A carefully-planned image-buffing Israel visit of top NFL football players turned into a public relations disaster after the Israeli government shot itself in the foot. Or, to use a sports metaphor, Netanyahu’s self-serving Likud ministers made an “own goal,” scoring a point for their nation’s opponents.
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Celebrity junkets to Israel have been an effective public relations tool for decades – bringing high-profile Americans and other foreigners to have a fabulous time in Israel and spread the word. The effect is amplified when the visitors are celebrities, particularly in the age of social media – stars of stage, screen and sport post Instagram pictures of themselves mopping up hummus with pita bread in the Old City, floating in the Dead Sea and having meaningful moments at the Western Wall or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The magic of this technique has always been that the trips, while including briefing sessions and history, play down politics as much as possible. When government support is involved it is behind the scenes – non-profit groups usually organize the trips and take the lead in promoting them. Those who arrange the visits wisely keep them quiet until the celebrities are safely on the ground in Israel, before they come under pressure from the BDS movement or other Palestinian rights groups to call it off – unlike concert organizers, they have that luxury.
The football players' excursion was shaping up to be a well-choreographed winner. Right after the Super Bowl, the NFL visitors were going to play an exhibition game with players from the Israeli Football Association. The heavily African-American group was going to visit Christian sites and some of them even planned to get baptized in the Jordan River alongside visiting Yad Vashem, Rambam hospital and the Hebrew Israelite community in the southern city of Dimona.
A fun, friendly and meaningful non-controversial visit. What could go possibly go wrong?
Enter the bull in the china shop: Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan. So eager was the wanna-be prime minister to puff up his credentials and take credit for an accomplishment that had yet to happen, that the week before the the trip was set to take place, he came out with a bombastic self-promotional statement to garner press coverage:
“I see great importance in the arrival of this delegation of NFL stars to Israel. I have no doubt that their visit will be a powerful experience for them and I hope that, through their visit, they will get a balanced picture of Israel,” Erdan wrote, as quoted by the Times of Israel. “The ministry which I lead is spearheading an intensive fight against the delegitimization and BDS campaigns against Israel, and part of this struggle includes hosting influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields, including sport.”
Erdan added that he hoped that the football players would get “a balanced picture of Israel, the opposite from the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world.” According to the Times of Israel, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin also commented publicly on the trip, saying that he was certain the players would return home as “ambassadors of goodwill for Israel.”
Not long afterwards, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett dramatically signaled he was pulling out of the trip by tweeting a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. with the caption “I’m not going to Israel.”
Bennett followed this up with a longer statement in which he said he had been “excited to see this remarkable and historic part of the world with my own eyes” until he read a report “that my itinerary was being constructed by the Israeli government for the purposes of making me, in the words of a government official, an ‘influencer and opinion-former’ who would then be ‘an ambassador of good will.’"
He added that he will not "be used in such a manner."
Bennet wrote that "When I do go to Israel - and I do plan to go - it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how the Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives."
At least one other participant, Kenny Stills of the Miami Dolphins, tweeted his intent to join Bennett in withdrawing from the trip, and other players also appear to be reconsidering their participation.
This takes place at a time when the world of professional football is unusually politically charged. A number of New England Patriots have refused to meet President Donald Trump at the White House after their Superbowl win, Bennett’s brother Marcellus among them. It was exactly the wrong time for the Israeli government to boast about its involvement in the NFL trip.
Erdan will surely be quick to point the finger of blame at the implosion of the visit at the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and pro-Palestinian activists. But he really should be looking for the culprit in his own mirror. Had he not been so ego-driven and ham-handed when it came to the timing and nature of his unwise early rollout of the trip, he wouldn’t handed Israel's opponents the most effective ammunition to blow it up.
What clearly tipped the balance for Bennett was an “open letter” urging the players not to go, sponsored by pro-Palestinian activist groups signed by high-profile activists and celebrities like Alice Walker, Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover. At the very beginning of the letter, Erdan’s words are cited as clear evidence to the players that the current Israeli government is “aiming to use your fame to advance their own agenda: an agenda that comes at the expense of the Palestinian people.”
If Erdan’s skills matched his title, he might have cleverly seized on part of Bennett’s statement and made an offer to the players who canceled that would have been difficult to refuse.
Just think of what could happen if Erdan called Bennett’s bluff and told him that Israel had reached out to the Palestinian Authority and arranged for the players to see and learn about Palestinian lives, communities and struggles, just as they had done in Israel.
That would be the countermove of a real strategist and diplomat - but it’s unlikely that Erdan, or anyone in the leadership of the current government, would consider such a move, let alone make it happen.