Re-Branding Israel - One Bikini Clad Model at a time

For years Israel has been struggling to re-brand itself, to improve its reputation in the world and for years it has failed. In the last quarter of 2006, the Anholt Nations Brand Index which measures the power and appeal of a nation's brand (based on 6 areas of national assets - tourism, exports, governance, investment and immigration, heritage and culture, people), Israel ranked #37 out of 38 countries. Israel was one above Iran, and that was already an improvement from previous rankings where they were last.

Image taken from www.Isrealli.org
Today's New York Times however, stated that Israel is facing its worst diplomatic crisis in two decades. Israel's sports teams have been confronted with hostility and violent protests in Sweden, Spain and Turkey. Mauritania has closed the Israeli embassy. 'Israel Apartheid Week' spread to over 40 cities around the world this year. As a result, the Israeli Foreign ministry has been given an additional US$2 million to improve Israel's image in the world.

This is of course, after the weak (if not somewhat sexist) attempt by New York's Consulate General of Israel to sway American males in their favor with Maxim magazine's July 2007 pictorial of Israel Defense Army soldiers scantily clad in bikinis - as the sexiest soldiers in the world.
Image by Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty
More recently, the very same Consulate General of Israel lost another PR battle when Google refused to block the heartbreaking images of war torn Gaza from popping up when users typed 'Israel' in the search engine. To combat this, media experts have been flown to Israel to capture video and still images of a more positive side of Israel. These images will then be uploaded to prominent websites like Wikipedia, Facebook, Flickr and well as several blogs.
Image from "Stand with Israel"
No doubt these images will include Bar Refaeli, an Israeli model who made the cover of Sports Illustrated 2009 Swimsuit edition. Her photo in the bikini was put on an Israeli airliner and heavily promoted by the Israeli media. The hope of the Brand Israel project created by Tzipi Livni (during her tenure at the Foreign Ministry) is that Refaeli's image will help to replace those of a devastated Gaza. According to Israel's Haaretz Daily Newspaper, photos of bikini clad Israeli women, whether they be in Maxim or on the cover of Sports Illustrated help promote a closer relationship with the West; making Israel seem more American or European because Arab women are never photographed in bikinis.
Bar Refaeli on SI shoot - Image from Sports Illustrated
In conjunction with this flood of new images, Israel is also planning to send novelists, theater companies and exhibits overseas to help to paint a prettier, less violent face on Israel. However, this effort comes at a time when boycotts of Israeli academics and culture are gaining traction in many university campuses, organizations and businesses around the world.
Simon Amholt, the guru of Nation Branding and advisor to many governments, thinks Israel is wasting their money. "Branding is not about communications, it's about doing real things to earn that positive reputation. There are no shortcuts to a better reputation." As long as Israel is constantly embroiled in conflicts with its neighbors, the country will always be associated with the 40+ years of occupation, violence and oppression. The extreme use of force in Lebanon in 2006 and more recently in the Gaza strip does not help promote tourism. And no amount of branding and glossy images can counter the recent IDF soldiers' damning admission of the "cold-blooded murder" (not my words but the soldiers) of unarmed Palestinian women and children in Gaza as they fled for their lives or the purposeless and the wanton destruction Palestinian property. In the 22-day military operation in Gaza, out of the 1,300 Palestinians who were killed, 440 were children.
Image taken from "Palestinian Think Tank"
Ultimately, it would benefit the Israeli government to learn from past failures of their staunchest ally, the United States. Under President George W. Bush, the United States suffered from sweeping anti-Americanism globally. In 2007, Simon Anholt told the Financial Times that America's governance and cultural heritage were no longer widely respected or admired despite that fact America's soft power was at its height in the 1990s and early 2000s. Global outrage over the Iraq war and poorly conceived security measures post 9-11 and America's complete disregard of multinational organizations or international law or cooperation decimated America's global standing, its brand and any authority it had in the world. Tourism to the United States fell and American businesses suffered from a backlash. So to improve America's image in world, especially in the Middle East, President Bush created the position Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy at the State Department. He first hired Charlotte Beers, an ad executive. She lasted one and a half years in the position. Next came Margaret Tutwiler, a former press spokeswoman. She stayed 6 months. And finally Bush hired his close confidant, Karen Hughes - who also resigned. During their tenures, the United States created Radio Sawa in 2002, to play top 100 American pop music in the Middle East with the hope that Britney Spears could change perceptions. When that didn't work, in 2003 they created HI magazine that presented the 'American lifestyle' to Arab youth. When that failed too, they tried a third medium, Al-Hurra (Freedom) TV station in 2004.

These pathetic attempts to promote American society and culture overseas were largely unsuccessful because they were superficial and American policies which were the heart of the problem did not change. Instead these efforts were mocked by the Arab press and America's image continued to deteriorate further. It is now only recently, with a new administration and the reversal of many Bush policies that America's brand is getting the much needed resuscitation.

If Israel is genuinely interested in redeeming its reputation around the world, it will have to address once for all the repeated charges of war crimes and human rights violations by the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and other organizations. They will have face charges of apartheid-like practices and make sincere efforts to end the occupation of Palestine and make peace with its neighbors. If not, no amount of images of bikini clad bodies on sandy, salty beaches will be able to improve its reputation or raise its brand from the bottom of the pile.
Gaza - Image from the Washington Times
Image from the FT - Palestinian child at police officer's funeral in Gaza

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