Israel is trying to reinvent itself. Two weeks ago, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni hosted a conference where she launched a new multi-million dollar project to “rebrand” Israel. As Livni put it, since coming into office, she has been struck by the disparity between the vibrant, liberal, free Israel she knows and Israel’s image abroad.
According to research conducted by a number of public relations firms, Israel’s international image is one of a war-torn society riddled with religious fanatics and intolerance. At the same time, most people view Israel as either a democracy or as a country moving toward democracy. As Livni sees it, “It’s time to bridge the gap between the real Israel and its international image.”
The foreign minister has decided to dedicate the Foreign Ministry to the task of bridging the gap. She has hired a whole host of public relations firms who have conducted focus groups and used other mass marketing tools to figure out how to reinvent Israel in a manner that will make people like it.
These PR firms together with the Foreign Ministry have decided the best way to change people’s perceptions of Israel is by showing the world how multicultural it is. To this end, they plan to move the emphasis of Israel’s public diplomacy from defending Israel in its bid to defend itself against its neighbors who seek its destruction to promoting Israel as a “fun” country. They will market Israel as a libertine country replete with beautiful beaches, beautiful women, wild nightlife and a large, dynamic and booming hi-tech economy.
As Livni’s adviser Ido Aharoni explained to reporters, “Israel is not perceived as fun or normal. Our job is to say, ‘Yes, we are not normal, but we are far more normal than you think.’ ” To get this point across, the Foreign Ministry is encouraging Israelis to set up Weblogs and to post their home movies on the You Tube video Web site. It is working in conjunction with the Israel Association of Gay Men, Lesbians and Transgenders to encourage homosexual tourism and it is planning to run targeted ads in women’s magazines to show liberals that Israel is just as liberal as they are.
Early next year the Foreign Ministry is scheduled to choose a marketing strategy to promote this new image or “brand” for Israel. Once it does, it will try to force what Aharoni refers to as “message discipline” on all those involved in selling Israel to the world. As both PR executives and Foreign Ministry officials have indicted, that “message discipline” will make talking about jihad a big, retro no-no.
Livni’s rebranding project has generated a great deal of largely positive press coverage at home and abroad. Unfortunately the project is a massive waste of public funds. Worse than that, it exposes a deep conceptual confusion among those responsible for advancing Israel’s interests in the world regarding what their job is and why it is that they face the challenges they face.
Simply stated, contrary to what Livni claims, it is not the principal responsibility of the Foreign Ministry to close the gap between the reality of Israel and Israel’s international image. The Foreign Ministry is responsible for using diplomacy to advance Israel’s national interests.
The purpose of public diplomacy is to increase international sympathy and support for Israel. The level of international sympathy Israel enjoys has little do with whether foreigners are aware of how beautiful our beaches are. The level of international support for Israel is little impacted by whether Israel’s image is one of a vacationer’s paradise or a war zone.
What does influence levels of sympathy for Israel is whether or not people understand that Israel has an unconditional right to exist and an inherent right to defend itself against those who wish to destroy the state and murder its citizens. People are induced to sympathize with Israel when they are exposed to the fact that its enemies are unappeasable, and when they understand what happens to women who wear bikinis or simply demand to meet their husbands before marriage in Gaza and Ramallah.
Moreover, people do not feel hostility toward Israel because they are tired of hearing about the war being waged against it. Israel lacks international support because people fail to understand why it is in their own interest to support Israel.