Among long-time observers of Middle East politics, the sorry state of Israeli hasbara, as the country's foreign image-building is called in Hebrew, is something akin to the stuff of legend. Time and again over the years, Israeli messaging — on everything from its strategic intentions, to relations with the Palestinians, to foreign policy toward the Arab world — has fallen flat or received a cold shoulder from unsympathetic international audiences. This has been the case despite consistent, heavy investments from the Israeli government in the use of television, radio, print media and the Internet to win hearts and minds.
But all that could soon be changing, because Israel's beleaguered official outreach has just gotten a powerful private sector ally. Enter i24News, Israel's brand new, high profile commercial broadcast vehicle. Launched with much fanfare in mid-July, the 24-hour television outlet has 250 employees, including a number of noted Israeli newscasters, and provides coverage of domestic and international news, current affairs, culture and sports in three languages: English, French and Arabic. It is already beamed via satellite throughout the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Europe, and plans are reportedly in the works for further expansion into Europe and even the American market.
The channel is decidedly not an official initiative. It receives no funding from the Israeli government, relying instead upon generous private funders, chief among them Franco-Israeli telecom tycoon Patrick Drahi. Nor does it plan to serve as a "spokesman" for the Israeli government's policies, say the network's professionals.
Yet the purpose of the channel is unmistakable — and strategic. It is intended as an "alternative regional voice" to established Arab media outlets, according to its originator (and now chief executive), former French diplomat Frank Melloul. It is also a powerful tool to combat "negative stereotypes" about Israel that predominate in the Middle East and beyond. "[W]e want to show that Israel has a place in this region," Melloul explains.
The idea is certainly not new. It was pioneered by Qatar in the latter 1990s as part of a dawning age of Arab broadcast media. When it was launched in 1996, the multi-lingual Doha-based Al-Jazeera, the brainchild of Qatari emir Sheikh Hamad Khalifa al-Thani, was barely a blip on the global media radar. After 9/11, however, it rocketed to international prominence, and now serves as a primary source of news and information to an estimated 60-70 million regular viewers worldwide.
Not surprisingly, the Al-Jazeera "model" has spawned many imitators over the years. These include Saudi Arabia's Al-Arabiya channel, as well as Iran's Arabic and English-language broadcasters, Al-Alam and PressTV. Even extra-regional players like Russia have gotten into the Middle East media game. The Kremlin currently boasts both an Arabic television channel (known as Rusiya Al-Yaum) and an English language news/propaganda outlet, Russia Today. They, and sundry others, have used these vehicles to shape opinions, attitudes and perspectives throughout the Arab world, as well as in the West. But the Jewish state has been largely sidelined in this discussion — that is, until now.
Of course, whether i24News can catapult Israel into serious contention with Arab media outlets in the "war of ideas" that is now being waged in the Middle East is still very much an open question. The fledgling channel faces an uphill battle for both market share and legitimacy in the region's saturated (and unsympathetic) media market. What is clear, however, is that—for what is perhaps the first time—Israel now possesses the tools to truly compete in that arena.
Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.