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Re-branding Israel

lrb_blogLand of Security Know-How

Neve Gordon 19 May 2010

Since the publication of his UN report charging Israel (and Hamas) with war crimes, Richard Goldstone has been subjected to a well-orchestrated delegitimisation campaign by Israel. Most recently, new ‘revealing information’ was disseminated to the press, accusing the Jewish Zionist South African judge of sentencing 28 black South Africans to death during the apartheid years. ‘The judge who sentenced black people to death,’ said the speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, ‘should not be allowed to lecture a democratic state defending itself against terrorists.’

The ongoing character assassination of Goldstone isn’t an isolated case, but should be seen as part of a large-scale state-branding exercise by Israel. In 2004, the Foreign Ministry hired a number of international PR firms to improve Israel’s global reputation. In the words of Ido Aharoni, the head of the ministry’s brand management team:

Every place has a brand… Brazil is about fun, Paris is about romance and Las Vegas is about sin… What is Israel about?… The conflict, and the context in which Israel is perceived is all about bad news, whether you agree with Israel or not.

The Foreign Ministry decided to draw attention away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by emphasising Israel’s stem-cell research and the young computer experts who invented instant messaging. Aharoni points to Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book Start-Up Nation as a paradigmatic example of how Israel can be celebrated. The problem, in Aharoni’s view, is that ‘when we are given a chance to talk about Israel the only story we tell is about the conflict and it is a turn-off even among our biggest supporters.’ Aharoni is convinced that by changing the story it tells about itself – by focusing on lifestyle and leisure, the environment, science and technology, art and culture, the people and heritage – Israel can change its international image.

Martin Kace, the head of the business consultancy firm Empax, disagrees with this approach. At the annual Herzliya Conference on National Security, he said:

It’s true that the country has astoundingly high amounts of technological innovation; Israel is number one in the world in agricultural productivity, files more biomedical patents every year than any other country, is consistently top 10 in life expectancy, has a very active cultural and academic life, lots of Nobel laureates, great beaches, beautiful and scantily-clad people, a very active gay community and on and on… This is what the Israeli Foreign Ministry proposes as a platform for Brand Israel. It will fail miserably… because it asks people to completely re-contextualise Israel as they know it.

Kace does not propose that Israel end the conflict, but rather suggests that the conflict be incorporated into the Israeli brand, maintaining that Israel cannot deliver a credible brand message without acknowledging the ongoing strife. The idea, so it seems, is to present Israel as the Land of Security Know-How.

There is also a third strategy: to undermine the reputation of anyone who dares to question Israel’s human rights record, and to obstruct the flow of unpalatable information that’s gathered, organised, and distributed by rights groups and circulated by the international media.

Right-wing NGOs and social movements such as Gerald Steinberg’s NGO Monitor and Im Tirtzu are doing much of this McCarthyist dirty work. Their blacklist includes not only individual critics of Israeli rights abuses, like Goldstone, but also local and international NGOs and their donors, particularly the European Union, the Ford Foundation and the New Israel Fund. Naomi Chazan, the former Knesset member who now runs the New Israel Fund, was recently featured on giant billboards with a horn emerging from her head because her organisation funded human-rights NGOs that passed information on to Judge Goldstone.

These McCarthyist organisations are working with right-wing legislators. On 28 April, 19 Knesset members introduced a bill that aims to close down any existing NGO if ‘there are reasonable grounds to conclude that the association is providing information to foreign entities or is involved in legal proceedings abroad against senior Israeli government officials or IDF officers for war crimes.’

The Reut Institute, and a few other right-wing think tanks, have also joined the bandwagon, offering policy recommendations to decision makers. In ‘Building a Political Firewall against Israel’s Delegitimisation’, Reut defined anyone who is critical of Israel as being part of a ‘delegitimisation network’ and therefore an ‘existential threat’. According to Reut, this network is made up of ‘organisations and individuals in the West – mostly elements of the radical European left, Arab and Islamic groups, and so-called post or anti-Zionist Jews and Israelis – [who] negate Israel’s right to exist based on a variety of political and philosophical arguments.’ The think tank concludes that the ‘delegitimisation stems from a rejection of Israel’s existence, and therefore cannot be made to disappear by PR or policy.’ It accordingly argues that ‘branding the other side’ (i.e. Israel’s critics) is a vital part of the struggle over Israel’s reputation and, indeed, existence.

This negative branding is an international effort. Noam Chomsky, who was recently prevented from entering Israel and the West Bank, has long been a target of witch hunters like Alan Dershowitz, but other less known actors are also playing a part. Mitchell Bard, the executive director of the American-Israeli Co-operative Enterprise, and Gil Troy, a historian at McGill University, recently published a position paper summarising the discussions of the Working Group on Delegitimisation at the 2009 Global Forum against Anti-Semitism. Bard and Troy suggest that it is crucial to ‘rename and reframe’ the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS). ‘We need to point out how BDS crosses the line from legitimate criticism to historically-laden, anti-Semitic messaging.’ The report goes on to present the struggle against BDS as a war, using such terms as enemy, command centre, war room, fight, battle and battlefield.

But the branding campaign does not stop with human rights NGOs, their donors, individual critics or supporters of BDS. International humanitarian and human rights law – which emerged following the horrors of the Holocaust – is also under attack. This, at least, was one of the messages emerging from a conference organised by the Lawfare Project. The logic is clear: international human rights law is being deployed as a tool to criticise Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories and is consequently responsible for damaging Israel’s reputation; it therefore must be curbed. This is an extremely frightening thought.

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