Israeli e-war to brighten its image

Israel has launched an unprecedented number of public image campaigns in the last year to help present a unified narrative of the Jewish state to the world. MENASSAT's Randa Abu Shakra looks at .
Israel Apartheid week
Morphing the Israeli Apartheid Week campaign poster, the pro-Israeli 'Help Us Win' website seeks to boost Israel's public image online.

BEIRUT, March 17, 2009 (MENASSAT) - Israel has launched an unprecedented number of public image campaigns in the last year to help present a unified narrative of the Jewish state to the world.

And while few would dispute the plurality and freedom that characterizes Israel's media landscape, the saturation of new Israeli media associated with this re-imaging campaign has helped to drown out the voices critical of Israel's policies, both domestic and foreign.

Letamar Eichner, a journalist with the mainstream Israeli Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Ahronoth wrote on March 9, "The Israeli Foreign Ministry, along with the Israeli Consulate General in New York" decided it was time to fight back to combat negative media images of Israel.

Difficult task

It's a job made particularly difficult after the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip early this year that killed some 1,200 Palestinians, mostly civilians.

"The consulate has long been spearheading various innovative PR projects and now it stands to fly seven media experts to Israel, including video and stills photographers, who will be tasked with capturing the country's more beautiful and unfamiliar sides, on film,” Eichner said.

The article states that an online search for “Israel” reveals horrible pictures of the Israeli bombing of civilians in Gaza, or of the Dimona nuclear plants, it is a blight on Israel's public image.

The new Foreign Ministry media project that Eichner describes will attempt to divert these internet searches to Israeli websites that include photographs of Israel's natural heritage sites, one of the Negev's cowboy ranches, Sde Boker, Caesarea, Akko and the Galilee, as well Israel's beaches, parks, cafés etc.

The Foreign Ministry is also trying to organize an aerial tour of Israel for the mission, so it may have a bird's-eye view of the country's sights. The photos are to be loaded up to prominent websites the likes of Wikipedia, Wikimedia, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr, as well as to be featured in several blogs.

“We've protested Google allowing photos of bombarded Gaza to be included in search results about Israel, but it has made it clear that users can upload any photo they please and that it has no control over it,” said David Saranga, Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York, who initiated the mission.

According to Saranga, Israeli web surfers are rather indifferent, allowing the other side to dominate the web and upload its photos to harm the Israeli narrative. That's why we have decided to bring these experts to Israel. We want to see the internet flooded with the true images of beautiful Israel, free for anyone to use.”

“The last few years have made us realize that blogs and the new media have essentially become mainstream media and we hope this mission will help open a dynamic, user-friendly, accessible third-generation porthole to Israel.” 

Committed to the future

Israel launched a campaign after the end of the Gaza war (January 18) to counter negative blog postings about Israel. “The Absorption Ministry is recruiting new immigrants and Jews living abroad who have access to a computer and who speak a second language to a volunteer effort to improve public relations for Israel on the internet,” Saranga said.

The ministry said over 1,000 multi-lingual internet users have invaded blogs, posted comments on news sites, joined social networking, opinion and polling websites, and posted videos on Youtube. “Some 60% of the applicants are immigrants, old and new. The rest are Jews living in the Diaspora, Israelis living abroad, and even non-Jews who support Israel and want to help out,” Saranga wrote.

In an interview with Jaron Gilinsky, on America's Public Broadcasting System (PBS) website, Niv Calderon coordinator of Help us Win organization, an ad-hoc social media “command center” to promote a pro-Israel viewpoint, said about the Gaza War:

“The group hoped to show the world that Israel was fighting Hamas rather than regular Palestinians. They worked to influence online discussions on YouTube, Facebook, and Al Jazeera, and tried to change the commonly used language of the war -- they referred to Hamas as terrorists rather than fighters and to the 'War on Hamas' rather than the 'War on Gaza.'”

The Guardian’s Rachel Shabi pointed out, “One of the things that annoyed Israel about the second Lebanon war (in July/August 2006) was that it ended prematurely – without a clean Israeli victory against Hezbollah.

Consequently, one of the recommendations of an Israeli committee investigating the war was that Israel set up an information/propaganda coordination body, to keep those pesky liberals on message even when bloody images of the victims of Israeli assaults were relayed across world media.”

Richard Silverstein wrote an article in The Guardian exposing details of letters used by the Israeli Foreign Ministry to recruit volunteers for its media campaign.

Silverstein's source was the foreign ministry's coordinator, and he describes how the ministry representative was part of a calculated plan to help the Israel military during the Gaza War.

“It is our goal to shift the public opinion as conveyed in the internet," the ministry representative said, adding that the ministry needed to "avoid," or at least minimize "sanctions by world leaders," the ministry rep said. 

As the Gaza war was escalating in early January, the foreign ministry liaison said to Silverstein, "We need to buy the Israeli military enough time to achieve its goals."
What is clear is that Israel is committed to a long-term strategy for keeping up a positive public image in the west.

Noam Katz, director of the Foreign Ministry's Public Relations department, said, “We are in the process of thinking how to utilize" these public relations campaigns, "not only during conflict, but also during regular times as well.”