A slightly different - and shorter - version of this article appeared at the IHT-NYT site. You can read it here.
When you’re in Tel Aviv - touring its busy beach-cafes by day or its busier bars and restaurants by night - it’s easy to think of Israel as an attractive place. And as of last week, Israel is an attractive place with an attractive logo.
ISRAEL, a new youthful and colorful logo from Israel's Foreign Ministry was unveiled to Ministry officials. Some of them, graying and solemn, seemed quite uncomfortable (so I'm told by attendees of this event). They didn’t much like the need for diplomas to engage in pandering to public tastes instead of expending their entire energies on more serious diplomatic work. Some of them are also understandably skeptical: One terror attack and all this image-building effort goes down the drain, they were busy explaining to the ministry's PR chief Daniel Zonshine (as if he didn't already know).
Back in 2006, the ministry decided to give Israel a makeover and replace its image as a warzone with that of a start-up nation in the broader sense. After all, Israel is an economic miracle of sorts, a vibrant marketplace of music and literature and films, a place where high quality food and fashion are to be found. Israel, the new image aims to promote, is energetic, creative and forward-thinking; it’s an exciting place, and not just for occasionally receiving a barrage of rockets.
Ido Aharoni, Israel’s consul general in New York, has been one of the most fervent advocates of rebranding. He has a video presentation that is often used when there's a need to convince Israelis that they have an image problem. In it, a focus group of Americans is asked to imagine what houses of various countries would look like had they been the manifestation of the characteristics of those countries. They described houses in Italy as “warm” and “festive”, and gave other countries similar rosy attributes. But when they described the imaginary houses in Israel, they used such terms as “big gates and bars on the windows” or described them as being built from “cement” and with “no garden.”
For many Israelis, if the world cannot see how wonderful their country is, then there must be a problem with the world’s vision. If only the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Tourism or the ministry in charge of hasbara - the Hebrew word for explaining things (or, to put it more bluntly, propaganda) - could set it straight.
But what if the problem is with the policy rather than the PR? What if Israel's problem is really the continuous occupation under which Palestinians have to live in the West Bank, and what many perceive as Israel's reluctance to make compromises for the sake of peace, and the settling of disputed occupied areas by Israelis? In this case, as Harvard professor (and harsh critic of Israel's policies) Stephen Walt argues, “trying to ‘rebrand’ Israel through a one-sided PR campaign could be counterproductive.” Indeed, “offering a uniformly sunny image that leaves out much of the story just undermines the credibility of the messenger.”
Another problem is that the messenger itself seems to be in two minds about its message. No branding, no matter how clever or creative, can make Israel look like Italy or Spain, when Israel’s prime minister uses every occasion to remind the world that Iran is out to get us.
You can’t want to be seen both as a fun-loving, entrepreneurial society and as the hardy frontiersman fighting for your survival. You can’t be both a start-up nation and a place on the verge of annihilation. But what if you are?