By Dan Williams
TEL AVIV (Reuters) – After decades of battling to win foreign support for its two-fisted policies against Arab foes, Israel is trying a new approach with a campaign aimed at creating a less warlike and more welcoming national image.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who has argued that the protracted conflict with the Palestinians is sapping Israel’s international legitimacy, this week convened diplomats and PR executives to come up with ways of “rebranding” the country.
“When the word ‘Israel’ is said outside its borders, we want it to invoke not fighting or soldiers, but a place that is desirable to visit and invest in, a place that preserves democratic ideals while struggling to exist,” Livni said.
The campaign is a departure from the government’s long-held practice of “hasbara,” or “explaining” itself to Western audiences that may have little sympathy for crackdowns on Palestinians in the occupied
West Bank and the
Now Israel wants to create an alternative image abroad, focused exclusively on assets like tourist attractions and business innovations. In the words of one campaigner and ad executive, the aim would be to create “a narrative of normalcy.”
“Israelis feel the need to explain themselves, to prove that they are in the right, but this doesn’t always create empathy,” said Guy Toledano, who represents British PR firm Saatchi & Saatchi and is helping the Foreign Ministry free of charge.
The brain-storming team has been asked to come up with four proposed strategies, one of which will be launched in January.
Palestinians, who have found it harder to push their own message abroad since the election of a Hamas Islamist government that has come under a Western aid embargo for its refusal to recognize the Jewish state, accused Israel of a white-wash.
“Nothing Israel can do in its campaigns or media influence cancels the fact that they are an occupying power,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, a moderate.
TIGERS AND FOXES
David Hartwell, Middle East editor for Jane’s Country Risk, said news coverage of military clashes was key to shaping world opinion about Israel and would be hard to counter, despite what he saw as ebbing media interest given greater carnage in
“There is tremendous cynicism,” Hartwell said.
Toledano agreed that foreign attitudes toward Israel are well-entrenched. He cited a recent poll in which Americans and Europeans were asked which animal they would most associate with Israelis. The top choices were tigers or foxes.
“The process of getting a new image to be internalized is a world unto itself. I can’t say right now that we know exactly how we are going to do it,” Toledano said.
Potential tactics include having Israeli embassies step up advertising efforts in their host countries.
There is also a domestic drive planned, whereby the famously brasher facets of Israeli society would be softened — at least among Israelis who are regularly in contact with foreigners.
“It could be a matter of simply posting Foreign Ministry greeters at the airport, or passing out advisories to those involved in the tourist trade,” Toledano said.
For all the concerns being voiced, Israel’s economy has boomed recently despite the conflict. Foreign tourism is rising again after a collapse at the start of a Palestinian revolt in 2000. Markets recovered quickly from war in Lebanon this summer.
Amir Gissin, public relations director at the Foreign Ministry, said that the image makeover was also about keeping Israel on the right side of the U.S.-led “war on terror.”
Many pro-Palestinian groups argue that Israel’s policies inflame the anti-Western violence of Islamist militant groups.
“In the wake of 9/11, the objective now is to place Israel among the coalition of the moderates, facing off against Islamic radicalism,” Gissin said.