Israel is trying to reinvent itself.
Last week Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni hosted a conference where she launched a new multimillion 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 towards 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 us.
These PR firms together with Foreign Ministry have decided that 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 last week, "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 – for instance in Oprah Winfrey's magazine – 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 that Israel enjoys has little do with whether or not 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 towards 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.
ONE OF the major goals of the "rebranding" project is to increase tourism to Israel. To this end, several of the participants in last week's conference claimed that the fact that Israel is perceived as a religious country is a marketing liability. Israel's religious reputation drives away potential tourists who are attracted less by the divine than by the libertine, they said.
This is an odd argument for people who make their living in marketing. The first rule in marketing is to start with your core market and Israel's core market is religious – particularly Christian – tourists.
Last month Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog told The Jerusalem Post that while Jews remain the largest single group of tourists to Israel, with 40 percent of the market, evangelical Christians today are closing in fast. Today every third tourist in Israel is an evangelical Christian.
Israel only began making a serious effort to attract Christian tourists in 2001 when then tourism minister Benny Elon made outreach to American evangelicals his primary goal at the ministry. Given that there are some 60 million evangelical Christians in the US, it should be clear to marketing executives that Israel has barely begun to scratch the surface of their tourism potential. Moreover, Herzog noted that the millions of Christians in Latin America and Europe are yet another still-to-be tapped, massive tourism market.
So if the marketing executives aren't paying attention to Israel's core market potential when they shape their rebranding concepts, who are they paying attention to?
David Saranga from the New York Consulate-General told the Post last week that one of the primary target audiences that the Foreign Ministry is trying to attract is the homosexual community. Ministry officials view gay culture as the entryway to the liberal culture because, as he put it, gay culture is the culture that creates "a buzz."
That is, the main target of the Foreign Ministry's multimillion dollar PR campaign is the liberal Left in the West. This makes sense not because these people are Israel's most likely supporters. To the contrary, Israel's natural supporters are the ones that the liberal Left pokes fun at. Indeed, the so-called liberal Left are the ones who call Israel "that shi**y little country" at fancy dinner parties.
The reason it makes sense that advertising executives and Foreign Ministry officials wish to spend millions of taxpayer dollars reinventing Israel to receive support from the liberal Left is because overwhelmingly, these Israeli executives and officials run in liberal Left social circles. They wish to reinvent Israel because they want to be popular on the cocktail party circuit.
The desire to win support from the Left is a reasonable enough goal. The problem is that these Israeli officials fail to understand the nature of their problem with their liberal friends. Leftist support of the Palestinians does not stem from ignorance regarding Israel's liberal views of feminists or homosexuals. Gay activists and feminists from New York to Paris to London to Stockholm do not participate in pro-Palestinian protests because they are under the misimpression that Israel is illiberal or homophobic or misogynistic.
They participate in anti-Israel protests because they think that Israel is wrong. And they
oppose Israel because they don't realize that their own freedom is closely linked to Israel's ability to win the jihad being waged against it. The fact that they believe as they do is at least partially the fault of the same Israeli officials who now wish to stop discussing why Israel fights, and instead discuss how Israel parties.
FOR THE past 13 years, Israel's public relations has centered on our support for the so-called peace process with the PLO. Foreign Ministry officials believed that by making Israel's peace platform the central pillar of its international PR drive, they would inspire people to support us.
But this is not what people understood. People understood that Israel was encouraging them to support the PLO. And so they did. And when PLO officials told them that Israel is a racist state, they believed them.
By arguing that they should talk about how peaceful and fun Israel is, Israel's diplomats seek to rid themselves of the difficult job of defending Israel's right to exist and its right to defend itself from its enemies that seek its destruction. Rather than promote radical feminism in Israel, it is their thankless job to attack and expose those who deny the Jewish people's right to self-determination and statehood as bigoted and wrong.
It is similarly the job of Israeli diplomats to demand an accounting by Palestinians. Israeli officials should be pointing their fingers at the Palestinians and their supporters and demanding to know why they deserve support after having transformed their own society into a jihadist society dedicated to Israel's eradication, to the destruction of the US and of the West and to the subjugation of Christians, women, and homosexuals.
Israel will build international sympathy for its cause among its potential supporters across the political spectrum when it reframes the public debate on the Arab-Israel conflict in a manner that places the spotlight on the Palestinians and their barbarism and hatred. This is about them. It is not about our beaches.
At the same time, as the experience of millions of Tibetans and Darfur Sudanese attests, garnering international sympathy is not the goal of diplomacy. Building international support is the goal of diplomacy. It is not sufficient for Israel to simply explain why it has a right and a duty to defeat the forces of global jihad seeking to destroy it.
Israel's public diplomacy challenge is to explain to the world how jihadist violence against Israel breeds jihadist violence in Paris, Brussels, London, Melbourne, Madrid and New York, and how Israeli victories over jihadists in Ramallah, Gaza, Beirut and Teheran enhance the security of the rest of the free world. That is, Israel will be successful diplomatically not because it tells people that it is a fun place, but because it tells people that it is an important place, when it explains to people why Israel's success is related to their own success.
Israel doesn't need to reinvent itself. All it needs to do is tell the truth.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.