They say the best publicity you get for free, and Israel sure got a ton of free publicity over the past week from none other than Conan O’Brien, who has been filming a "Conan in Israel" special for his show.
- Conan O'Brien is in Tel Aviv, and Israelis are freaking out
- Conan O'Brien-fever, day 4: Meets Netanyahu, feeds his dog and does Jerusalem, West Bank
- Israel’s new hasbara video channels SNL, but offends like South Park
- Inside Netanyahu's viral video blitz to the English-speaking world
Using Facebook Live, Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, O’Brien has broadcast his trip non-stop. And what he's seen hasn't strayed one inch from precisely the kind of image Netanyahu and his government would want the world to see. O’Brien has amplified Israel's positive propaganda apparatus more efficiently than the state itself could have dreamt someone of his stature would ever do.
Every country engages with public diplomacy, seeking to promote its best face to the world. One could argue Israel's PR efforts are no different, but they're also predicated on an attempt to shift global public attention away from one critical issue that defies PR laundering: the occupation.
Israeli public diplomacy, or hasbara, often conveys two key messages about Israel to the world. First: Israel is a key player against terrorism, the Iron Dome of the Western world. Secondly, Israel is a fun, western, liberal state in the middle of the wilderness of the Middle East. In other words, it is a small, attractive country with unfortunate and unfair PR, but the cocktails are great and the women are beautiful.
Both elements are very much present in O’Brien’s social media tour of Israel: he sampled Tel Aviv’s "craziest drink", visited the offices of the start-up nation’s most recent big success, the navigation app Waze, talked about Israel’s beautiful women and buff men and even did a 50-minute long Facebook live broadcast from an IDF training session with an all-female unit.
Most of his visit went by without the barest acknowledgement of the political reality here. His two main encounters (broadcasted on Facebook live) with Palestinians were stereotypical Orientalist encounters, both in marketplaces: in Jerusalem, he was "taught how to haggle" by the merchants; in the second, in Bethlehem, was sold a "fake hookah" and was treated to tea.
Watching O’Brien walking through the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City, scene of a massive Palestinian protest movement only a month ago but left unmentioned, was perplexing. The most politically charged location in the country has suddenly become - through O’Brien’s gaze - just like any other "Arab market" (in his own words), in Marrakech or in Disney’s imaginary Agrabah.
He also visited the Aida refugee camp, from where he shared a photo alongside with kids who were "not impressed with his showbiz stories." Their lack of enthusiasm was an eloquent pushback to O'Brien's attempt to turn them into a sycophantic audience and his utter lack of commentary about their lives as refugees.
Social media platforms are a key battleground for competing sides to frame Israel’s reputation. Israeli politicians and those employed in many and various public diplomacy efforts urge Israelis and their supporters to take on social media to challenge pro-Palestinian narratives online, and to tell the world about what a beautiful place Israel is.
The Israeli government recently supported and spearheaded an app called ACT.IL where users are assigned daily tasks on social media such as reporting on so-called 'anti-Israel' Facebook posts or sharing and retweeting positive news about Israel.
One of the app’s team members told Ynet: "We asked the users to send us videos of all sorts of sports they've done in Israel. We edited it together into a spectacular video and spread it on Facebook with the help of the app's users."
O’Brien’s videos did just the same, not stepping an inch from what you would expect from a full-fledged hasbara campaign. "I think there might be a lot of people in the world who would think that’s a very tense place and it’s not the impression that you get," O’Brien told Israeli news anchorwoman Yonit Levi during an interview last Wednesday.
O’Brien obligingly sat down with Prime Minister Netanyahu and joked around with him about the Prime Minister’s dog, Kaia. This meeting followed an Instagram video Netanyahu shared where he welcomed O'Brien.
Netanyahu's celebration of O’Brien’s visit not only contributes to his social media image as a cool, worldly guy (the same politician who copycats Trump terms like "fake news" and calls African refugees and asylum seekers "infiltrators"), but serves as proof of Netanyahu’s claim that Israel is far from being isolated and that his policies have done no damage to Israel’s image in the eyes of the world. I mean, how can you say that after you have someone as famous as O’Brien coming here?
"One thing I can tell you, you think you in Israel you got problems? It’s every day in the United States," O’Brien said in the very same Channel 2 interview.
Conan has declared his comedy non-political in the past, though it seems that since Trump’s election his comedy has leaned at times towards the political – like the sketch where 'Trump' narrated a documentary about the civil war or when he went down to Mexico in March and asked Mexicans to "chip in" for Trump's wall plan.
That's why it's even more surprising that as a politically aware American, O’Brien could tour Israel, even paying a short but dutiful visit to the West Bank - and completely ignore the political situation. This sort of wilful ignorance may have been acceptable before the Trump era, but today it’s even harder to excuse this constant attempt to not talk about politics abroad when you do talk politics at home.
O'Brien's attempt to shut his own eyes, not see the checkpoints he crossed on the way to Bethlehem for what they are, the Old City for its volatility or Netanyahu for his dire role in local politics - are ever more apparent when you compare it to his critical approach towards Trump.
Celebrities coming to Israel aren’t a new thing, obviously, and they always stir a heated online debate. Most recently, Radiohead’s performance was hailed as an anti-BDS victory after Roger Waters of Pink Floyd called on the band not to perform in Israel because of the occupation, to which Thom Yorke replied saying they chose to come to Israel in order to send a message of peace.
O’Brien has absolved himself from the debate altogether, choosing to completely ignore politics. Some may say that this is O’Brien’s way to remain neutral, even pointing to the fact that he visited Bethlehem (even tagging a photo or two #Palestine) as a way of acknowledging Palestine and representing Palestinians.
But we live in times where neutrality actually means choosing a side; painting Israel as just another fun tourist spot, and normalizing what isn’t normal, is an active contribution to the narrative of Israel's right-wing government.
O’Brien’s trip has done nothing but strengthen Israel’s “villa in the jungle" self-image. And that image is crucial to Netanyahu because it facilitates justifying all of its policies and actions – and not least, to an American audience.