israel should be in the right, but isn't obliged to let everyone know time after time that it's in the right. Israel needs to try to develop a perspective on its actions, to put itself in the other's shoes, to consider the traumas of others even as it insists on consideration for its own.

The American psychiatrist John Mack warned of "the egoism of victimization," in which the victims are incapable of feeling any empathy for the sufferings undergone by the traditional enemies of the group. The expression is valid everywhere. Palestinians are invited to consider it. Israelis too, at least now and then. There is no better time in the Jewish calendar to bring to mind the importance of humility. The diplomacy of humility and empathy does not suit the national mood or our political temperament. So what?

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on October 6, 2011

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2011

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