Back in 2005, the state of Israel launched a public relations campaign called “Brand Israel,” spearheaded by the Israeli cultural and tourism ministries, in a bid to market Israel to young and liberal audiences. Focusing on Israeli spectacles, the campaign obscured from view the harsh realities of occupation.
An early “Brand Israel” publicity stunt appeared on the cover of the July 2007 issue of Maxim, a men’s magazine known for scantily clad female models. The cover that month featured “the women of the Israel Defense Forces.” Under the cheeky headline, “The Chosen Ones,” Maxim gushed that “they’re drop-dead gorgeous and can take apart an Uzi in seconds.” The entire photo spread was the brainchild of the Israeli Consulate General in New York. The target audience was “New York men aged 18-38,” as David Saranga, Consul for Media and Public Affairs, explained at the time. Israeli Consul General Aryeh Mekel told CNN, “Israel is always mentioned in the context of war and terror…we’re trying to create a situation where you think about Israel in a different way.”
Try though it might, however, Israel has failed to draw attention away from its half-century occupation of Palestinian territories. A decade after its launch, “Brand Israel” has not made headway among Democratic voters and young people. In this demographic, support for Israel has never been lower. According to pollster Frank Luntz, roughly half of Democratic “opinion elites” believe Israel is a racist country uninterested in peace with its neighbors. In another survey, Luntz argued that Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has failed to market the country as a hip destination for young adults, a constituency that should be the easiest to persuade. Young American Jews, Luntz found, increasingly believe Israel does not share their liberal values. Luntz pointed out that less than half of those polled believe Israel wants peace, less than a third believe it is a democracy, and roughly a fifth believe the United States should back the Palestinians over Israel.
It comes as no surprise that the current Israeli regime, governed by an extreme right-wing coalition, is giddy about Trump’s triumph. Israeli Education Minister Neftali Bennett boasted afterTrump’s victory that “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” While Israel might gain from Trump’s election in the short-term, the Trump era will more likely expose the ugly image Israel has worked so hard to hide for two key reasons.
First, everything liberal and progressive American voters find objectionable in Trump is amply evident in Israel, and often in more vulgar terms.
Consider, for instance, that Arab citizens in Israel already face more than 50 laws that discriminate against them on everything from land ownership to marriage rights. Israel’s ruling right wing cabinet seeks to go a step further by revising the criteria for a “Jewish and democratic” state by advancing a new Basic Law (Israel’s version of a constitution) that would subordinate democracy to the principle of a Jewish state.
Meanwhile, the ranks of Palestinian solidarity activists continue to grow on the American left. Large swathes of young voters who support the Palestinian struggle have taken to the streets in protest against Trump’s election. President Trump marching in c lockstep with the Israeli government would only reinforce negative perception of Israel among the very people “Brand Israel” tried to seduce. Additionally, the recent announcement by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota) that he will run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee could strengthen support for Palestinian human rights among Democrats. . Ellison is one of the few members of Congress to speak out in defense of Palestinian rights, such as his call to end the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Secondly, support for Israel has become an increasingly partisan issue in American politics. For years, Israel relied on bipartisan support in Congress. That is slowly changing, however, as Israel and Palestine become partisan issues dividing left and right in America. The 2016 Republican and Democratic Party platforms provide a forecast of coming struggles. While the Democrats had a very public and troubling debate about Palestine, the Republican Party’s 2016 platform drifted further to the right and dispensed with longstanding bipartisan support for the two-state solution. As the platform says the Republican party “rejects the notion that Israel is an occupier.”
Trump’s cabinet picks provide even more cues.
First and most disturbing is Stephen Bannon, former campaign manager and executive chairman of Breitbart News, who was recently named as Trump’s chief strategist and advisor. Despite charges of anti-Semitism, Breitbart stated that its editorial line is pro-Israel, and even runs a satellite website called Breitbart Israel. One of the most amazing contradictions that this campaign season has revealed is that one can be simultaneously pro-Israel and anti-Semitic. Israel is admired for the unapologetic theocratic and ethnic nationalism that the American far right wishes to establish in the United States. Given Bannon’s prominence in White Supremacy circles, it is likely he will to see eye-eye with Israel’s xenophobic right wing. It is precisely this connection that could widen the rift between America’s right and left wings on Palestine, not least because American Jews, like every other minority, would be the target of animosity if White Supremacists have their way.
Secondly, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is being considered for the post of Secretary of State. In 1995 Giuliani loudly dismissed former PLO leader Yasser Arafat from a 1995 concert scheduled to entertain world leaders in town to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. President Clinton condemned Giuliani’s behavior as an “embarrassing breach of international diplomacy.” During his failed presidential bid in 2008, Giuliani smeared Palestinians as irredeemable terrorists in a Foreign Affairs article articulating his opposition to a Palestinian state.
Although Inauguration Day is still weeks away, a union between Israel’s extreme right wing and the Trump administration is emerging. Recently, the Zionist Organization of America invited Stephen Bannon to its annual gala. Despite Bannon’s no-show, this stirred controversy and further highlighted the growing partisan nature of U.S. support for Israel.. Whether this union can weather the storms it will likely produce remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: “Brand Israel” won’t stand a chance.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer for the Institute for Palestine Studies based in Tunis. He previously served as Online Content Editor for IPS-USA in Washington, D.C.