Israel's Muted Soft Power

Israel's population of just over seven million citizens, with ninety-nine more populated countries in the world, is not reflective of its immense popularity in the news and in international politics. The attention, however, is merited. Israel is a country of puzzle and mystery. It is a holy land that has fascinated humankind from its very creation and which has enjoyed a dramatic comeback since the beginning of the twentieth century. Hitherto, Israel has had a phenomenal ability to induce both feelings of empathy, admiration, respect, and awe, but its anomalous behavior and actions provokes sometimes feelings of hatred, antagonism, aggravation, and anger.


It is a magnetizing country due to its contradictions and anomaly. Israel, a democratic country of five and a half million Jews, is an occupier of four million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Whereas throughout its years of existence it has educated its citizens to "seek peace and pursue it" (Psalms: 34: 15), it does not stop fighting. Yet somehow, it does not view itself as an aggressive force in the region. It sees itself as a country "with no partner for peace," and thus compelled to carry out military operations. It is a country whose ancestors found in Palestine a safe haven from oppression, discrimination and persecution suffered while living in the Diaspora -- that became itself an oppressor.

Israel is a country where a murderer of a prime minister has emerged from within, when it was ever so close to peace in 1994-1995, but yet is continuously preoccupied with the loyalty of its Arab citizens. And ironically, it is where the settlements expand while negotiating for a peace agreement that would return the land upon which those settlements are built. It is where "vote with hope" was a call to vote for Tzipi Livni, the very same voice that had supported the Second Lebanon War and the recent War in Gaza.

In many aspects Israel is one of the most liberal countries in the world -- abortion is legal, gays (must) serve in the army, and sharply increasing numbers of women are involved in politics, in high-tech, and in the finance industries. Freedom of speech is sacred. Investigations are held frequently within the military and within the government, during which corruption is routinely uncovered and condemned.

In many ways, Israel today is in the midst of prosperous years, and has many things to be proud of: its employees are highly educated, as 45% of its population holds a higher education degree; its universities are known world-wide and four are ranked among the world's top 150; it boasts worldwide leadership in fields such as technology, medicine and agriculture; and it maintains a rather stable economic situation in the midst of a global economic recession. Israel's art scene has begun to bloom: its modern dance groups are traveling all over the world; its cinema industry annually produces new candidates for foreign film awards; and its books are translated into seventy languages. It is a country where creativity thrives and where "thinking outside of the box" is endorsed. Debating is part of the culture; innovation, improvisation, and originality know no boundaries.

But Israel's liberal and creative atmosphere utterly ceases to exist when dealing with 20% of its citizens -- the Arab Israelis who have been living in Israel's worst conditions for decades. After sixty years of independence and myriad promises to direct resources to develop the Arab communities, they are still deprived and destitute. This population was broadly criticized for exercising its democratic right of protest during the War in Gaza. Within this systematic context of second-class citizenry, the demand of the rising political party Israel Beteynu, led by Avigdor Lieberman, that all citizens sign a contract of loyalty to the State of Israel was not viewed by the Jewish majority as fascist or cynical -- even to demand loyalty from those who have been living on the land for countless centuries.

Meanwhile, the war in Gaza, "Operation Cast Lead," articulated that Israel is more aggressive than it portrays itself. The Israeli government claimed that the war was one in which human rights were taken into deep consideration, however thirteen hundred people were killed including scores of children. Families' homes were destroyed, some only because former residents had been Hamas militants. Nonetheless, there was consensus among the Jewish population in Israel regarding the necessity of the operation. There was no debate or questioning of the war, and tolerance towards the Palestinian desire for recognition and independence decreased.


The dozens of rockets that are still being launched into Israeli territory reiterate that aggressive means lead Israel nowhere. Instead, Israel should examine using its "good" power and strength to change the status quo and to turn the region into a more peaceful one. Israel of today has the ability to utilize its growing strengths -- that is, its intelligence, creativity, tremendous brain power, relative economic prosperity, and its liberal and democratic values -- to end the conflict in a sophisticated way.

Joseph Nye coined the term 'soft power' two decades ago, in 1990, but it is particularly relevant today, when wars are harder to win and when human lives are so valuable. Since power is "the ability to get others to do what they otherwise would not," according to Nye, one nation can influence others' actions by encouraging them to adopt certain philosophies, political constructions, and economic mechanisms. He emphasizes that one nation may cast its values in a light attractive to the embrace of another nation.

In other words, Nye suggests that a nation does not have to use traditional power -- i.e. force and threat -- to make another nation do what the first wants it to do, but instead can subtly shape the preferences of the other nation by using softer means. This is especially relevant for a power or a regional power, like Israel, which has acquired significant soft power. The concept is to use the soft power -- which is determined by political and cultural values as well as economic abilities -- to shape the other player's view and behavior. Although Nye claims that it is cheaper than using traditional power, it does require creativity, planning and wit. But mostly it requires will.

Israel has the potential to become a regional soft-power player. Its political values -- democracy, transparency and accountability, among others -- are very attractive, and seem to be quite appealing to the Palestinians. A good example is the democratic elections that were held in the Palestinian Authority in January 2006, which led to Hamas' victory of a majority of the Palestinian Parliament. This demonstrated the influence of Israel's established democratic foundation on both the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian electorate. But the rejection of the results of the elections by Israel and the United States pronounced a double standard: democracy, depending on the victor.

Israel's highly developed science and technology industry, including its hospitals, universities, high-techs and laboratories, is looked upon by the Palestinians as a role model. But cooperation with the Palestinians in medicine, high-tech, and infrastructure, is nearly nil. Hence, Israel's advanced fields should be leveraged in order to improve relationships and deepen interchange.

It is widely accepted and understood today that the days of the ruler-subordinate relationship are numbered, and the notion of two countries for two nations inevitably will arrive. Even Bibi Netanyahu understands that the current status quo cannot continue forever. Israel will benefit by preparing itself and its citizens, physically and mentally, towards the next disengagement. But the lessons from Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, and from Gaza in August 2005, should sound as warning sirens.


The next disengagement must be done in a way that incorporates soft power into the equation, and translates Israel's significant non-combatant power into actions and means of influence. Nye points to three pillars that facilitate the use of soft power. The first is "emotional intelligence," which is the most crucial in his view. This is the ability of introspection, identification, and managing emotions. Coincidentally, it is perhaps what Israel lacks the most. Re-assessing Israel's relationship with the Palestinians, identifying the needs of the people on both sides of the fence, and recognizing the Palestinian narrative -- are crucial steps for the new government of Israel. A change of perception by the Israeli leaders would pervade into both societies, and over time lead to better mutual understanding. Israel should also not dismiss the fact that, according to several recent studies, the majority of the Palestinian people prefer nonviolent forms of negotiation to armed struggle and military solutions. A recent study by Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges (2009) shows that Palestinians would consider recognizing Israel's right to exist "if the Israelis simply offered an official apology for Palestinian suffering in the 1948 war." Similarly, Israeli respondents approved the idea of dividing Jerusalem and returning to borders close to those that existed before the 1967 war, "if Hamas and the other major Palestinian groups explicitly recognized Israel's right to exist." The challenge for Israel is to acknowledge the Palestinians' "open wound" and appeal to their self-interest, which in return can be reciprocated by recognition of Israel's right to exist.

The second pillar is "vision." Israel would benefit by defining its long-term goals and prospects, and elucidating a clear idea of the country's ambition in the region. In particular, it might force Israel to consider its view of the two nations in the near and mid-term future. A successful vision, according to Nye, is "one that combines inspiration with feasibility." Hence, the vision needs to attract constituencies, but more so has to be logical and sensible to the majorities of both sides, in order to facilitate its implementation. A good start would be for Israel to channel its energy to create think tanks for cooperation and peace. Institutes can focus on increasing dialogue and respect, while promoting the mutual benefits of self-determination. The 2003 Geneva Initiative, formulated by Yossi Beilin, Yasser Abed Rabbo and their teams, is the kind of vision that both the Israelis and the Palestinians need. Unlike other agreements, it provided comprehensive and detailed solutions to the fundamental issues of refugee rights, Jerusalem, and final borders.

"Communication" is the third pillar and stresses the obvious -- that verbal in conjunction with non-verbal measures are vital. This would include Israel's acknowledgment of the Nakba Day, "the day of catastrophe" which commemorates the beginning of the 1948 refugee problem, in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their land and homes and were consequently dispossessed. At the same time, Israel should pay compensation to refugees' families under the principles of international law. Vastly decreasing military operations in Gaza and the West Bank, while concomitantly facilitating trade, will also send an important message conveying Israel's intentions. Another way of channeling Israel's true aspiration for peace would be to declare its willingness to resume negotiations, complementing it with the action of immediately reducing the number of settlements in the West Bank. If Israel's true aspiration is advancing the peace process, its undertakings should be aligned with its language.


All of this is not to say that change can happen within a week, and it does not underestimate the complexity of the ongoing conflict. However, it does suggest not only an alternative way of thinking, but an intelligent strategic planning which incorporates Israel's aforementioned strengths. It suggests that Israel is fortunate to have abundant soft power, which should be leveraged skillfully in planning the end of the conflict instead of the next war. Israel should be at least as sophisticated and creative as it is when developing new software and novel medical devices, as when planning a long-term solution to the two nations' dispute.

Israel is a land of contradictions, standards, and double standards, where humanistic values and militant values reside one by the other. It is where the people strive to make the impossible happen, and obstacles are seen as opportunities. Formulating a creative system that will bring into play Israel's potential soft power is in Israel's best interest for the future of its citizens and for the Palestinians.