New Public Diplomacy Initiative May Involve Israel’s Famed Intelligence Agencies (INTERVIEW)
As far as Knesset members go, Dov Lipman is quite unique. Firstly, he is an American. Second, he didn’t serve in Israel’s military. Finally, although he is an Orthodox rabbi, Lipman serves in the largely secular party, Yesh Atid.
At age 42, Lipman is also new to politics and in a recent interview with The Algemeiner, he perhaps revealed more than a career politician would have. Fresh, energetic and sincere, his pet project is public diplomacy, known in Hebrew as hasbara.
Lipman is by no means the first Israeli leader to call out his country for what many say is among its greatest failings to date: Its inability to effectively organize and orchestrate a broad and comprehensive strategic communications strategy that can combat the headline grabbing narratives of its enemies.
Perhaps Lipman’s roots in the United States and accent-less English make him as strong a contender as any to tackle the challenge. But it is his membership in Yesh Atid (which is tied with Likud as Israel’s largest political party), and his closeness to its leader, Yair Lapid (Israel’s Finance Minister), that may just give him the edge.
“All of a sudden Yesh Atid, we’re 19 and (the ruling party) Likud is 19,” he told The Algemeiner, referring to the number of his party’s seats in Israel’s parliament. “It’s symbolic in a certain way, and if we really want to get something done, we believe we can get it done.”
(The possible shift in his party’s influence comes as a result of the recent splitting of the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, which joined forces in Israel’s 2012 general election, and, until the division, maintained a combined Knesset seat count of 31.)
Israel’s current Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, aimed at stemming rocket fire and other attacks from the coastal enclave, may also propel the issue forward as the Jewish state is facing a torrent of criticism that many believe is partly due to Israel’s less than desirable public diplomacy efforts.
“I think that the war itself will be the catalyst for that to happen, because I think people realize how critical it is that this just be organized,” Lipman affirmed.
His objection to what exists currently in hasbara programs is mainly the lack of coordination.
“You have all these different groups but it’s not coordinated in any kind of way with strong messaging going from one to the other,” he said.
Lipman’s idea of an effective effort is extensive and has largely been constructed by his colleague at Yesh Atid, Ronen Hoffman, who has spent more than a year preparing legislation that would see the formation of a new agency directed by Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Among the resources that could be directed toward gathering information for the effort are Israel’s famed intelligence agencies and the Israel Defense Forces, according to Lipman.
“We feel that this is a huge part of Israel’s battle today. The whole strategy is to delegitimize Israel and that battle’s happening, you know, in these mechanisms all around the world and we have to be able to fight that,” he said.
Another member of his party, Yaakov Peri, a former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence service, has been involved in the discussions specifically to advise on how intelligence gathering can aid the would-be agency.
Examples Lipman discussed with The Algemeiner included enhancing Israel’s ability to respond to Palestinian claims of civilian deaths and to combat false, exaggerated or staged allegations of physical damage caused by Israel’s military. The center would gather accurate information in real time, which would most likely necessitate using intelligence assets on the ground. A conceivable option, he said, as long as other interests were not jeopardized.
The Foreign Ministry would then quickly inform lawmakers and diplomats of relevant information, allowing for coordinated and more effective messaging.
“We, as members of the Knesset, should absolutely be getting messages once something is finalized… just as an example – the moment I go on an interview, if I could be given that kind of information to be able to say, ‘Here’s something which I can say with absolute clarity happened today.'”
To illustrate the point, Lipman cited the Palestinain ‘Nakba Day’ riots earlier this year. “When people were killed in the West Bank,” he said, “we didn’t get information fast enough to be able to do proper hasbara.”
Lipman isn’t certain that the initiative will solve all the problems with Israel’s hasbara but he insisted, “we could do a much better job in what we’re doing.”
“I feel that at a certain level, we can’t win these battles. There’s anti-Semitism really behind all this in my opinion,” he said.
Currently obstructing the bill’s progress is a rivalry between the office of Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and that of his political ally-come-rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Each of the leaders sees public diplomacy as being in their domain and therefore each seeks to lead the project.
“It’s hung up right now in a dispute between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry,” Lipman said. “The legislation hasn’t moved forward.”
Other leaders in Israel’s ruling coalition, including Justice Minsiter Tzipi Livni and Economy Minister Naftali Bennnett, support the initiative, Lipman said.
So how can the Maryland-born Knesset newcomer shift the political deadlock involving two of the country’s most powerful figures?
The rabbi, for one, is self-assured.
“I’m confident,” he said. “We’re very determined to get it through – let me start with that, we being Yesh Atid. We’re going to start the next session being equal in strength to the Likud.”