Off Message
Wed, 05/12/2010
Israel Correspondent
Since the war in Gaza and the UN report authored by Richard Goldstone, inset, Israel has been on the PR defensive. Photos by Get
Since the war in Gaza and the UN report authored by Richard Goldstone, inset, Israel has been on the PR defensive. Photos by Get

F irst, the good news. 

Despite frustration among Jews in Israel and North America that the country is losing the public relations battle because of the recent Gaza war and its current hard-line government, recent surveys show remarkably robust support for the Jewish state. 

The Gallup 2010 country-favorability rating ranked Israel fifth, trailing stalwart allies like the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Canada. Israel enjoys a favorability rating of nearly 50 percentage points over the Palestinians. 

According to public opinion research commissioned by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the Jewish state maintains an advantage over the Palestinians in key European countries like Germany, and Poland.

Someone is doing something right. The world, so it would seem, is not all against us.

And now, the more disturbing news. According to a separate study, commisioned by a pro-Israel group, when Americans were given various concepts to associate with Israel, South Africa topped the list, apparently because Israel’s policies in the West Bank have drawn comparisons by some of its harshest critics to apartheid.  

An increasingly effective campaign to demonize Israel as a pariah state following last year’s war in Gaza and the United Nations report authored by South African jurist Richard Goldstone — which found that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes during the conflict but hit Israel the hardest — is likely to increase Israel’s diplomatic isolation. The one-two punch is also likely to limit military flexibility as well as threaten the economy with divestment and boycott. 

More and more Israelis and Americans now see this as a top public relations and strategic challenge facing Israel. What’s a smart Israeli politician to do? Change the foreign policy? Change the public relations?  

To effectively rebuff the challenge, experts say, Israel needs a shakeup in foreign policy and defense strategy, as well as a new message. Many of the changes need to be systemic, they say.  

According to experts, it’s going to take a lot more than just training a couple of smooth-talking Israelis who can drop clever sound bytes in cable television news reports. Memorizing the talking points of the government to explain Israel’s isolation at the center of the hostile Middle East isn’t going to work either.

“There is a mindset in Israel that frames the country’s predicament as an outcome of weak public relations,” said Gidi Grinstien, the president of the Reut Institute think tank, which recently published a strategic monograph on how to counter the de-legitimization offensive. “P.R. is important, but it is not is not going to make it go away. It’s not about out-arguing them.” 

It’s not about a hawkish or dovish foreign policy either, Grinstein argues. Even a long hoped-for peace agreement with the Palestinians won’t halt the campaign to deny Israel’s right to exist. Anti-Israel groups will only find another excuse to assail the fundamentals of the Jewish state, he predicted.

While many of Grinstein’s proscriptions are for wonks — like a reorganization of the Foreign Ministry — others are more philosophical, like ending what he calls a “closed-tent” approach to public relations. This, he says, is the strategy that doesn’t distinguish between Israel’s toughest critics and those who seek its destruction through de-legitimization. Israel should both listen to and engage the former, while trying to isolate the latter.

There’s another philosophical issue commonly mentioned: the way Israel projects itself to the world. Does it see itself as a regional power on the verge of joining the club of the most advanced economies in the world? Or are its messages wrapped in the self-perception of itself as a modern-day David surrounded by a region of hostile neighbors who threaten it with extinction?  

Israel, according to The Israel Project’s director, Marcus Sheff, is hopelessly outgunned on public relations.

“The other side has far more resources than Israel has,” said Sheff, a Washington, D.C.-based Israel advocacy group. “The enemies of Israel are spending an enormous amount of resources in spinning news.”

But some believe that the “entire world against the Jews” approach has been passé ever since Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The world views Israel as a power and to argue otherwise is a non-starter and will stoke resentment, experts say. 

The same could be said of the overuse of references to the Holocaust in pro-Israel public relations. Many in the Israeli government currently draw comparisons between the Islamist regime that controls modern-day Iran and Nazi Germany.   

“We have fed Israel’s detractors because we have stuck to the narrative from between 1948 and 1967, where we are the David, and Palestinians are a killing machine,” said Martin Kace, whose firm Empax focuses on branding. “One of the cardinal mistakes we have created is the Nazification of the Palestinians. We keep the Holocaust alive on life support.”

Israel’s new Information Ministry recently unveiled its own campaign — training everyday citizens to serve as grassroots ambassadors when traveling abroad. It’s an attempt to bypass the foreign press, which, according to the Information Ministry commercials, relies on stereotypes to cover Israel.

But can the Israeli version of Joe the Plumber be relied upon to do the job of media professionals? Maybe it’s too much to expect that the average Israeli (who only wants to flee the Middle East for a couple of days) will begin debating with Europeans about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And then there’s the Foreign Ministry. For the better part of the last decade, ministry officials have been investing in polling and focus groups to peel back the layers of why the rest of the world views Israel as an uninviting and menacing place even if they sympathize with Israel politically.

But instead of public relations, they are looking for something more all encompassing. It’s more than a tag line. It’s about values, emotions and a concept — a brand.

The idea is to introduce new Israeli narratives that will prompt people abroad to increase their emotional identification with the country. If Israel can highlight itself as a dynamic cultural and business center, foreigners might be more disposed to visit the country. Ultimately, the identification between foreigners and a robust country brand would make public relations and easier job. The concepts being thrown around focus on Israeli inventiveness and dynamism in the fields of culture and technology. 

Critics claim the themes could flop as disingenuous spin by ignoring the nationalist conflict at the root of Israel’s existence in the Middle East. Israel will never be an attractive country for tourism or economic growth as long as it doesn’t manage to acknowledge its complicated reality.

“You have to show Israel, warts and all. You have to trust the product,” said Mike Bargman, a principal owner at HeadlineMedia consulting firm.

Bargman’s firm is pushing a project that would try to raise the international profile of the Knesset as a diverse bastion of Israel’s democratic tradition. If opponents are going to brand Israel a modern-day apartheid state, they need to be reminded about how Israeli democracy works, he said

 

 

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