Haifa, Israel — Israel’s settlers have launched a well-funded public relations campaign to change their image by luring vacationing Israelis to the disputed West Bank.
The Israeli public’s attitudes toward settlers are currently colder than ever. In recent weeks, settlers featured in newspapers have been young men and women with angry faces, resisting evacuation from outposts, and clashing with soldiers in doing so. The new campaign is looking to present a different picture.
Some 1,000 billboards have gone up across the country, showing photographs of cherubic settler children dressed in biblical costumes and carrying the slogan “Judea and Samaria — the story of every Jew.”
The message about the West Bank’s centrality in Jewish biblical history is also promoted through cheerful radio advertisements and a chic Web site.
The campaign, which is set to spend $1.5 million this year, claims that visiting the West Bank is safe, and urges the public to take part in one of its organized trips, many of which include in-situ re-enactments of biblical episodes. The first visits, expected to attract 3,000 people, were scheduled for the intermediate days of Sukkot, traditional day trip season in Israel.
The campaign is run by the settler umbrella body, the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria, and marks a considerable change in its tactics. To begin with, the campaign shows an unprecedented concern for the sentiments of mainstream Israelis. It also constitutes a new tack for a settler community that has traditionally put most of its public relations emphasis on fighting any territorial compromise.
“For the last 25 years, we have used mainly security arguments for convincing people of the importance of Judea and Samaria,” council chairman Dani Dayan told the Forward. “We neglected to talk about the importance of the area in our biblical history, the main reason we returned to our homeland in the first place, which is the approach we are now taking.”
Key sites being promoted include Beit El, where, according to Genesis, Jacob dreamed of the ladder ascended and descended by angels; Beit Horon, a main site in the Hanukkah story; Shiloh, where the Israelite tabernacle rested for many years; and Hebron, burial place of the forefathers and one-time throne of King David. In Hebron, 500 Jews live in an enclave surrounded by more than 150,000 Arabs. The other sites are all Jewish settlements close to Palestinian villages. All of the sites would likely be ceded back to the Palestinians in the event of a peace deal.
The campaign will run for three years “regardless of any peace agreement or political development,” Yakir Segev, the professional director of the campaign told the Forward.
“We want to inject values, not just politics, into the public discourse,” Segev said. “For the first time in many years, we are trying to make Judea and Samaria not just the places in the news that people are reading about in a political context.”
Segev, known to many Israelis from 2006 when he was a leading protestor against the government’s handling of the Second Lebanon War, is an unlikely campaigner for the settlements. Firstly, he is a Jerusalemite, not a settler. Secondly, although the settler movement is ever-increasingly identified with religious-Zionism, Segev is self-admittedly secular. In both respects, he claims to represent the demographic to which settlers should be reaching out.
“Judea and Samaria have become identified only with Orthodox,” he said. “It’s very problematic, and precisely what we need to address.”
Segev designed the campaign with Drori Shlomi, one of Israel’s top ad agencies.
Experts are divided on whether the campaign will prove successful. Udi Lebel, a lecturer in political psychology at Sapir College, said: “It’s going to convince the centrist Israeli, who typically has a strong Jewish identity but currently sees Judea and Samaria just as a military problem that there are other psychological associations — positive ones — with the area.”
However, according to Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld, an expert in political communication, “the chances of success are close to nil.”
“From persuasion research,” Wolfsfeld said, “we understand that the more well-known and well-discussed a topic is, the less likely it is that a campaign can change people’s opinions. And if there’s one thing people in Israel have an established opinion on, it’s the settlements.”
Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov of Hebrew University’s Department of International Relations, an expert on the peace process, said that it is “too late” to steer debate over the West Bank away from security and back to history.
“The issue is not anymore about the fatherland, but just how much to give back,” he said. “History is not a factor in this regard for most Israelis, and it will not play a part at the moment of any agreement.”
Segev, for his part, admits that the campaign has a weakness — it is at the mercy of something far less predictable than Israel’s political cleavages.
“The Sukkot tours have proved popular and buses are booked from all over Israel,” he said, “but if it rains, many will have to be canceled.”