Op-Ed: Branding Judea and Samaria
What image do people see in their mind's eye, when they hear "Judea and Samaria"? Do we realize that this image is on the front lines of the information battle for Israel today?
There are scores of NGOs, media outlets, student groups and others that are dedicated to presenting a negative image of Israel. Most of their arrows are aimed at the heart of the area that they call "the West Bank." I am setting out to write a series of articles on the importance of branding the image of Judea and Samaria positively as part of an overall effort to secure the future of these regions as part of Israel forever.
A few years ago, shortly after I established the Shomron Liaison Office, I became aware of a special department in Israel's Foreign Ministry that actually researches country branding. The department was then headed by Ido Aharoni, who is currently Acting Consul General at the Israeli Consulate in New York.
At the time, I reached out to Ido and asked him to come to Shomron to present his findings to our representatives. I will never forget how Ido asked me, "Do you know why you (settlers) failed in your campaign for Gush Katif?" He went on to explain his view of the reason: "because you followed the failed hasbara (pr, ed.) tactics used by the government of Israel and mainstream Zionist organizations for the past 70 years."
Now, I do not see eye to eye with all of Ido's conclusions, but I do agree that the results of his intensive research are very valuable and should be studied and used for future strategizing.
One of the foundations of Israel's traditional hasbara concept has been ". . . if the world just knew the facts . . . that Israel is really the underdog and is only doing what we need to, to defend ourselves . . . then everyone would realize that we are the good guys and will support our cause."
The next logical step in that strategy is to point out how awful the other side is. If they are un-democratic Islamic radicals, then obviously, people in modern western societies will align with "the only western democracy in the Middle East."
If that is the case, and we have been using the correct method of representing Israel, then it is time to ask ourselves, "What went wrong, and who did this to us?" For a hundred years, we have been using this strategy - and the world still supports the other side. Why is that?
I won't answer all of these questions in one shot, but will leave some room to consider. For now, though, let's ask ourselves what image we would like people to call to mind, when they hear "Judea and Samaria." Do we want people to think of this as a dangerous war zone that normal people should avoid? Or do we want them to share our vision of this place as the heart of the Jewish national homeland - a place that should be invested in, built up and protected for the future of our nation?
Some think that if we highlight every act of violence by Arabs targeting Jews, we will harvest sympathy for our interests, while proving that there is no partner for peace and that we are the good guys, etc.
On the other hand, by highlighting every act of violence in this region, we are also securing the branding of this area as a war zone, which carries with it a heavy price. Many people will conclude that if this area is so dangerous to live in, then there is no sense in living here, and something should be worked out to help Jewish people move away; at the very least, they should surely not be encouraged to stay. So I do not think that this overused violent image can serve the goals we have in mind.
What we should be projecting to the world is that the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria are a solid fixture in this region. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have chosen to make their homes and raise their families here because they believe that this is the heartland of Israel. These communities are growing five times more quickly than the national average because Israelis see their future and the future of their children here.
The truth is that people in Judea and Samaria live a very normal, happy and calm lifestyle. They enjoy a comfortable standard of living and provide a high level of education for their children. As we say in Hebrew: kan garim b'kef - it's fun for us to live here.
It is crucially important that people who are interested in Israel and Middle East issues become aware of the reality that the so called "settlers" are not participating in some kind of ongoing demonstration or serving as bargaining chips for future negotiations.
The Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria are not part of a problem that needs to be resolved; they are an expression of Zionism that is alive and kicking.
From my experience, the pioneering spirit is something that resonates with many - it is looked on enviously, by people who want to participate and believe they can make a difference. I suggest that we distance ourselves from the negativity and proactively take our narrative to the positive side.
I believe that this will earn our agenda respect - not only from those who were previously convinced - but even from those who are opposed to our goals