Israel’s image problem

6 December 2006

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Israeli soldiers scuffle with Palestinians trying to reach Al-Aqsa mosque via a checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, 6 October 2006. (MaanImages/Magnus Johansson)


Palestinians must surely feel heartened by the news that, despite all the support that Israel gets from its allies at the political level, public opinion in European and North American countries is decidedly against it. It appears that Israel needs every bit of the free-of-charge services Saatchi and Saatchi (a multinational advertising agency) is reportedly offering it. Israel is launching a branding campaign to portray itself as a place that “preserves democratic ideals while struggling to exist.”

But the truth will come out - at least sometimes. According to the Anholt Nation Brands Index report, Israel’s international image is the pits - i.e., the world’s perception of Israel is in keeping with its unvarnished ugliness as an occupier and oppressor, as a military machine gone berserk. What’s more, Simon Anholt, the brand strategy expert who developed the concept of the Nation Brand, finds it “inconceivable that any country can change the way the world views it as a whole purely through marketing communications and forms of deliberate propaganda.”

The NBI measures how 35 nations are perceived globally by polling a worldwide panel of 25,900 consumers in five areas: tourism, exports, people, governance, culture and heritage, and investment and immigration. Israel was included in the index for the first time as a “guest” country in the third quarter of 2006. It ranked rock bottom. It’s not where the respondents in the survey would want to live or work.

It looks like the pariah people of history have succeeded in creating a pariah state - “a nation apart” in the worst sense of the phrase. The words of an Israeli song come to mind: “The whole world is against us; never mind, we’ll get by; we don’t give a damn about them anyway.”

In answer to the question of how responsibly Israel acts in the areas of international peace and security, panelists (including the US panel) ranked Israel as lowest of all the 36 countries in the poll.

Because the results were so bad for Israel across the board, the report makes the point (as a lesson to be learned also by the US) that “there is no absolutely impenetrable barrier between the world’s perceptions of national politics and its perceptions of national culture, society, economics, history or even geography, and if the politics create sufficient disapproval, no area of national interest is safe from contamination.”

Apparently respondents could not abide Israel’s politics to such a degree that they ranked it low even in areas such as “contribution in science and technology” that should objectively rank higher. The world does not think much even of Israel’s “natural beauty.” Ironically, were Palestinians to be polled on this one question, they would rank Israel as number one in the beauty of its land. That’s because to Palestinian refugees, historic Palestine, from which they were forcibly evicted when the State of Israel was created in 1948, is nothing short of a paradise. On everything else, of course, the Palestinians are in hearty agreement with the savvy international public perceptions of Israel as portrayed in the index.

Israel’s abysmal ranking in this index also means that, in spite of their shrill chauvinism, Israelis themselves don’t believe in their country’s brand. “For a company to build a successful and powerful brand,” says Anholt, “its employees need to believe in the brand.” Gaining the trust of others would otherwise be difficult. The survey confirms that countries that score well in the Nations Brand Index put their own country at the top of their list of nation brands.

Saatchi and Saatchi notwithstanding, Israel will find it impossible to change world perceptions without deep and sustained changes in the cultural and social spheres as well as in the political sphere. People who spend much time in Israel describe the national traits of Israelis in predominantly negative terms. They are cold, rude, unsympathetic, abrasive and focused on themselves. The Israeli journalist Ze’ev Schiff puts it in this way: “We are rude and have no patience … You can see it when some of us are waiting in a queue in a bank or waiting for a bus … This is the way we deal with each other, with the Egyptians, the Europeans, whoever.” The Israeli sense of fairness (by divine decree) means 75 percent or more for the Israeli and whatever is left for the other.

Nevertheless, the fact still remains that the political powers that matter act as though Palestinians are terrorist extremists without a cause and Israel is a shining example of democracy and civilized living in the heart of the savage Middle East. Until this changes, or until world public opinion of Israel is parlayed into effective boycott campaigns, Israel will simply shrug off this report and be satisfied with Saatchi and Saatchi marketing its tourist destinations, exports and investment opportunities.

Rima Merriman is a Palestinian-American living in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank

Related Links

  • Nation Brands Index