British-Israel Relations Seen through Visiting Elite Opinionmaker Delegations

By Cummings, Jonathan | Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online), June 2010 | Go to article overview

British-Israel Relations Seen through Visiting Elite Opinionmaker Delegations


Cummings, Jonathan, Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)


INTRODUCTION

It might look like an unjustifiably expensive and time-intensive undertaking. Bringing British journalists, students, academics, and politicians to Israel in the hope of moderating increasingly negative popular perceptions can feel Sisyphean; and with more immediate and more significant threats to Israel's national security, "lunching for Israel" may appear indulgent. In fact, it is none of these.

There should be no doubt about the relevance of the objective. Criticism of Israel threatens to elide into an assault on the very right of the State of Israel to exist as a democratic, Jewish state. Israel and Diaspora Jewish communities are transfixed by the phenomenon of "delegitimization," and are frantically searching for explanations and remedies. Britain is at the forefront of this challenge. With media outlets like the BBC, the Guardian, and the Financial Times playing an increasingly significant part in framing the issue well beyond its own borders, British attitudes carry far. In the meantime, calls for a one-state solution-and with it the end of the Zionist project-are gaining ground.

However, making the case that introducing British elite opinionmakers to Israel represents a significant contribution to ensuring Israel's survival requires challenging a well-rooted conception of Israel's national security. Although never formalized, three principles have emerged over time as crucial to defending Israel. First, Israel seeks to avoid conflict by adopting a deterrence posture, keeping potential threats at arm's distance. If conflict does erupt, early warning and intelligence seek to minimize the damage. Finally, campaigns should be short and decisive, preserving Israel's limited resources and leaving future opponents discouraged from further attacks. However, such a conception of national security, dominated by military logic, is insufficient to deal with the full range of challenges Israel faces. Experience of bringing British opinionmakers to Israel, with direct feedback quoted below, indicates that in each case, a different mindset may be appropriate.

ENGAGEMENT, NOT DETERRENCE

"It's the accessibility that makes it work. Authoritative, not pushy, informal and yet making sure our time wasn't wasted." -British journalist

Israel has historically been reliant on a national security doctrine that emphasizes the use of military power for protection. Its predominant characteristic is a strong deterrence posture, which aims to prevent opponents from initiating conflict. A small standing army can be transformed into a very large force by quick enlistment of the reserve. High-quality training and equipment ensure a qualitative edge. A policy of nuclear ambiguity carries a final level of deterrence.

The deterrence doctrine has been successful in limiting-although not entirely preventing- outbreaks of conventional military conflict. Since 1973, no opponent has mounted a credible conventional military threat to Israel. However, there is increasingly bitter public discourse on Israel on the international level, which-by promoting a one-state agenda-may yet have the capacity to defeat Israel decisively. Indeed, in this field, deterrence thinking may even be counter-productive.

In fact, confronting Israel's critics demands engagement, not deterrence. There is no better way to build relationships with British elite opinionmakers-journalists, politicians, academics, and students-than to bring them to Israel. Britain is geographically close enough that a visit can be short enough not to present a serious disruption to normal routines. A subsidized visit certainly offers a solution for media outlets whose finances are limited. Still, it is the quality of the program, the blend of concentrated high-level access and otherwise inaccessible encounters with the "real" Israel that can make the difference in opening up dialogue.

What works?:

* Talking about Israel is critical. Knowing reams of historical facts and figures is important; being able to offer analysis of difficult issues in a way that is credible, sensible, and verifiable is far better. …

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