Opinion

How Eurovision Became a Strategic Asset for Israel

The music isn’t even good, but both Israel and Hamas seem convinced that the success of the song contest is a decisive image maker

Netta from Israel celebrates after winning the Eurovision Song Contest grand final in Lisbon, Portugal, May 12, 2018.
Armando Franca,AP

A funny thing happened as Israel and Hamas were exchanging rockets and bombs over the weekend. Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security and strategic affairs, felt obliged to say that Israel wouldn’t ease up on its pummeling of the Gaza Strip for the sake of a successful Eurovision

Erdan wasn’t the only official to issue that warning, meaning, of course, that Israel was indeed anxious that the fighting would upset the show -- and with good reason. The idea of stirring up trouble and controversy ahead of the international song contest next week was reportedly part of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar’s calculations in ratcheting up the violence now.

“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak,” Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist advised generals 2,500 years ago in his classic book The Art of War. We can be confident that in his wildest fantasies he wouldn’t have imagined that a celebration of second rate pop music and big-budget kitsch would be the enemy’s weak point. But, hey, it’s not the sixth century B.C.E. anymore.

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Like the Olympics, the World Cup, Formula One racing and the world fairs, Eurovision is a coveted prize by the nations of the world. They are all high-profile events that bring prestige and buzz power to the countries that serve as venues. The events draw tourists and in the case of the big sporting events a splurge of construction. They draw hundreds of millions, if not billions, of television viewers who, between sporting events or songs, are subject to marketing pitches by the host country.  Presumably a lot of those viewers will think about visiting later, giving a boost to local tourism.

It is all supposed to add up not only to national prestige but to big economic dividends afterwards.

Eurovision isn’t quite in the same league at the Olympics or the World Cup. It attracts far fewer TV viewers, only a fraction of the visitors and the contest final lasts just a couple of hours. On the other hand, it’s a lot cheaper to produce and you don’t have to spend tens of millions of dollars preparing bids and bribing officials to get the hosting rights, because the previous year’s winner is automatically the next year’s Eurovision host.

All in all, it should be easier for a host country to generate a return on its investment -- or is it?

The economic fiasco of the Olympics

Over the last 30 years, host countries have spent up to $51 billion (Russia in 2014) and no less than $2.5 billion (Salt Lake City in 2002) to stage the Olympics. As research has repeatedly shown these are billions of dollars do directly down the drain as far as a financial return goes.

Host cities rarely recoup the investment in the new hotels they need to build for visitors. The venues they have to build end up as white elephants.

Of all the cities that have played home for the Olympics over the last three decades only two (Salt Lake City and Barcelona) showed a documented long-term increase in tourism.

Israel is spending just 150 million shekels ($42 million) on the Eurovision, but officials are convinced they will earn a big payback from hundreds of millions of TV viewers getting a glimpse of the local tourism wonders and from the coolness factor of being host while the contest is being broadcast.

Unlike the Olympics, not much research has been done into the economic impact of Eurovision. However, one study that looked at the impact for Azerbaijan, which hosted the 2012 Eurovision contest, isn’t encouraging.

The number of jobs the contest itself generated was less than a series of Grateful Dead concerts did in Las Vegas (and the music was infinitely better, too). Eurovision helped Azerbaijan raise its international profile, but then again its international profile had nowhere to go but up.

The number of tourists coming to Israel’s Eurovision 2019 is expected to be small, just like it was in Azerbaijan, so the direct payback from Eurovision will be minimal. Unlike Azerbaijan, Israel’s international profile is about as high as you can get. The only advantage the song contest may bring is to improve our global image

Carefully designed videos of young and beautiful people on a Tel Aviv beach, luscious food and holy sites beamed around the globe would certainly help. But there’s a very big risk it could backfire -- not just because Hamas might launch an untimely rocket or two but because the BDS movement is threatening protests.There’s even a risk that one or two performers will use the Eurovision stage to make political statements.

There’s little doubt if any of those things happen the media coverage will be about that and Israel’s Eurovision moment will have been lost. The Palestinians, whose plight has been back-burnered for a decade or more, will get Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fleeting fame.

Not nice for Israel, but not a disaster either. The reality today is that Israel needs Eurovision buzz less than ever. The Startup Nation phenomenon has lifted our image while the violence elsewhere in the Middle East has made our faults look small in comparison.

In any case, the attention span of the young people is fleeting; even if Eurovision goes off without a hitch, the impact will be slight -- 150 million shekels for a couple of hours of glitter and then it’s back to another round with Hamas.