Benjamin Netanyahu takes a selfie with Masa participants.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The term “nation branding” is a commonly used buzzword in the corridors of foreign ministries. The term rests on the assumption that like commercial brands, nations evoke certain mental images. When asked what comes to mind with the word Switzerland, for instance, people mention dramatic landscapes, fine chocolate and private banking. What follows is that like financial corporations, nations may manage their image.
Nation-branding campaigns are meant to promote a positive national image in an attempt to increase foreign direct investments, boost tourism and elevate a nation’s diplomatic standing.
In recent years, foreign ministries have been using social media to manage such campaigns. Also referred to as “selfie diplomacy,” nation branding through social media is viewed by foreign ministries as a cost-effective means of reaching millions of potential customers. Israel’s Foreign Ministry also continuously uses online platforms to improve Israel’s global image, one often associated with the violation of human rights and ongoing military conflicts.
Israel’s current online selfie seems to be comprised of three themes.
The first is Israel’s status as a “hightech nation.” As Israeli software companies contribute to the production of hybrid cars, develop prosthetics for the disabled and allow deaf people to hear, the hightech nation is an antithesis to Israel’s image as a militaristic empire.
The second theme brands Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, a bastion of liberal values amid the tyrants that populate the region. The final theme focuses on Tel Aviv as a young, liberal, vibrant and LGBTQ-friendly city that is quite different from the divided and politicized Jerusalem.
Times of crisis often challenge a nation’s selfie. Unlike the Coca Cola Corporation, foreign ministries are forced to comment on local events as they take shape. The challenge lies in how to best integrate the crisis into the national brand. Failure to do so may fracture the national image and render past activities non-relevant.
This was the very dilemma facing Israel’s Foreign Ministry since the current cycle of Palestinian violence erupted nearly three months ago.
As images of a new separation walls being erected in Jerusalem began to go viral, and as Palestinian activists began attacking Israel online, the ministry was forced to find a way to integrate Palestinian terrorism and into Israel’s selfie. The ministry has chosen to do so by focusing on Israel’s democratic nature while also branding Palestinian terrorism as an off-shoot of Islamic State (IS) terrorism.
The content currently shard on twitter by the ministry states that just as IS targets European democracies, so Palestinian terrorists target the Israeli democracy. The association between IS and Palestinian terrorists was never more evident than on October 13, when the ministry published a tweet showing an IS terrorist holding a knife to a hostage opposite the image of a Palestinian holding a knife to the neck of a Jew.
The message below read “terror is terror.”
A similar sentiment was echoed in a tweet published on November 24, which included a statement made by Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Dannon according to which “The heinous murder of innocent Israelis, just because they are Israelis, is no different than the cruel massacre of innocents in France.” Here the association made is between Israel and European democracies. By comparing Palestinian terrorists to IS, and Israel to France, the ministry suggests that Israelis are being attacked not because of a century- old conflict or a military occupation but because of their liberal and democratic values. It is the saying that terrorism is terrorism which leads to the MFA’s final argument – that Israel is at the forefront of a global war of “light” vs. “darkness.”
Essentially, the ministry has created an associative link between Palestinian terrorism and IS terrorism thus integrating current attacks into the image of Israel as a flourishing democracy. But while the ministry has been able to stay on message, one has to wonder if this message is effective.
Global audiences see Palestinian terrorism as a manifestation of frustration by a conquered people denied self-determination for too long. To them, the Palestinians are waging an independence war as opposed to IS which is waging a barbaric religious crusade. In addition, global audiences view Israel as an instigator of Palestinian attacks given its continuous refusal to withdraw from the occupied territories and cease construction in Israeli settlements.
Finally, Europeans do not associate Israel with France or Belgium but with Apartheid South Africa.
Thus the very branding of Israel as a democracy may fall on deaf ears.
Yet it is quite possible that global audiences are not the real targets of Israel’s current nation branding activities. Rather, they may be targeted at domestic audiences and Jewish Diasporas as a tool of maintaining national unity and galvanizing the core base of Israel’s supporters abroad. Such audiences are likely to avidly share Facebook posts comparing Palestinians to IS terrorists and re-tweet the slogan “terror is terror.” However, if this is indeed the case, the ministry may be practicing self-persuasion rather than selfie diplomacy.
The author is a PhD student at the University of Oxford. He blogs on the issue of digital diplomacy at www.digdipblog.com.