Images & Diplomacy
Images have traditionally played an important role in diplomacy. For instance, paintings were often used to bare testimony to diplomatic summits and conferences. Such is the case with Gerard ter Borch’s painting of the treaty of Munster. Additionally, political cartoons were used to narrate a nation’s foreign policy, frame its adversaries, manage public expectations and raise support for government policy. Such is the case with the cartoon below depicting the British monarch and Napoleon. Finally, images could, at times, lead to diplomatic crises. Such was the case when Hans Holbein chose to depict Anne of Cleves as a rare beauty. The disappointment of Henry the 8th with the actual Anne led to their divorce and the collapse of a union between England and Protestant German states.
However, while images may have played a role in diplomacy, it was not until the 20th century that ministries of foreign affairs (MFAs) began to employ images. Be it during the two world wars, or the Cold War, propaganda was a visual endeavour in which nations attempted to sway public opinion through images, comics, posters and films. Yet even in the age of propaganda and mass media, the employment of images was often managed by specific agencies working in collaboration with MFAs. In other words, the professional diplomat was not the producer of images and films. Moreover, his work did not readily include the need to analyse and decipher images.
That has changed with the incorporation of social media in the conduct of diplomacy.
Diplomats are now visual narrators as they regularly include images in the messages they author online. At times, diplomats incorporate images of places and officials, such as a NATO summit. At other times they include images of an events or occurrences, such as a UN vote, while in other instances they may incorporate historic or culturally significant images. Indeed over the past year the use of images by diplomats has become increasingly more sophisticated. Images shared online by embassies and MFAs often operate on several levels of sophistication. Such was the case with the Lame Duck tweet by the Russian Embassy in London. This sophistication necessitates that diplomats decipher images and their meaning.
This week presents a fascinating case study in the form of a Facebook video published by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in celebration of Israel’s 69th Independence Day.
Message 1: The Prime Minister’s video begins with a self-portrait of Netanyahu walking alongside a porch decorated by Israeli flags. Next, the PM is seen testing the strength of the flag’s foundation. These images bare a visual resonance with those of Theodore Herzl, the father of Jewish statehood. In a famous image, Herzl is depicted standing on a balcony in Basel, Switzerland, where he proclaimed “in Basel I founded the Jewish state”.
Netanyahu’s self-portrait thus refers both Israel’s independence and its Jewish character. But unlike Herzl, who could only dream of an independent Jewish state, the PM now heads a strong and independent Jewish nation- its independence is evident by the row of flags which denote sovereignty while its strength is evident by the flag’s sturdy foundation.
Next, the video identifies the source of Israel’s strength- it’s military. The two images of combat soldiers illustrate the centrality of the military in Israel’s statehood. It is the military which is the cornerstone on which Israel exists.
Yet the video also argues that the military is much more than a foundation. Rather, it is an instrument of salvation for it is the military that has enabled the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem.
This part of the video corresponds with Israel’s diplomatic narrative and it’s self-narrative. According to Israeli collective memory, Jewish history can be separated into three periods. The first is antiquity in which the Jews established the ancient kingdom of Judea whose capital was Jerusalem. The second is a 2,000 year period of exile in which Jews were barred from Israel while suffering constant persecution. The third period, initiated by Herzl, is one of re-birth and the establishment of modern Israel. Diplomatically, this narrative suggests that Israel has a historic and moral claim to the land of Israel. Symbolically, this video identifies Israel’s military as the source of Jewish salvation.
Message Two: After establishing Israel’s moral and historic claim to Israel and Jerusalem, the PM’s video begins to narrate the character of modern Israel. This is achieved by identifying Israel’s transformation from a second world country, during the 1950’s, to a bastion of technology and innovation. The video demonstrates Israel’s miraculous progress in two ways. First, by depicting Israeli flags in black and white as opposed to colour. Second, by depicting Israeli infrastructure such as cities, roads and railways. Indeed images of infrastructure, intersections and railways are often used to depict modernity and progress.
(Modern art depicting trains, infrastructure)
Next, the video accentuates two Israeli strengths- science and innovation (shown below). This part of the video again corresponds with Israel’s diplomatic narrative and self-narrative. Officially, Israel brands itself as the High Tech Nation or the Start Up Nation, a small yet mighty hub of technological innovation and ingenuity. Symbolically, these elements correspond with Israel’s self-perception of its existence as an island of progress and modernity in an area populated by despots and antiquated values.
Yet, once again, these elements all culminate with the Israeli military as the images of modern Israel are immediately followed by its instruments of war. As the PM says “above all… ensuring the strength of the Israeli Defence Forces”.
In this part of the video, the Israeli military is not depicted as a source of salvation but rather as a manifestation of Israeli innovation. Through its science and technology, Israel operates the region’s most robust and sophisticated army. Thus, it is into the army that Israeli ingenuity is channelled. The message that emerges here is one of power- on land, in the sea and in the sky, Israel can protect itself.
Message Three: The third element of the video explains the rationale behind Israel’s investment in its military strength. This is achieved by depicting two trains, one carrying Jews to their extermination during the Holocaust, and a monorail shot against the backdrop of Jerusalem.
The two trains are a fundamental component of Israel’s national and international narrative. From the ashes of the Holocaust emerged an independent Jewish state. And it is according to the lessons of the Holocaust that Israel exists, these lessons being that Jews will forever be persecuted and so they must forever be vigilant.
Message Four: The fourth and final part of the PM’s video focuses on Israeli legitimacy and the source of its legitimacy. The legitimacy is made evident by a series of images depicting meetings between the Israeli PM and world leaders. Notably, these include the leaders of the US, Russia and China. These images are meant to symbolize that all world powers recognize Israel’s independence.
The last element of the video identifies the source of Israeli legitimacy- its multi-cultural population. According to the video, Israel is home to Jews and non-Jews, religious Jews and secular ones, citizens and immigrants and to whites and blacks. It is this multi-cultural population that personifies Israel’s national character as an open and accepting society.
However, here again the Israeli military plays a crucial role. It is a female soldier who is seen laughing with a woman in a bourka, and it is a male soldier seen feeding the child of an immigrant. And so the military is not only a national resource, it is a national treasure, one that embodies Israel’s values. At the national level, this image adheres to the proclamation of David Ben-Gurion “A people build an army, and the army builds a people”. In other words, the military fosters the cohesiveness of Israeli society. At the international level the video depicts Israel as a bastion of Western liberal values.
What is missing?
John Berger has argued that what is excluded from an image is as important as what is included. Notably, the PM’s video does not include any references to Israeli democracy. There are no images of the Israeli parliament, its parliamentarians, civil society groups or even protests of any kind. This is noteworthy as Israel usually brands itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. Second, there are no images of Arab Israeli villages, Arab Israeli leaders or Arab Israeli Mosques and churches. This is noteworthy as Israel often focuses on the religious and democratic freedoms of Arab Israelis as a means of narrating its democratic nature. Finally, the video does not include references to peace despite Israel’s diplomatic and self-narrative as a nation that openly extends its arm to its neighbours.
What’s the message?
To decipher the ultimate message of this video it is necessary to focus on its context, that of an upcoming meeting between US President Trump and Palestinian President Abbas. Since his election, President Trump has stated time and again that he will seek an “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians. The President’s envoy has already visited the region and has used Twitter to signal the administration’s stance on negotiations by uploading images of Jerusalem photographed from both the west and the east. Reports suggest that during their upcoming meeting, Abbas and Trump will discuss the rebooting of peace talks between Israel and Palestine and a possible regional peace summit.
It is against this backdrop that the PM’s video can be analysed. Its message is one of continuity, uniformity and legitimacy. Continuity is the sense that the video asserts Israel’s historic right to the land of Israel and its capital Jerusalem. The PM is telling President Abbas that Israel has always existed, and always will. Uniformity in the sense that the video accentuates Israel’s military strength and its internal unity. There are no divisions in Israel when it comes to protecting the state or to accepting its Jewish nature. Legitimacy in the sense that world powers recognize Israel’s right to exist after 2000 years in exile and the Holocaust.
Thus, the PM is using the video to signal his position in the upcoming negotiations. To achieve peace, the Palestinians must accept Israel’s existence, its claim to the land of Israel and Jerusalem and its Jewish character. Even more importantly, the PM is signalling that Israel can endure the cost of no peace. Despite wars and terrorism, Israel is a hub of innovation and science. Despite bombings and shootings, Israel has created a vibrant and modern country. And whether it is on land, in the sea, or in the sky, Israel can meet all security challenges.
Palestinian resistance is, according to this video, futile.
The analysis of Netanyahu’s video demonstrates the extent to which diplomacy is now a visual profession. When publishing a video on Israel’s Independence Day, the PM also signalled his diplomatic position to other parties. He has stated his terms for peace and has attempted to strengthen his hand in future negotiations by accepting the status quo. This video also illustrates why diplomats must now master the art of image and video analysis. Should the State Department and Palestinian diplomats fail to analyse this video, they will also fail in creating the necessary conditions for a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. Finally, this video demonstrates how images and films operate on two levels- the domestic and the international. The PM’s video corresponds with both national and international Israeli narratives.
In summary, diplomacy has never been more visual than it is today.