On November 27, 2010, it was reported that recently declassified diplomatic documents showed that in 1970 Japan and the United States once reached a deadlock in negotiations over a Nixon administration demand that Japan curb its cheap textile exports. Exposed forty years later, this material was of great interest to historians and diplomatic analysts.
On the very next day, November 28, the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks released classified diplomatic documents that detail current diplomatic maneuvering under the Obama administration and not surprisingly caused a media frenzy. These revelations have raised all kinds of questions about the way American diplomacy is being managed and have been largely embarrassing, although seemingly little concrete damage was done.
Prominently featured in news headlines reporting on the leak were ongoing U.S. efforts to curb Iranian nuclear belligerency, including a report of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warning that the world has just 6 to 18 months to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon; King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia imploring Washington to “cut off the head of the snake”; and Bahrain’s king warning that allowing Iran’s program to proceed was “greater than the danger of stopping it.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by pointing out that the leaked documents show that “more and more countries, governments and leaders in the Middle East and in the world understand that Iran’s nuclear program is the fundamental threat.”
Few were surprised by the global concern expressed over Iran, particularly from its neighbors and other Gulf States. What was interesting to note was the warped reaction from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad whose response, I believe, should serve as an important lesson for Israeli diplomats, specifically with regard to representing Israeli positions in the arena of global opinion and conveying the Israeli narrative.
Ahmadinejad alleged the leaks were an “organized” effort by the U.S. to stir trouble between Iran and its Arab neighbors and that the documents were “psychological warfare.” He continued to say that “Some part of the American government produced these documents; we don’t think this information was leaked. We think it was organized to be released on a regular basis and they are pursuing political goals.”
One can imagine that many, specifically in the Muslim world, with a lesser education or free access to information, and an unhealthy predisposition towards the U.S. and Israel, are very likely to buy into this propaganda. After all, is it possible that the great United States couldn’t prevent the release of this documentation? Perhaps the purpose of this release is to prepare the world for an invasion of Iran, just as the release of British intelligence documents before the Iraq war in 2003?
What Ahmadinejad has done, as he often does, in a twisted and heinous fashion, is to present a compelling counter-narrative that tells a story, is reported on the front pages, and will sadly convince many the world over of its legitimacy.
Another shocking example of the proficiency of the Iranian counter-narrative effort is the ongoing program to deny the Holocaust. Through exhibitions and conferences, Ahmadinejad is able to grab headlines and perpetuate his message of insanity throughout the world. Although many in the West give little credence to his claims, the fact that this position is circulated is in itself a triumph of his evil.
A qualified PR professional or lawyer will tell you that in order to combat a negative perception, a counter-narrative is much more powerful than a straight denial. Israel must quickly learn that the best way to combat harmful headlines is to present a compelling story that conveys the correct message.
By way of example, this week the following story was prominently featured by the BBC:
A report entitled; “Dashed Hopes: Continuation of the Gaza Blockade,” compiled by 21 different groups, including Oxfam, Amnesty, and Save the Children, said that there has been “little improvement” for people in Gaza since Israel announced it was easing its economic blockade of the territory six months ago.
“Only a fraction of the aid needed has made it to the civilians trapped in Gaza by the blockade,” said Jeremy Hobbs, Director of Oxfam International. “Israel’s failure to live up to its commitments and the lack of international action to lift the blockade are depriving Palestinians in Gaza of access to clean water, electricity, jobs and a peaceful future,” Mr. Hobbs added.
Israel would do well to highly publicize the following counter-narrative that was also reported recently.
The International Monetary Fund reported that Tel Aviv’s decision to partially open blockaded Gaza to the outside world enabled the territory to achieve economic growth of 16 percent in the first half of the year.
The Jewish sage Ben Zoma taught: “Who is wise? He who learns from every man.” Perhaps even from Iran’s vile and criminal practices Israel can learn a valuable lesson.