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Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying that “public sentiment is everything.” Accordingly, public diplomacy plays an important role in the promotion of the national interest by listening, understanding and then informing, engaging, and influencing people around the world. The Arab-Israeli conflict remains a visible and significant point of contention that affects the relations between the United States and many Arab and Muslim countries. A comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular, would help reduce tensions and serve the national security interests of the United States, Israel, and Palestine, as well as many of the other countries in the region. The role of public diplomacy in supporting the resolution of the conflict has too often been neglected or underestimated.
After the breakdown of the latest round of negotiations in April 2014, a significant new initiative is required now to pursue an expanded public diplomacy program, in close coordination with the Israelis and Palestinians, to buttress the efforts of the U.S. administration in advancing prospects for a future agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The unfortunate history of peacemaking attempts, both past and present, demonstrates that public opinion has the potential to constrain negotiating positions of the parties as well as undermine the compromises and understandings that support a sustainable agreement. A single word from the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Israel, or the President of the Palestinian Authority can harden formidable antagonism among constituents. As Middle East Envoy Martin Indyk noted of the most recent series of talks, “Public opinion was another element that we found very challenging ... [Israelis and Palestinians] are both physically intertwined and psychologically separated and terrorism and occupation have added to the trauma between the peoples, making everything harder.” In this context, public support is essential.
As underscored in the 2003 congressionally mandated report “Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic Direction for U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Arab & Muslim World,” it is important to separate questions of policy from questions of communicating that policy. While the United States cannot and should not simply change its policies to suit public opinion abroad, we must use the tools of public diplomacy to assess the likely effectiveness of particular policies. Without such assessment, our policies could produce unintended consequences that do not serve our interests.
Public diplomacy must become an integral part of the process of policy formulation. A U.S. public diplomacy strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should first identify U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian interests in resolving the conflict. Public diplomacy officials must have access to the decision-makers and to the crafting of negotiation strategies in order to advise on methods of presentation and likely public responses. Nonetheless, warnings of adverse reactions should not alter policy, but rather prepare policymakers.
This report is the product of the Baker Institute’s program on Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. It is complementary to the institute’s recent policy reports on the territorial dimensions of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and the need for U.S. engagement in restarting negotiations. The public diplomacy initiative contained herein represents the combination of separate contributions from Israeli and Palestinian teams of experts led, respectively, by Baker Institute fellows Yair Hirschfeld, Ph.D., and Samih Al-Abid, Ph.D. Supplemental conversations and interviews with subject matter experts in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Washington, D.C., and Oslo also guided the assessments and policy recommendations.
This report first briefly assesses the environment for public diplomacy in both Israeli and Palestinian societies before presenting a potential strategy for expanded public diplomacy in the Israeli-Palestinian context. We hope the findings will be a useful guide for negotiators once Israeli-Palestinian talks are resumed.
This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.