Changing Paradigms in Israel’s Foreign Policy: Do Think Tanks Matter?

May 2011
Conference Summaries / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

Mitvim, in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, held a workshop led by Prof. Donald Abelson from the University of Western Ontario, Canada. The workshop dealt with the role of think tanks in foreign-policy making and resulted in a set of advice and insights in the context of Mitvim’s work to promote a paradigm shift in Israel’s regional foreign policies.

Changing Paradigms in Israel’s Foreign Policy: Do Think Tanks Matter?

A summary of a workshop with:
Prof. Donald Abelson,
University of Western Ontario, Canada;
Herzliya, Israel; May 18, 2011

On May 18, 2011, Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, held a workshop with Prof. Donald Abelson from the University of Western Ontario, Canada.The workshop resulted in a set of advice on think tanks and their impact on foreign policy, in the context of Mitvim’s work to promote a paradigm shift in Israel’s regional foreign policies.

Relevance to the Israeli Arena

Think tanks are not only relevant to the American arena. Although the United States does contain the optimal conditions for their activities, these institutes are not an American invention. They have become a global phenomenon that has been adapted to each specificregion.

There is not just one model to emulate. Not every think tank needs to or can be like The Brookings Institute, the number-one think tank in the World. Even in the United States, the most successful and well known institutes constitute just one percent of the number of existing think tanks.

Every institute is unique from the other, and every political context requires a different type of activity. The specific needs of the Israeli political culture and appropriate activities that can address these needs, have to be examined. There may be a necessity for a trial and error stage, and it is possible to do so by learning from the several models around the World.

Independence and Cooperation

It is important to maintain organizational independence and therefore, one should avoid linking the institute too much to another organization. In addition, donor diversity should be ensured in order to avoid dependence on one benefactor. Cooperation with third parties should also be established, in a manner that will best address the needs of Mitvim.

The institute should cooperate with organizations that offer new fields of work and access to new audiences, which are ready to provide the space for the institute’s ideas to be developed, and that allow a political space for discussions that could not be held elsewhere. The institute needs to be a catalyst and not a single voice.

culture of cooperation, and not competition, should be created. Regardless of the competition and the crowded nature of the “idea market,” it is important to share information with other institutes, to initiate cooperative research, build networks, learn from others, and share effective work methods.

It is beneficial to cooperate with other institutes in the World. More and more institutes are opening branches in other states and cooperating with related institutes around the World. Cooperation with institutes in the United States, Europe, and Turkey can assist us in the contact-making and in launching policy dialogues with think tanks in the Arab/MuslimWorld.

Political bodies occasionally try to exploit institutes to do their work for them, togain new networks and additional audiences, and to strengthen them and give legitimacy to their positions. It is important to be aware of this as well as to remember that in certain cases when the issues coincide with the goals of the organization, there is potential for productive cooperation that will serve both sides. In order to make political impact, it is a necessity.

Long-term research alongside immediate responses to current events

It is important to find balance between dealing with long-term strategic thinking and immediate responses to current events. This type of work requires a broad and adaptable financial infrastructure.

High-quality and relevant research is a crucial component to the success and survival of the institute. A research agenda must be created gradually in order to prevent being overtaken by current events. In addition, it is important to always remember the institute’s vision, the goals, and the direction in which you want to guide the public and the policy-makers.

An additional element for success is the ability to present the right idea to the right person at the right time. Issues should be dealt with in a timely manner, but a think tank should always try and anticipate future scenarios, and be ready towards them in advance.

In the framework of the institute’s research program, there should be some staff that deal with issues that seem to be currently irrelevant. Efforts should be invested in the identification of future trends, and the institute should be prepared to break onto center stage when they occur. To do this, it is important that there isa collection of available research projects that are completed in advance and are waiting to be published at the appropriate time.

Concurrently, the institute should propose analyses and interpretations of current events. Short papers should be made available in a timely manner to the written and electronic media. These papers should be backed up with longer and more extensive papers that will be accessible to those that are interested in additional information.

Target audiences and products

It is important to accurately identify the target audiences and their needs. Adaptable types of work are required, which will allow tools and products to be modified according to the different target audiences, and that ensure balance between addressing their needs and articulating new ideas and issues on the agenda in an independent and proactive manner.

Therefore, the institute needs to create several products – for example, op-eds, position papers, surveys, extensive research, and video clips. A sequence of products should be created as such that a short op-ed will include a link to a longer position paper, which will include a link to the more extensive research paper. This will ensure that anyone who wants to know more can easily obtain such information, and that positions will be based on broader research and facts.

The advantage an institute should aspire for, especially at its formative stages, is that of human capital – the researchers and the experts that it is in contact with. This capital should be used in order to create new, innovative ideas, and in order to provide regular insights about events and trends.

It is unnecessary to employ the experts and researchers as in-house staff, especially at the beginning when the financial resources are limited. A list should be assembled including those experts that identify with the institution and that are willing to appear in its name and write papers per-request.

Impact and public visibility

There is frequent confusion regarding impact and public visibility. The number of appearances in the media does not indicate the influence of the institute, albeit several institutes present this as a measure thereof, mostly due to public visibility pressure from donors and members of the board.

Media exposure is important to promote name-recognition, to establish the institute’s status and to distribute its products. Therefore, the institute requires the formulation of a coherent media strategy. Nevertheless, the impact on policy can be done by professional organizations that work far away from the public eye.

Alongside the public work, the institute has to act behind the scenes – for example, in personal advisory meetings with decision-makers from Israel and the World, and through discreet activities with organizations from the Arab World.

Accessibility to decision-makers and opinion-makers is based on personal relationships. It is important for the institute to create a social and political network. This will assist in the positioning of the institute, its branding, and impact-making.

In order to have impact, the institute needs to play to its strengths and advantages. The institute needs to examine which stage of the policy cycle it has the ability to contribute to the most and through which tools. Is this through the introduction of a new idea into the public or political discourse? Is it through the promotion of legislation among decision-makers? Is it through assistance in the implementation of legislation that was already passed?

Think tanks tend to have more impact during the earlier stages of the policy cycle, in which the public and political discourse are shaped around new issues. Periods of political change are also ones in which think tanks are usually capable of making an increased impact. A think tank needs to be prepared to give credit for the idea it had conceived to the political actors that are ready and able to promote that same idea and turn in it into actual policy.

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