Ivri Lider is Israel’s newest freelance ambassador.
The openly gay musician is one of a new breed of unofficial envoys trying to improve Israel’s international image – a battle the government has been waging for decades. Lider recently returned from a trip to the U.S., funded by a pro-Israel nonprofit group, where he performed concerts and spoke to college students and gay activists.
“When I met people they said, ‘We didn’t know that you could be an Israeli rock star who is out of the closet,'” he recalled. “I think Israel needs to reveal its more liberal, cool and funky sides.”
Israel has a reality problem more than an image problem, critics say. The country is still recovering from last summer’s war in Lebanon and is mired in conflict with the Palestinians. No matter how hard Israel tries, the critics argue, it will be impossible for Israel to complete its image makeover until it resolves its dispute with Palestinians.
The deepest hostilities toward Israel are found in Europe and the Arab world. But Israel also has an image problem in the U.S., where people generally view it as a war zone.
With Israeli officials still struggling to sway public opinion, a host of independent groups – funded primarily by wealthy American Jews – are trying to come to the rescue.
They include Israel at Heart – the group that sent Lider – which dispatches Israeli students on grass-roots missions to college campuses, churches and community centers. Its envoys often encounter scathing accusations regarding Israeli policies toward Palestinians, but they try to steer clear of politics, focusing instead on their personal stories to create basic empathy.
Other groups stump for Israel in the media or run ad campaigns – replete with models in swimsuits – that portray Israel as a desirable tourist destination. (See one such ad here: http://tinyurl.com/2whjyl.)
Israel’s image consciousness has even trickled into its pop culture. Channel 2 TV aired a highly successful reality show, “The Ambassador,” in which young Israelis competed to see who could present the country in the best light to a hostile international audience.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry, which oversees much of the government’s public-relations effort, seems to be catching on.
The ministry has begun to diversify its ranks, sending women, Ethiopian immigrants and Israeli Arabs into high-profile positions – a contrast to the usual cast of grizzled, tough-talking former military men who often represent the country abroad. It even briefed Israel’s Miss Universe contestant on how to portray Israel in a positive light and deal with critical questions.
And thanks to foreign ministry efforts, Maxim magazine will soon publish a special Israeli edition featuring six of the country’s top models.
The government has also launched a “nation-branding” drive aimed at presenting Israel as a vibrant, modern society – with recent Nobel Prize winners in chemistry and economics, cutting-edge medical industries and innovative companies traded on Nasdaq.
“The product is fine; it’s the marketing that needs work,” said Amir Gissin, who has spearheaded the ministry’s drive for the past two years.
No doubt, the image boosters have their work cut out. In a recent global survey that ranked the images of 36 countries, Israel came in last.
“The negative perceptions of Israel, arising from the constant reporting of the Middle East conflict, are so powerful that they basically drown out anything else positive,” said Simon Anholt, the London pollster who created the Anholt Nations Brand Index. “It simply contaminated the whole image of the country from top to bottom.”
That’s exactly what the masterminds of the unofficial “rebranding” initiative are trying to counter. They hope to shift away from the conflict and focus instead on Israel’s successes in business, medicine, science and technology.
“You have to separate the issue of policy and everything else,” said David Sable, a New York advertising executive who is one of the creators of the project. “We are just trying to highlight the natural strengths that are already there.”
Israel 21c, a nonprofit project funded by Jewish leaders from the San Francisco Bay area, has done just that, launching a Web site that reports exclusively on Israeli achievements and non-conflict issues. The Web site is geared toward foreign correspondents in Israel and says it has placed dozens of articles in newspapers around the world.
CAN IT WORK?
Anholt is skeptical of Israel 21c’s approach.
“I wonder if they know what an enormous immovable weight the country’s image is,” he said. “This is not a pair of running shoes where you can run a campaign and change its image.”
Uzi Arad, a former Mossad spy and director of Israel’s Institute of Policy and Strategy, called the rebranding drive “pathetic.” Instead of running magazine ads showing Israeli women in bikinis, he said, Israel has to defend its policies and be aggressive in the media, just as it has done in war.
“Don’t let them decide the actions. Go on the attack, go for the jugular, stop being apologetic,” he said.
Gissin, the director of the foreign ministry’s PR efforts, said the rebranding drive was aimed at improving Israel’s economic results by making it a more attractive destination for investors and tourists. Regardless, he said Israel could not disguise its reality and the drive needed to accompany the traditional, conflict-centric PR, not replace it.
“The conflict could go on for another generation; that does not relieve us of the responsibility to improve Israel’s image,” he said. “That people see us just through the conflict is not our destiny, we can change it.”
ISRAEL’S NEW FACE?
In the meantime, Israel is busy framing its new look. Ismail Khaldi, a member of Israel’s Arab Bedouin minority, a nomadic tribal society plagued by widespread poverty, recently took up the post of deputy consul in San Francisco. While other Arabs and Druse have represented Israel overseas before, Khaldi is the first Bedouin to reach such a high position.
One of 12 children, he lived in a tent until he was 8 years old, and his village in northern Israel only received electricity four years ago.
Despite his past hardship, he says he is ready to be the new face of Israel.
“America and the West can learn from Israel’s democracy. It’s a great achievement, one to be proud of,” he said. “We’re the unheard voices, and now we’ll be heard. That’s the beauty of diversity and democracy.”
Aron Heller is an AP reporter based in Jerusalem.