Reality check: Brand Israel

Like many national projects, the rebranding of the country is running behind schedule.

jeff barak 88 (photo credit: )
jeff barak 88
(photo credit: )
Among the myriad of superfluous ministries handed out by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his recent orgy of coalition building is the Ministry for Information (hasbara in Hebrew), a throwback to the days when right-wingers were convinced that there was nothing wrong in settling Palestinian territories and that all that was needed for the world to accept Israel's occupation of the West Bank was a fluent English speaker (does this remind you of anybody?) who could argue the country's case on CNN and the BBC. Indeed, in one of his first interviews after receiving this ministry, Yuli Edelstein assured the public that his English was good enough for CNN but then added, wisely, that there was more to making Israel's case in the world than media appearances. This, as Netanyahu's first prime ministerial term in office showed, is definitely true; despite Bibi's fluency in English and his commanding media presence, our image hardly sparkled in those years. Like so many of the unnecessary ministries in this new government - and in the face of the greatest world economic crisis since the Depression, it is hard to accept the facile argument that "coalition constraints" have made the most bloated government in the nation's history a necessary evil - Edelstein's new job will inevitably lead to turf wars with another ministry. In fact, overlapping responsibilities seems to be a theme of this government. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for example, was promised full autonomy by Netanyahu in managing diplomatic relations (a promise Netanyahu might already be regretting following Lieberman's bull-in-a-china-shop entry into the Foreign Ministry last week) as well as taking charge of the dialogue with the United States. At the same time, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was promised full partnership in security and regional decisions. Add to this mix Moshe Ayalon as the minister for strategic affairs, whose mission is to contend with the Iranian threat, and one has a recipe for internal squabbles even if the Ministry for Strategic Affairs itself is a sham. The already embittered Silvan Shalom, meanwhile, has the regional development portfolio, which means he will be in charge of development projects with the Palestinian Authority and other Arab countries. But these projects also fall into Lieberman's and Barak's areas of responsibility, and there is no guarantee that they will back any attempt by Shalom to move things forward. If past experience is anything to go by, they are more likely to stifle initiatives than promote them. AS FOR Edelstein, his new non-ministry will clash with the Foreign Ministry, where some serious work is being invested in hasbara and the concept of rebranding Israel. According to research conducted by global ad firm Young and Rubicam in New York a few years back, the problem with hasbara was not that Israel was failing to get over its point of view to the wider public, but rather that there was simply too much information on Israel in the news, all focused on the Middle East conflict. The task for spokespeople, the Foreign Ministry decided, was to change the one-dimensional image of Israel as a country defined by its conflict with the Palestinians into one in which it is seen as part of the wider international coalition of moderate countries. Research conducted by the ministry showed that no country has such a gap between the reality of daily life and its media perception. While we see ourselves as warm, informal, gregarious people, enjoying life in a beautiful country and sipping fine, locally produced wine, others see us as hostile, cloistered and very unfriendly. The words "boutique winery" and "Israel" do not come up very often in word association tests overseas. An international survey of 5,215 people in 13 major countries, conducted recently on behalf of the Foreign Ministry, whose results were released at the weekend showed that 35 percent of the people polled saw Israel as aggressive, 24% saw it as arrogant and only 27% said they supported it politically. The people polled by the way, all had at least a BA degree and earned above the average salary in their country. Israel would be by no means the first country to rebrand itself. The "Cool Britannia" era of the late 1990s was one highly successful rebranding, as was Spain's capitalization of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which helped turn a European backwater into a hip, design-led destination. Countries seeking to rebrand do so for economic reasons: They want to increase tourism, improve exports and up the level of foreign investment, something increasingly important in the face of the present economic crisis. The task facing the team at the Foreign Ministry is to come up with the strategic concept of Brand Israel - what message about itself the country wants to portray - and then internalize this message and launch it on the international market. Like many national projects, the rebranding is running way behind schedule and the appointment of a new minister supposedly in charge of hasbara is likely to further delay it. The Foreign Ministry won't want to give up its baby, while the Ministry for Information will no doubt want to take charge of the project so as to make itself relevant. And then, of course, there is the key question as to what image of itself the country wants to portray. But if the new foreign minister insists on playing the role of the neighborhood bully, as evidenced by his statement "If you want peace, prepare for war" at what was meant to have been a festive handover at the Foreign Ministry, then no amount of positive spinning is ever going to change the hasbara impact, no matter who is in charge. The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.