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Israel Aims To Improve Its Public Image

Directors of Israel’s three most powerful ministries have agreed on a new plan to improve the country’s image abroad — by downplaying religion and avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians.

The plan was adopted during an October 2 meeting convened by the Foreign Ministry, involving its own director general and his counterparts in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry. The participants examined specialized research conducted by American marketing executives over the last three years.

The meeting is the latest manifestation of a growing movement — begun in America — to “re-brand” Israel, or to reinvent the country’s image in the eyes of both Jews and non-Jews. The driving concept is that Israel will win supporters only if it is seen as relevant and modern rather than only as a place of fighting and religion.

Among other recent converts to this idea is Hillel, the international campus organization. Hillel’s Israel on Campus Coalition unveiled a sweeping campaign at the beginning of this school year, titled “Israel Starts With I.” The seven kickoff events at large schools will feature Israeli bands and speakers in an effort to portray Israel as a place “where there are cool, hip people,” according to Wayne Firestone, who is leaving his post as executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition to become the executive vice president of Hillel.

“It’s no longer, in our view, a necessity or desirable to always start this from the idea that it’s a two-sided issue — that’s the old paradigm of how to relate to Israel,” Firestone said. Instead, some pro-Israel activists and officials argue, it is better to avoid any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians — even in an attempt to paint Jerusalem as seeking peace.

The new approach to Israeli image control first began to take on institutional form about four years ago with the founding of Israel21c, a small California-based group that has worked with public relations experts to place news stories about Israel that do not focus on the conflict with the Palestinians. The organization has a Web site where it posts articles about, among other things, medical and technological advances in Israeli laboratories. Next month the organization will launch a Web site aimed at British citizens. Now Israel21c is also working with the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the United States — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — on a plan to generate collaborative content for Aipac.

Nation-branding has caught on around the globe in the last few years. A new journal, Place Branding, put out its first issue last fall. The editor of the journal works as an official adviser to the British and Croatian governments.

“There’s much more interest on the part of many more nations to appoint their own committee to improve their image, or draw in their own professional help,” said Philip Kotler, a marketing professor at Northwestern University. Kotler is a co-author of “The Marketing of Nations: A Strategic Approach to Building National Wealth.”

Since the September 11 attacks, the United States has made a number of controversial efforts to manage its own image — particularly in the Middle East. But while the United States has largely tried to reverse negative perceptions, Israel is working to create a new perception of itself through its branding campaign.

In Israel, the Foreign Ministry is planning a comprehensive strategy for the nation’s image management that could include making Israeli products, such as medical devices, more identifiably Israeli.

“The idea here is to have a major branding campaign in America and Europe,” said Gidon Meir, deputy director-general for public affairs at the Foreign Ministry.

The Brand Israel group — a coalition of seven marketing and communications executives who have volunteered their time over the last two years to research how Israel might improve its image — tied together the disparate groups working on Israel’s image in America. The work began when the advertising firm Young & Rubicam included Israel in its quarterly review of 13,000 brands. The survey found that Israel is well known but has little relevance for younger Americans, who only associate it with war.

Those impressions were probed more deeply in a series of 10 focus groups over the course of this past spring, sponsored by the Brand Israel group. Boaz Mourad, head of Insight Research Groups, the focus group leader, said that the non-Jewish Americans in the groups almost universally saw Israel only as “militaristic” and “religious.”

“There is no sense of the human element of Israel,” said Mourad, who is also a volunteer member of the Brand Israel group. “People were saying in order to care more, they would need to feel a connection to the people and understand who they are.”

Representatives of the Brand Israel group met with members of the Foreign Ministry in July to present the group’s findings. Since then, the group has made presentations to several major American Jewish organizations. Now it will conduct more targeted focus groups to consider what new tactics might shift perceptions.

Ido Aharoni, the Israeli official who convened the Brand Israel group, said that despite the recent changes, not enough American Jewish organizations realize the importance of changing Israel’s image. Aharoni, consul for media and public affairs at the New York consulate general until this past summer, said that dozens of new Israel advocacy organizations had been created since the beginning of the second intifada to defend Israel’s position. But Aharoni said that’s not what’s needed.

“They’re convinced that Americans don’t know enough about the conflict,” Aharoni said. “What the Americans are telling us loud and clear is that they don’t want to hear more about the conflict.”

The battle of old approach versus new has been crystallized in the competition between Israeli21c and The Israel Project, another American group formed at about the same time. The Israel Project has followed the more traditional path of presenting Israel’s side of the conflict with the Palestinians. Among other things, The Israel Project has paid to air ads in influential markets touting Israel’s commitment to peace and democracy.

Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of Israel 21c, called The Israel Project’s work “crisis management” and said that such efforts frequently end up reinforcing Israel’s image as a conflict-ridden place.

“Israel 21c is more visionary than they are,” Weinberg, said. “Within our view, crisis management is a necessary function. They think it begins and ends with what they do. In that they are wrong, they are limited, and it’s not helpful.”

The president and founder of The Israel Project, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, said that while attention to the broader story of Israel is good, ultimately American opinion of the conflict is what will end up shaping America’s relationship with Israel.

“Until there is peace we have to be dealing with the stories that the media is most interested in,” Mizrahi said. “There are still 400 permanently stationed reporters in Jerusalem. They didn’t come to do a story about Israel beyond the conflict. You can’t pretend that it’s otherwise.”

The major groups adopting Israel21c’s strategies said that it is still imperative that Israel continue the old advocacy efforts, and The Israel Project is praised for its work in this area. Meir said that the government would still spend most of its time explaining Israel’s side in the conflict with the Palestinians. And on campus, Israel will most frequently come up in the context of the war, Hillel’s Firestone said.

“We’re not saying that Israel is only a place where there is technology and everyone is happy,” Firestone said. “That too is very misleading. We think that would backfire.”

The bands that are coming to campuses for the Hillel events frequently sing about living in a land plagued by war. But the mere existence of the concerts represents a shift. At the beginning of last year, Firestone said that his organization was spending all its time coordinating strategies to combat an anti-Israel conference at Duke University, organized by pro-Palestinian activists.

“Our strategy was dependent on when they held conferences. We were waiting for them,” Firestone said. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if we put our resources more proactively, as if the conference never happened?’”

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