Behind Brand Israel: Israel’s recent propaganda efforts

Ben White, The Electronic Intifada, 23 February 2010

“The Delegitimization Challenge” report from the influential Israeli think tank the Reut Institute has put the spotlight on efforts by Israel and the Zionist lobby to counter the growing movement for justice in Palestine, and specifically, the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. The work done by Reut has rightly attracted attention, but it is only one (particularly prominent) example of a wider trend, as the Israeli government and global Zionist groups mobilize to fight the threat to the apartheid system.

It was an issue discussed when Israeli policymakers convened for the recent Herzilya Conference where there was a session called “Winning the Battle of the Narrative: Strategic Communication for Israel.” There was also an associated working paper, prepared by a team that included Ido Aharoni from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), along with senior officials from the prime minister’s office, public relations firms and two key lobby groups — The Israel Project in the US, and Bicom from the UK (“Winning the Battle of the Narrative” (PDF)).

An additional working paper produced for the Herzliya conference was called “The ‘Soft Warfare’ against Israel: Motives and Solution Levers,” produced by a mix of academics and representatives from the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE), the Institute for Policy and Strategy, NGO Monitor and Israel’s MFA (“The ‘Soft Warfare’ against Israel: Motives and Solution Levers” (PDF)).

At the end of last year, another significant conference was convened by Israel’s MFA in Jerusalem, called the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism. Convened by far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Likud Minister of Knesset and settler Yuli Edelstein, included in the program was a working group called Delegitimization of Israel: “Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions.” The aim was to “come up with imaginative, effective and successful solutions to counter this evil [of BDS],” forging strategies of “defense” and “offense.”

Co-chaired by Mitchell Bard and Professor Gil Troy, director of the Jewish Virtual Library and McGill University professor, respectively, the anti-BDS group included figures like Canadian lawmaker Irwin Cotler, the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, and right-wing pressure group NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg. From North America, there were representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism. UK-based participants in the anti-BDS group included members of the Jewish Leadership Council, the Fair Play Campaign Group, the Union of Jewish Students, and the President of the National Union of Students, Wes Streeting.

The participation by key lobby groups outside of Israel is indicative of a growing concern. At the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in November last year, there was a special “forum” on “The International Campaign to Delegitimize Israel,” specifically focusing on BDS. As described on its website, the forum sought to “explore effective strategies that can be utilized by the North American Jewish community, including through the Jewish Federations/JCPA Israel Advocacy Initiative” in response. Speakers at the meeting included senior figures from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA).

Delegates at the assembly passed a motion entitled “Resolution Against Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement.” The resolution declared that “that the BDS movement be regarded with the utmost urgency,” and emphasized “the importance of solid relationships with decision leaders.” It also called for “an effective response and [to] devise a proactive strategy to the BDS movement through appropriate vehicles within the system, especially the Israel Advocacy Initiative, a joint project of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and The Jewish Federations of North America.” AIPAC’s “Policy Conference” to be held in Washington, DC in March is also going to host sessions on the “delegitimization campaigns” and the pro-Israel student lobby.

There are further, smaller organizations and groupings that have been set up in large part to counter BDS. These include Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, Fair Play (UK) and Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP). The names of these groups are themselves indicative of a realization that being seen to purely promote Israeli interests is no longer viable — rather, in the words of the UK’s Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI), the key is to stress “co-operation” and “links” in contrast to the “the counter-productive and damaging ‘boycott Israel’ calls.”

The main tactics

In October 2005, the Forward reported that directors from the Israeli foreign ministry, prime minister’s office and finance ministry met to work out “a new plan to improve the country’s image abroad — by downplaying religion and avoiding any discussion of the conflict with the Palestinians.” Although the “Brand Israel” initiative was launched in 2006, its origins can be dated to 2001 when Boaz Mourad, the founder of the Insight Research Group, and Ido Aharoni of the Israeli Foreign Service, “pulled together a branding team for Israel” (including a partner from public relations heavyweight Burson-Marsteller).

During her term as foreign minister, Tzipi Livni appointed Aharoni as head of the “Brand Israel” project, as well as assigning $4 million for the first two years (which is additional to the annual $3 million budget for “hasbara” or propaganda). When it was launched in October 2006, the Israeli MFA promised that Brand Israel would “advance several objectives” including trade, tourism and strengthening “Israel’s positive image” for political reasons.

On 16 March 2008, The Jerusalem Post reported that Brand Israel identified cities like Toronto, Tokyo, London, Boston and New York as locations for “pilot” programs, which could include “organizing film festivals, or food and wine festivals featuring Israel-made products.” Accordingly, by the end of that year billboard advertisements appeared in Toronto promoting Israel as a leader in technological innovation. At the time, Aharoni voiced his expectation that the plan would be rolled out in 2009.

The use of public relations agencies has continued to grow. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, in October 2008, it was the turn of British firm Acanchi, hired by the foreign minister “to craft the new image” (“Foreign Ministry, PR firm rebrand Israel as land of achievements,” 6 October 2008). The firm’s founder toured Israel as part of the mission “to create a brand disconnected from the Arab-Israeli conflict that focuses instead on Israel’s scientific and cultural achievements.” At last month’s Herzliya conference, another leading public relations professional, Martin Kace of Empax, was on stage alongside Aharoni discussing “delegitimization.”

In that session, the Israeli government announced that its central Brand Israel message would be “Creative Energy.” Aharoni presented the concept, described in the “Winning the Battle of the Narrative” paper as repositioning “Israel away from an image of a country in a state of war and conflict to a brand which represents positive values and ideals like ‘building the future,’ ‘vibrant diversity’ and ‘entrepreneurial zeal.'” The idea is to shift the weight “from what Israel wants to say to what audiences abroad are interested in consuming.”

A 21 January 2005 article in The Jewish Week explained that the “Brand Israel” campaign then is all about “fewer stories explaining the rationale for the security fence” and “more attention to scientists doing stem-cell research on the cutting edge or the young computer experts who gave the world Instant Messaging” (“Marketing A New Image, 21 January 2005). Another important group is “Israel21c.” According to its website, Israel21c’s “mission is to focus media and public attention on the 21st century Israel that exists beyond the conflict.” The rationale being that by “promoting positive images of Israel and Israelis, people will come to view Israelis as more like themselves and understand the relevance of Israel to their own lives.” According to a 14 October 2005 article in the Forward, Israel21c was working with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) “on a plan to generate collaborative content” for the lobby group (“Israel Aims To Improve Its Public Image”).

Delegitimizing the delegitimizers

There is also an “offensive” element to Israel’s strategy, one that is currently less developed than Brand Israel tactics, yet likely to come increasingly to the fore. In a 14 December 2009 Jerusalem Post article, Shimon Samuels, the director of international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, suggested that “propagators of deliberate slurs targeting Israel and, by association, world Jewry, must realize that they may incur a price.” He urged that “a consortium of the best Jewish and pro-Israel legal brains should be on call,” and ready, among other things, “to use the courts in ad hominem defamation.”

A key strategy discussed at the Herzilya conference and the MFA’s Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism is “delegitimizing the delegitimizers.” In addition, the “soft warfare” working paper presented at Herzliya included the recommendation that “research to identify all the key players that initiate and generate hate (as compared to those that disseminate it), with a breakdown by country, religion and ethnicity, in order to analyze their motivations and objectives, estimate the threat and consider possible ways of handling each” (“Delegitimization of Israel: ‘Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions'” (Word document)). One of the purposes of this kind of “systematic, ongoing research, of all anti-Israeli publications, including media analyses, reports, boycotts and on campus activities” is to facilitate the “identification and exposure of and levying pressure on the sponsors of the inciters.” The paper also endorsed legal action “by the Israeli government and by independent entities in Israel and abroad, against media networks, publications, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] and individuals that make defamatory reports.”

This aggressive dimension was also included in the Global Forum’s BDS Working Group document, which included in its vision for a five year plan the proposals to “name and shame” nongovernmental organizations, and meeting “lawfare” with “lawfare.” (In that regard, see “The Lawfare Project” and its upcoming conference in March, where neocon and right-wing Zionist lobbyists, academics, and diplomats, will discuss how to shield Israel from the “abuse” of human rights law: There is also the idea to form “groups of Jewish/pro-Israel professionals within various national and international professional association/organizations/unions,” in order to pass “anti-discrimination bylaws within the organization that are general in nature, and that do not mention Israel per se, but rather oppose discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality, etc.”

Students on campus

Unsurprisingly, given the increasing strength of the Palestine solidarity movement amongst students, campuses are a target of the anti-BDS battle plan. One element of this is the role played by Zionist “ambassadors” like the Jewish Agency’s emissaries (or “shlichim”) scheme. In a 16 December 2009 Jerusalem Post article, Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, expressed his desire to increase “the number of young Israelis sent to communities in the US and especially the more than 100 shlichim based at universities there.” He also raised the possibility of the likes of Irwin Cotler and US lawyer and Israel advocate Alan Dershowitz “teaching the shlichim before they go [to the US].”

The Herzilya “soft warfare” paper also discussed university campuses (and schools) as the subject of a suggested “proactive public relations” drive. It added that “such public relations should cover both the subject of Israel and its history, and the subject of radical Islam and the dangers it unfolds.” Yet as has been evident for a while now, the anti-BDS push on campus is just as — if not more — likely to emphasize “dialogue” and “narrative-sharing,” as opposed to openly pushing an “Israel first” line. In other words, instead of far-right former-MK Effie Eitam we’ll have the dovish pro-Israel advocacy group J Street “Invest, Don’t Divest” campus programming and two-state solution-peddling One Voice tours.

The reported response of campus Zionists in Canada to Israeli Apartheid Week is instructive and encouraging. Apart from promoting Israel’s “global renown in science, medicine, technology, business, humanitarian aid” and culture, public talks are being scheduled (“Students get ready to counter ‘apartheid lie,'” The Canadian Jewish News, 18 February 2010). There are apparently talks scheduled in Toronto by a Sudanese human rights activist, Arab reporter Khaled Abu Toameh of the The Jerusalem Post, and a self-proclaimed “ex-terrorist” whose mission is to “wake up the body of Christ” to the danger of “radical Islam” (“Students get ready to counter ‘apartheid lie.'”

It is also worth noting the Global Forum’s BDS Working Group’s recommendation that “more money needs to be spent on the programs that already exist in countries like Canada to send non-Jewish student leaders (members of student government, campus organizations, campus newspapers etc.) to Israel to learn the facts on the ground.”

A call for coordination

A common theme in the recently intensified discussion by the Zionist lobby is the perceived need for improved, and centralized, organization and coordination. The Reut Institute’s “Delegitimization Challenge” report pointed to the imperative of reorganizing “the foreign policy establishment” in Israel, including “comprehensive reform within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

The “soft warfare” paper urged the creation of “a state-led, integrated capability,” reflecting what they described as a “broad consensus that a sufficiently-funded government agency is required in order to manage the battle against hate incitement.” The two specific options put forward were “a special unit under Israel’s National Security Council” to run a public relations strategy in association with “pro-Israeli organizations and activists abroad,” or “an entity within the Israeli intelligence community, which would collect, analyze and distribute information, and initiate ‘operations’ in areas relevant to Israel’s public relations campaign.” This latter “entity” could cooperate with groups like Middle East Media Research Initiative (MEMRI), as well as “direct the intelligence agencies to thwart anti-Israeli propaganda efforts.”

The Global Forum’s anti-BDS group talked of the “Jewish community” needing “a war room” that would be “tracking this movement, sharing best practices, coaching communities.” It mentioned that “in North America, the Federation system is talking about launching a coordinating body to fight BDS.” One of the group’s co-chairmen, McGill professor Gil Troy, commented on his blog on The Jerusalem Post’s website earlier this month that there was a new initiative “rumored to be in the works in North America and Israel to help galvanize and centralize pro-Israel sentiment.”

For all those involved in some capacity in the international campaign for justice in Palestine/Israel, and the growing BDS movement, these state-backed efforts can appear rather daunting. The Israeli government and its allies in lobby groups are not short of powerful contacts and money, and there is now a concerted effort to think “strategically.” However, for all the research, conferences and working papers, there is a comical ignorance shaping these responses. A great example of this is can be found in the Global Forum’s BDS paper, which includes the idea to “circulate information on Muslims acting contrary to Islam.” This is on the basis that “if the people of countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia knew their ‘pious’ leaders were really alcoholics, gamblers and perverts, they might hasten regime change.” As if the people in the Middle East are not fully aware of the corruption of their autocrats and dictators — many of whom, of course, enjoy US and Israeli support for their antidemocratic “moderation.”

Moreover, all of this strategizing and energy is needed in order to avoid the manifestly unimaginable truth — that Israel is increasingly unable to maintain a regime of ethno-religious exclusion, apartheid separation and colonial violence without paying a price. Its supporters are also unable to see that it will prove to be unsustainable.

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer whose articles have appeared in the Guardian’s “Comment is free,” The Electronic Intifada, the New Statesman, and many others. He is the author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press). He can be contacted at ben A T benwhite D O T org D O T uk.

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