Tzipi Livni is the most famous Israeli woman in the world, according to the number of hits on Google, and Bar Refaeli is second. During a week in which Livni was nearly elected prime minister, Refaeli appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, an Oscar for supermodels. Her photo in a bikini was put on an airliner and the Israeli media were thrilled that another of ours had made it big abroad.
Refaeli presents herself everywhere as an Israeli, and even expressed her support for Livni on the eve of the elections. The enormous international exposure she enjoys raises the question of whether she helps Israel's public-relations campaign abroad, and whether her photos on the beach soften the hard images of the war in the Gaza Strip.
At the Foreign Ministry they believe that she helps. The Brand Israel project, which was created during Livni's tenure, seeks to counter the country's aggressive and religious image abroad, using common marketing tools. If Israel is perceived as a hard, unpleasant place, resembling an armed evangelical village in Texas, then it is worthwhile to reveal softer sides to the West.
A year and a half ago, the Foreign Ministry sponsored a photo essay in the men's magazine Maxim, which presented bikini-clad Israeli models as former soldiers. A survey carried out after the publication showed that the readers caught on to the message and perceived Israel as a more liberal country, more similar to the United States than they had originally thought.
The branding project is not meant to influence Congressmen's votes on aid to Israel, or Barack Obama's stance on the settlements; it aims to alter an image in the long run. It confronts Israel's most difficult problem in the world: the difference in the way Israelis perceive themselves and the way they are perceived abroad.
Israelis tend to see their country as part of the West, and compare it to the United States and Britain. The problem is that the West is not too thrilled by the comparison and regards Israel as an oddity, a country using excessive force in permanent conflict with its neighbors. In Europe, and to a growing extent in the U.S., the use of military power is seen as primitive, something that belongs to the previous century, something that decent people don't do. When the Europeans apply force in Afghanistan or Kosovo, they are not proud of it like Israeli leaders who get excited about the bombing of Gaza.
Israel's public-relations machine has tried for many years to market Israel as a villa in the jungle, a Western frontier outpost against extremist Islam. We are hit by rockets in Sderot and bomb Gaza in order to save Paris and London. Israeli leaders complain that the West is unconcerned by the danger posed by Islam, and instead of dealing with it they criticize Israel for defending itself. But the media and public opinion in the West ignore this message and insist that Israel is at least as violent as its enemies.
Bar Refaeli is expected to prove that Israel is like the West. The young women of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas are not photographed in bathing suits. Neither are Egyptian or Saudi Arabian girls - an advantage perhaps that stresses our belonging in the Western cultural club. In Israeli eyes, a photo of Refaeli on an airliner makes us more American and Western.
But it is doubtful whether this message is being received on the other side. No Russian model softens the Putin regime's aggressive image in the West; no Venezuelan beauty queen transforms Hugo Chavez into a liberal and democrat. Refaeli deserves credit for her personal success, and the branding project needs to continue, but they will not solve Israel's public-relations problem. Whoever wants to belong to the West needs to behave accordingly, or pay the price.
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