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June 4, 2012 3:33 pm

Time for Israel to Broaden the Conversation

avatar by Arsen Ostrovsky

Street in Tel Aviv prepared for gay pride week and the city's gay pride parade. Photo:

Simply put, in order to improve Israel’s overall global position, we must broaden the conversation beyond just “the conflict” and look at Israel as a product competing in the marketplace of nations.

Think of France and the first word that comes to mind is romance. Italy? Food. Brazil? Samba. Australia? Beaches. But Israel, for most non-Jews, is linked with security, terrorism and the Palestinians.

Unfortunately, too many people associate Israel in the context of the broader Arab Israeli conflict. Pro-Israel advocates (including the government of Israel) are partially responsible for this association, because for far too long, that is the impression we have projected to the outside world.

This is not to say that the threats facing Israel should be understated: from Palestinian and Hezbollah terrorism, a nuclear Iran and the increasing attacks on Israel’s legitimacy. Nor should we shy away from reinforcing the Jewish people’s historical bond to the Land of Israel.

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However, we must broaden the narrative to highlight Israel’s attractive dimensions, such as its latest high-tech innovations, medical breakthroughs and the dynamic art and cultural scenes in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The good news is that this message has been heard loud and clear by the government of Israel, and specifically by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For that, we should largely be thankful to Israel’s current Consul General in New York, Ido Aharoni, the brainchild behind Israel’s revolutionary “Brand Israel” project.

In 2001, just weeks prior to the 9/11 terror attacks, Aharoni assumed the post of Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. One of his first steps was to commission independent research from global marketing and branding experts on Israel’s positioning as a brand in the United States. Shortly thereafter, Aharoni convened the Brand Israel Group (BIG) which quickly became the driving engine behind Israel’s global marketing strategy.

According to Aharoni, the research indicated that “Israel did not exist in people’s minds outside the context of the geo-political conflict.” He adds that although the results showed most Americans had a “strong ideological affiliation with Israel,” that affiliation did not translate into action in the realms of active political support, travel, business and life-style. Moreover, according to the research, Israel had “little relevance,” especially for younger Americans, who mostly associated it with a region inextricably linked to conflict.

Setting about the herculean task of improving Israel’s overall positioning, Aharoni realized that the number one challenge was “to change the mindset amongst Israelis and friends of Israel that the task at hand is not necessarily to win a debate…but that it was no less important to build win-win relationships that are meaningful and beneficial to both sides.”

Indeed, referring to the Balfour Declaration or UN Security Council Resolution 242 might win you a debate, but it will not improve Israel’s positioning or increase tourism. On the other hand, telling a doctor in America about a revolutionary Israeli medical breakthrough, or someone in Silicon Valley about the latest Israeli high tech innovation would. According to Aharoni, “if you’re not highlighting what you bring to the table, why should people be interested? The key is to make Israel relevant.”

This is especially the case with younger Americans. The cold, hard reality is that most are simply not interested in geopolitics. But talk to them about Israel’s tremendous creative spirit, one of innovation and resilience, or talk to them in the new language of micro-marketing about Israel’s dynamic alternative music, the edgy contemporary art scene and the thriving film industry, and you’ve got yourself an audience.

Aharoni calls this process engaging in “niche conversations;” that is, engaging with specific target groups that are passionate about a particular subject.

So is this approach of repositioning Israel as a product and broadening the conversation working? Well, the results speak for themselves.

Take for example the FutureBrand Country Brand Index (CBI), one of the leading independent assessors of country brand strength. According to CBI, in 2001 Israel was only ranked 45th best brand in the world; however, in 2011 it climbed to Number 28. In fact, in 2010, Israel was also crowned as one of the “Rising Stars” of the year, with CBI noting it was moving “in the right direction.”

Importantly, such ranking translates into tangible results.

Take a look at Israel’s tourism, one of the key measures of success according to CBI. Despite upheaval and violence throughout Israel’s Arab neighbors and a persistent campaign to delegitimize the Jewish State through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, tourism to Israel is currently at a record high.

In the meantime, with the United States and Europe in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis, according to the IMF, Israel’s economy grew by 4.7% in 2011, more than double the average for members the OECD. According to the latest Bloomberg Riskless Return Ranking, Israel has “produced better risk-adjusted returns than all other developed stock markets in the past decade.”

Israeli art and culture is also experiencing a dynamic growth period. Israeli films are being nominated for, and are winning, major awards, while Tel Aviv is being called “one of the most interesting places at the moment for contemporary art.” There is also an increasing number of independent Israeli musicians touring overseas, while some of the biggest names in music are coming to Israel; Madonna, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Lenny Kravitz and Guns ‘n’ Roses are just a few of the major acts that will be playing in Israel this summer.

Israeli efforts reaching out to the LGBT community are also paying dividends, with Tel Aviv recently topping a global poll by American Airlines and leading gay travel site as the “best gay travel destination” of 2011.

And of course, Israel’s high tech scene is going from strength to strength. Just ask Google, Apple, Microsoft, or Intel, which are all pouring money into Israeli start-ups and setting up R&D bases in Israel. No wonder the likes of the Wall Street Journal have recognized Israel as the “Start-Up Nation,” while Bill Gates has called it a “hi-tech superpower.”

Grass-roots advocacy will always remain a necessary tool in the pro Israel advocate’s kit. However, as Alan Dershowitz puts it, “the time has come to focus on what is great about Israel, instead of obsessively responding to its detractors.”

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