JN meets…  Ido Aharoni: the ‘nation brander’ intent on making Israel cool

JN meets…  Ido Aharoni: the ‘nation brander’ intent on making Israel cool

People around the world can’t connect with Israel because it’s being defined only through the political prism. We chat to a top diplomat about changing perceptions

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Ido Aharoni,
Ido Aharoni,

One of Israel’s most distinguished former diplomats is a man in a hurry to put over his country’s positive message — and he says that  there is a different way to “sell” the country internationally.

Ido Aharoni, a public diplomacy specialist who served in the Israeli foreign ministry for 25 years, was Israel’s longest-serving consul-general in New York, holding that post with the rank of ambassador for six years, overseeing the operations of Israel’s largest diplomatic mission worldwide.

He is hugely influential both in the US and internationally: New York mayor Bill
de Blasio declared July 29 2016 to be “Ambassador Ido Aharoni Day”, while in 2013 Jewish newspaper the Algemeiner named him as one of the “Top 100 people positively influencing Jewish life”.

Now the Global Distinguished Professor for International Relations at New York University, Aharoni has become the go-to pioneer of “nation branding”, and was the founder of the Brand Israel programme.

In essence, that means delivering a positive message separate from the conflict.
But Mr Aharoni warns: “Nation branding is not a crisis management tool.” In other words, you can’t do one to cover up the problems of the other. It is, he says, “a long-term strategy, it’s not about policy, but about connections”.

Ido Aharoni,

As he points out, “it’s possible to celebrate Britain without referring to Brexit. No place would like to be known solely for its problems. So let’s engage in a broader conversation about Israel”.

The flipside of what Mr Aharoni calls “emotional marketing” is, of course, the dark threats of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, or BDS. But the former ambassador says: “The notion of Israel as an isolated entity [because of BDS] is baloney. Israel today is more accepted than ever and its economy is better than ever.”

He says any suggestion that BDS is working against Israel “is not supported by the facts. It mostly reflects the anxiety of Israel’s well-wishers.”

In fact, says Mr Aharoni, he would go further. “There is a huge problem not being addressed by the anti-BDS movement. And that’s the inability of major populations in the world to develop relations with Israel, because Israel is only being defined through the political prism.”

He says Israel has become “an uncool country”, but he is taking steps to tackle
this problem. He is launching a kind of “Birthright for academics” in an attempt to change the conversation. He wants to bring thousands of academics worldwide to Israel to see the country for themselves, for which he believes there is no substitute. “We have the resources to make it happen, between the Jewish communities worldwide and the indirect support of the Israeli government.”

But he also notes that the growth of social media has allowed ordinary Israelis “to take to their keyboards and promote their country in a very de facto way. That’s a real game changer. We live in a world where people don’t trust governments but they do trust their friends — and even their ‘friends’ on social media”.

Supporters of Israel “need to reclaim the narrative of Zionism, to be inclusive, not negative,” Mr Aharoni says. “We have to bring people to Israel in huge numbers, people who come to see Israel for themselves in an unmediated fashion. We have nothing to hide.”

Still looking at the long-term strategy, Mr Aharoni says the secret is to “catch them young, and it will pay off later”. Years ago, he says, he interviewed the actress Dame Helen Mirren in New York. “She remembered being on kibbutz in 1968, and that led her to understand the complexity of the situation today”. If Ido Aharoni has his way, he would set up thousands of future Helen Mirrens for 20 and 30 years into the future. Nation branding, in this way, works.

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