Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Can Cultural Dip & Branding Rescue Israeli PD?

An interesting NY Times article today probes Israel’s “crisis of isolation” since the Gaza conflict, detailing how the Israeli Foreign Ministry is considering fresh PD initiatives that are nevertheless running into far denser barriers of political reality: facing its worst diplomatic crisis in two decades. Examples abound. Its sports teams have met hostility and violent protests in Sweden, Spain and Turkey. Mauritania has closed Israel’s embassy...Global opinion surveys are being closely examined and the Foreign Ministry has been granted an extra $2 million to improve Israel’s image through cultural and information diplomacy. “We will send well-known novelists and writers overseas, theater companies, exhibits,” said Arye Mekel, the ministry’s deputy director general for cultural affairs. “This way you show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.”

Yet, much like Kraidy’s analysis of the fundamental deficit of US PD in the region (“Policies Before Values: US policies and perceptions of these policies, and not a difference of values, are the root cause of the US image problem in the Arab world”) current Israeli image efforts face a minefield of facts on the ground:

[F]or Israel’s critics, including those who firmly support the existence of a Jewish state, the problem is not one of image but of policy. They point to four decades of occupation, the settling of half a million Israeli Jews on land captured in 1967, the economic strangling of Gaza for the past few years and the society’s growing indifference toward the creation of a Palestinian state as reasons Israel has lost favor abroad, and they say that no amount of image buffing will change that. Israel’s use of enormous force in the Gaza war in January crystallized much of this criticism.

The new thinking in the Israeli Foreign Ministry seems to be a need to sidestep the political realities behind a sinking image in foreign publics, however:

Some Israeli officials say they believe that what the country needs is to “rebrand” itself. They say Israel spends far too much time defending actions against its enemies. By doing so, they say, the narrative is always about conflict.

This is one of the clarion calls from PD communities in disarray--for unity of message. We’ve see this formulation before in the Shared Values Campaign. Unfortunately, Israeli PD professionals seem to be making the same mistakes in assuming foreign publics are empty vessels waiting to receive the magic-bullet message of a ‘more complete’ picture.

“When we show Sderot, others also see Gaza,” said Ido Aharoni, manager of a rebranding team at the Foreign Ministry. “Everything is twinned when seen through the conflict. The country needs to position itself as an attractive personality, to make outsiders see it in all its reality. Instead, we are focusing on crisis management. And that is never going to get us where we need to go over the long term.”

Not surprisingly, Gilboa rejects the quick fix marketing strategies of a Domestic PR-esque model for Israel. To fail to engage the self-defense argument or ignore the Israeli daily reality of war and terrorism is to concede the (contentious) PD high-ground for the niceties of soft power. The solution for Gilboa is perhaps more funding for a well-rounded policy that accepts the limitations of unfavorable policies and actually engages them in the discourse:

“People here feel that no matter what you do you are going to be blamed for all the problems in the Middle East,” said Eytan Gilboa, a professor of politics and international communication at Bar Ilan University. “Even suicide bombings by Palestinians are seen as our fault for not establishing a Palestinian state.”...Mr. Gilboa, the political scientist, said branding was not enough. “We need to do much more to educate the world about our situation,” he said. Regarding the extra $2 million budgeted for this, he said: “We need 50 million. We need 100 million.”


  1. Israel is definitely facing an uphill battle in trying to change the way the rest of the world perceives it. The quote, “[F]or Israel’s critics, including those who firmly support the existence of a Jewish state, the problem is not one of image but of policy,” really points to the problem that Israel is facing—even their vehement supporters are starting to turn against the state’s policies. While I agree that Israel does spend a lot of time defending itself against its enemies, I don’t think I can completely agree with the assertion that “the narrative is always about conflict.”
    Yet, I can agree with Eytan Gilboa when he says that no matter what, Israel is always going to be blamed for all the problems in the Middle East, if for no other reason than the Middle Easterners lay the blame on the Israeli state. The thing that I agree with most is what Gilboa says about Israel needing to “educate the world” about Israel’s situation. After all, it is not as if Israel is the constant aggressor. That is, of course, not to propose that Israel is not responsible for any of the problems in their neck of the woods. Israel is in a unique situation in that it does not have the luxury of relying solely on soft power, but it also cannot afford to alienate its allies with the use of ill-advised hard power.

  2. Another aspect of this article I found very interesting was a brief digression into the American Jewish community's reaction to/role in this "crisis of isolation." The article described a blog by Haaretz writer Bradley Burston, who faced a lot of hard questions on a recent trip to the US, well illustrated in

    "an article by Anne Roiphe, an American Jewish liberal, which said that witnessing the popularity of Mr. Lieberman [Mr. Netanyahu's "ultranationalist" foreign minister] in Israel made her feel “as if my spouse had cheated on me with Mussolini.”"

    There is a lot of discussion about how the presence of such a strong Jewish community in the US makes us susceptible to Israeli influence, but this relationship is rarely described as going the other way - Jewish-Americans are a crucial source of external support for Israel, and if Israeli policies are starting to alienate even them, Israel is really in trouble.