Marketing the Unmarketable: Israel's Soft Power

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 7/31/2014 01:30:00 AM
Not your grandfather's idea of "nation branding."
Regardless of the party in power, one thing you can count on is that the United States will be more pro-Israel than nearly everyone else, John Kerry's alleged ham-fistedness notwithstanding. While the rest of the world is rather appalled by Israel's military attacking (a) nominally their own people in (b) a hemmed-in area, American politicians of all stripes try to outcompete each other in showing support for the embattled nation. In the rest of the world, however,  I do not need to tell you that its reputation is rather lower. Especially when these gruesome conflicts occur, for instance, I have personally received messages time and again to participate in an academic boycott our Israeli colleagues.

So while Americans may not need as much convincing to go along with Israel, the rest of the world needs to be prodded along from the thinking of Israel's powers-that-be. Uriel Heilman has an excellent piece on Israel's actions when it last mounted a campaign of this magnitude in 2008:
"Speed is the top priority," said Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "The goal is to bring your message as fast as possible to the widest possible audience." When Operation Cast Lead was actually launched on the night of Dec. 27, 2008, taking many Palestinian fighters in Gaza by surprise, the [media] group sprang into action. Diplomats from the foreign minister on down took to the airwaves, explaining to reporters from New York to New Delhi why Israel had launched the operation to curb Hamas' rocket fire into Israel. The IDF set up a press center where reporters could get quick and accurate information about the fighting, including videos of forces in combat...

Israel stepped up its PR effort as the war unfolded. The morning after the operation began, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went on NBC's "Meet the Press" to make Israel's case for the war and clarify its objectives. "The situation is a situation in which Israeli citizens are targeted from Gaza Strip, a place that we left few years ago in order to create a new horizon for peace. But we got Hamas in return," Livni told NBC's David Gregory. "Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip. We left Gaza Strip," she said. "We dismantled all the settlements. But since Gaza Strip has been controlled by the extremists, and since Gaza Strip has been controlled by Hamas, and since Hamas is using Gaza Strip in order to target us, we need to give an answer to this."
Another platform for its media campaign involves the use of social media. Israel, after all, is a hotbed of technology research (Silicon Wadi):
The effort was not limited to traditional media. On the third day of the war, the IDF launched a channel on the popular online video sharing website YouTube, where viewers around the world could access video clips supporting Israel's case for war. The IDF posted footage of Hamas weapons storehouses in Gaza, booby-trapped schools in Gaza City, rocket crews firing from Palestinian civilian areas and Israeli medical teams treating Palestinian wounded. The videos included footage taken from cameras aboard IDF unmanned aerial vehicles flying above the fighting. 

By the fourth day of the conflict, Israel's Consulate in New York had opened an account on the social messaging website Twitter and held a virtual press conference to answer questions from the public on the conflict in Gaza. In keeping with Twitter's format, the questions and answers were limited to 140 characters each. "the sole purpose of this opt. is 2 protect Isr's s.border & 2 allow ISR 2 live safely. this opt is indiferrent 2 politics," the consulate wrote in typical Twitter shorthand in response to a question from a user named carrotderek. "we're not at war with the PAL people. we're at war with a group declared by the EU& US a terrorist org," read another answer.
Lastly, there is also, well, titillation. How better to target younger generations than to parade scantily-clad female soldiers in lad's mags? While I was aware of these appearances before, what I didn't catch was that they were sponsored by the Israeli consulate:
In the old days, Palmor said, Israel projected the same message with little thought to audience interest. That strategy, he acknowledged, was not successful. "One strategy is counterproductive," he said. "What is good for the United States is not good for France, and vice versa." The Israeli Consulate in New York has run with this idea. In July 2007, the consulate caused a stir when it helped Maxim, a monthly men's interest magazine, put together a five-page spread of scantily clad IDF women soldiers striking sexy poses against various Israeli backdrops.  
"People perceive Israel through two lenses alone: the conflict and religion," Saranga went on. "What we want to do is add another dimension, which is the human face. People are not familiar with the Israeli face. We want to show that Israel is a normal place, that it's a place of great cultural creation, that it's a hot place in terms of lifestyle."

This is the re-branding of Israel: getting niche audiences to associate Israel with positive, rather than negative, images. By that measure, Israel scored a coup when Sports Illustrated decided to use a shot of Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli on the cover of its annual swimsuit edition in February. Instead of the image of an armed Israeli soldier firing a tear gas canister at Palestinian teenagers, the image of Israel the world woke up to was of a sizzling-hot Refaeli wearing a tiny bikini, pulling away at the bikini-bottom's strings. 
It is shallow and superficial and I would have wished for equal-opportunity exploitation by having male soldiers strut their stuff in Cosmopolitan or something similar, but consider the target market here. Judging from US opinions of Israel, it seems to be a fairly effective rebranding strategy. There is no Middle Eastern edition of Maxim (can you imagine?), but make no mistake: Whether in spreading information obviously sympathetic to the Israeli cause or, er, giving a new definition to "field strip," the Israelis have done their homework as is usually the case.