Seeking A Kinder, Gentler Image For Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Herzliya Conference. i i

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Herzliya Conference. Rauvan Kastro, Pool/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Rauvan Kastro, Pool/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Herzliya Conference.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the Herzliya Conference.

Rauvan Kastro, Pool/AP

Israel submitted its formal response last month to a U.N.-commissioned probe that accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes during last winter's war in the Gaza Strip. Israel defended its conduct and pledged to fully investigate the U.N. allegations, but stopped short of a U.N. demand to appoint an independent commission to probe its army's conduct.

The U.N. must now decide how to proceed. But Israel is focusing on the broader international opinion of the Jewish state.

"Public perception today in the global economy and in the world as it is today is not less strategic than having any other military strategic weapon. Public perception is almost as important as existence," says Lior Chorev, one of Israel's top public relations experts.

The Punch Line

There is a common joke that, some say, reflects Israel's global image abroad. But this time, it is an Israeli official delivering it.

Three Israelis arrive at the Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. They approach the immigration officer. He asks them, "Nationality?" They say, "Israeli." He then turns to them and says, "Occupation?" They look at each other and say, "No thank you. We're only here for three days."

Ido Aharoni is head of the brand management division at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. It's his job to generate an image of Israel that doesn't include words like "occupation" or "conflict."

At a session of the Herzliya Conference, a yearly gathering of Israel's top brass on security and economic issues, Aharoni's talk on Israel's image abroad drew hundreds.

There is a timeliness to the session: Israel had just submitted to the U.N. its defense of last year's offensive in Gaza, which was heavily criticized in the so-called Goldstone Report.

Both Israel and Hamas have rejected the report's findings that they had each committed war crimes during the 22-day conflict and should form independent committees of inquiries into their actions.

'Goldstone Effect'

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of the "Goldstone effect," whereby the U.N.'s report creates a ripple that furthers negative images of Israel.

There has been debate over how Israel handled the Goldstone report. The government initially refused to cooperate with the probe at all, Chorev says.

"I think that the Goldstone report has managed to create an atmosphere because Israel kept silent," Chorev says. "Israel did not play the PR power game with the Goldstone report. Israel chose to play the game of an absentee. We discredited the Goldstone report too late. We weren't there to give our side of the story. We did not produce our own theme, and we became apologetic. Everybody who deals with public perception understands that being apologetic is being mostly on the losing side."

Is Twitter The Answer?

There are conflicting views on what Israel should do now.

Noam Lemelshtrich, dean of communications at IDC Herzliya, the university that hosted the conference, says Israel should be using new media — such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — to get its message across to a wider audience.

"I think we are handling this very, very poorly," Lemelshtrich says. "It's not being handled by professionals, it's being handled by politicians. But fortunately, the Internet and social networks allow the people of Israel, who are much better than their government, to tell their stories to friendly crowds across the world in the United States and in Europe. So I am optimistic, because the new social medium allows us to bypass the government."

But others, including public relations expert Eyal Arad, think the message should be an organized, united voice led by seasoned experts.

"What we need is to start a political campaign, the way we campaign in elections — a global political campaign," Arad says. "It's going to be tough. It's going to be expensive. It needs leadership that can take choices — that can make choices and enforce choices. It needs discipline."

And with newfound support and funds, Arad says Israel is poised to tackle Goldstone on a global level.

"Our main problem in the world today has become a legitimacy problem," Arad says. "It's not that people do not think that our policies are right. It's that people that question whether we should exist or continue to exist in the first place. We are more and more becoming the South Africa of the 21st century."

For now, the U.N. has deferred its decision on Goldstone. But in Israel, public relations firms aren't wasting any time. They're already planning a new campaign, aimed at future offensives. They're calling it "pre-emptive PR."

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