Strenger than Fiction / In order to change its image, Israel must change its policy
Saying Israel is progressive and creative doesn't work when its politicians focus on victimhood and aggression.
One of the Foreign Ministry's most important projects over the last years has been to research how Israel can rebrand and reposition itself in the world. The project has involved first class researchers in Israel and abroad, and I have been very impressed by the quality of the data and the analysis.
The first conclusion of the 'Branding Israel' project has been that Israel needs to focus on the young global elites, because these are today's opinion shapers, and tomorrow's political leaders. These elites, as research by economist Richard Florida has shown, and my own research confirms, possess liberal and progressive world views. They are repelled by bigotry, violence and intolerance, and they utterly reject political and military repression.
So far, the Israeli narrative has been governed by themes like victimhood and the struggle for survival. Accordingly, Israel’s image has been built primarily around the army and has always centered on the conflict with the Arab world – as a result, Israel is perceived as aggressive, withdrawn, without joie de vivre, and therefore negative.
The most important positive result of the ‘Branding Israel’ project has been that during the last decades, a powerful new sub-brand of Israel has evolved: it is called Tel Aviv, it is associated with Israel’s culture, technology and joie de vivre: it is perceived as liberal in outlook, full of vitality, creativity and oriented toward the future. Hence, the study concludes, Israel must rebrand itself as creative, vital and progressive; an image that has positive resonance with the young global elites.
However, there is one major obstacle in the path to rebranding Israel. Our politicians don't seem to understand how the mechanism of rebranding works. They confuse the old concept of ‘hasbara’, which literally means ‘explanation’ with branding. Explaining and arguing has no impact whatsoever on how people experience a person or a brand. Our relationship to brands is like our relationship to human beings: it is primarily emotional.
If somebody explains to you that she is a nice person, but does so sternly and harshly, it is the tone of voice rather than the content of the message that determines the listener's emotional reaction. Moreover: if you explain that you are nice, and are then seen behaving violently, it is the behavior rather than the words that will determine the emotional reaction. We all know this: if an airline explains to you that it is friendly, but you are treated dismally by its employees, you will tell your friends that the airline is horrible, not that it is friendly. Ultimately perception of a brand hinges on actual behavior and organizational culture, not propaganda.
Our politicians keep maintaining the image of Israel as obsessed with power and survival and reinforce Israel’s image as a negative world-presence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman use every opportunity to compare the Iranian threat to the Holocaust and Netanyahu keeps expressing his concern for the Jewish people. Interior Minister Eli Yishai keeps repeating that Israel will continue to build in Jerusalem forever. In addition BBC broadcasts pictures of settlers hitting Palestinians and uprooting their olive trees. Lieberman may think that rebranding Israel will divert attention from the conflict, but this will not work.
Israel’s politicians and many of its well-meaning defenders say things like ‘but BBC and CNN are tendentious: why don’t they broadcast pictures of Israel’s medical breakthroughs and of its rescue team in Haiti?’ The answer is that in a free world you cannot dictate to the media what to broadcast. Because Israel’s actions in the territories are seen as its true nature, Israel’s sending its rescue team to Haiti is interpreted by many in the world, unfortunately and unjustly, as nothing but a propaganda effort.
Here we come to the deeper problem: in the same way an airline is, in the end, judged by its service, not by its advertising slogans, Israel is judged by its actions and not by hasbara. If Netanyahu wants Israel to be seen as progressive, liberal and creative, he cannot continue to build in Jerusalem, or say in his speeches that he will continue to do so forever. This is seen by the world as reactionary, repressive and brutal, not because the world is biased, but because Israel’s policy of dispossession in Jerusalem and in the settlements is indeed reactionary and repressive and cannot be justified by any security interest.
Israel will have to decide: it cannot rebrand itself as a liberal, creative and progressive country without being one. Our business sector, our artists and academics are mostly progressive, liberal and creative. But their impact on how Israel is perceived will remain negligible as long as Israel’s politicians and emissaries keep harping on victimhood and survival and as long as its policies are repressive.
This being said, for me the most important point is not how the world perceives us, but how Israel really is. We should care about being liberal, progressive and creative because these are values in themselves. Once the young global elites of the world will see that this is what we are, because we will have changed Israel’s policies, Branding Israel will take care of itself.