By Eleanor Beever
It may be hard to imagine the world looking at Israel as a "normal" country, one which could occupy a global stage free of controversy. This is particularly so after the latest agonies for Palestinians. Over 60 protestors in Gaza were killed demonstrating against the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 15th.
Yet alongside the military operations and the human tragedies, there is a simultaneous push to try and normalise Israel's image. And if ever there was an opportune time for Israel to do so, this is it.
As the other strongest powers at play in the region - Saudi Arabia and the United States - push to weaken Iran above all else, Israel finds itself in unprecedented favour with Riyadh and Washington.
If Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has his way and succeeds in pushing other Arab states into line, Palestinian self-determination will not be allowed to obstruct a strategy of interest, one which includes working with Israel. In the political discourse of these big powers, Israel is no longer a pariah, but an unproblematic partner.
Viva Giro d'Italia
And where the politicians lead, others follow. The most striking example of late is are organisers of the Giro d'Italia, one of the biggest events in the professional cycling calendar. The Giro d'Italia lasts for several weeks, and consists of a series of routes that include time trials and distance races.
From a chosen starting point, which changes each year, the cyclists conduct a few opening races, and then travel down to the southern end of Italy. They then cycle northwards over various competitive stretches, finishing in the capital in Rome. The organiser of the competition, Mauro Vegni, was determined that his legacy would include the first Giro d'Italia starting outside of Europe.
Canada's rider of team during the 2nd stage of the 101st Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy, on May 5, 2018, 167 kilometers between Haifa and Tel Aviv. (Luk Benies AFP/File Photo)
Several countries vied for that honour of hosting the Giro's first non-European start. But no one would have guessed that Israel would be the country to take that title.
Professor Yossi Mekelberg, a senior research fellow on Israel at Chatham House, told Al Bawaba that this was an unprecedented development.
"It is unusual for a major international event on this scale to start in Israel, or even for Israel to be included. I can't think of such a precedent. From a different industry, and similar in publicity, this is similar to hosting the Eurovision song contest."
Still, this didn't just happen. It was the result of a great deal of persuasion by the Israeli government, and a great deal of money. Even though it was only the opening and the first two legs of the cycling tour which happened in Israel, it still became the most expensive sporting event to have ever occurred in the country.
An Israeli backer
Italy's rider of team Quick-Step Elia Viviani (R) celebrates as he crosses finish line to win the 2nd stage of the101st Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy, on May 5, 2018, 167 kilometers between Haifa and Tel Aviv. (Luk Benies, AFP/File Photo)
They were fortunate to have an enthusiastic private backer. Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli real estate mogul who recently moved to Israel, not only had the money to make it happen, but was very keen to promote cycling in Israel. Given that cycling isn't a well-established sport, Adams had to foot the bill for the vast costs that would normally be covered by commercial sponsors.
But Adams had more than just cycling in mind. The Times of Israel quoted him as saying, in reference to the Tour de France, "This is an opportunity to show Israel to the world. France found a way to promote French culture and French tourism and French history and French geography on a massive scale to hundreds of millions of TV viewers."
In terms of numbers, the Giro d'Italia isn't far off. Eight Hundred and Forty million people are believed to have tuned in for at least some segments of last year's Giro d'Italia, so there is no doubt that this is an opportunity for publicity.
And it is an opportunity that Netanyahu's government agreed was worth a substantial investment. 30 million shekels (about $8 million) were put up by the Ministries for Tourism and Transport to help fund the start of the race on May 4th, and the logistics and security for the two cycling trials in-country.
Belgium's rider of team on 6th stage between Caltanissetta (Sicily) and the Mount Etna in 101st Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy cycling race, on May 10, 2018. Colombia's rider of team Mitchelton-Scott Johan Esteban Chaves, taking his second Giro stage win, finished just ahead of British teammate Simon Yates. FDJ's Thibaut Pinot finished third, 30 seconds behind the leading pair, after a 164km ride between Caltanissetta and Etna. (Luk Benies, AFP File Photo)
But perhaps more importantly, Israel agreed to pay the Giro d'Italia organisers a $12 million hosting fee. Whilst a fee for the privilege of hosting the start of the race is standard, this is significantly higher than usual. That is partly because the competitors would spend three days in the starting country on this occasion.
But it also reflects an exceptional eagerness to seize the advantages of hosting a major sporting event. Grace Wermenbol, a specialist in Israeli-Palestinian relations at the University of Oxford, told Al Bawaba:
"The bicycle races are the largest international sporting event ever to have taken place in Israel, a country not known internationally for its competitive road cycling.
Yet, it is the event’s purported aim of “strengthening Israel’s legitimacy,” as the Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs termed it, that added a further layer of ‘politicization’ and significance to the international sporting event."
Such is the strange nature of what political scientist Joseph Nye referred to as "soft power". This is power that is not acquired or guarded by military means. It is the power that a nation gains from diplomatic leverage, but also from having a desirable international image, and a desired culture and way of life. On an evidently political level, scoring the role of host for the Giro d'Italia was a win for Israel. Professor Mekelberg continued:
"It is a projection of soft power, and a sign of Israel's ability to do so regardless of the occupation and its stand on the peace process. This reflects to a large extent that the Palestinian issue is not high enough of the international agenda to connect it with its relations with Israel."
On a more subtle level, a cultural one, governments recognise soft power's potential. But when wielded too obviously for political gain, displays intended to work as soft power can start to appear contrived, and the power is weakened. That is, the more subtle kind of soft power only works when you are made to forget the politics behind it. On this front, Israel's success is as yet unknown, but it is certainly not without challenges.
Hosting the Giro was meant to "normalise" Israel by associating it with something other than its conflict with Palestine. But some very public disputes exploded before the race had even begun.
The Giro organisers initially referred to the starting point as West Jerusalem, but were pressured into dropping the "West" and referring only to Jerusalem by the Israeli government. Given that America would be opening its new embassy in Jerusalem while the race was still ongoing, this was harder than usual to argue with. But naturally, obeying Israel's demands also had repercussions.
Excellent Israeli PR exercise
Grace Wermenbol continued: "For Palestinian officials and BDS activists, the Giro’s adoption of the Israeli-preferred designation of ‘Jerusalem’ – signaling an undivided capital – for the starting point of the race rather than West Jerusalem was a particular affront. The event’s concurrence with the Palestinian commemoration of the 1948 War, or Nakba in Arabic, and the US embassy move added further fuel to the fire."
And so protestors flying Palestinian flags have dogged the race, especially over some of its stretches in Italy. Moreover, some have declared that they will be demonstrating as the race finishes - one banner at a Palestine solidarity protest read "May 27th - We'll See You at the Tour".
Despite the public displays of Palestinian solidarity that have emerged along the tour, Israel is likely to see its hosting of the Giro as a major success. The Israeli government has clearly recognised that the diplomatic clout it currently enjoys gives it a window of opportunity to try and remedy one of its greatest vulnerabilities - its international image. And those who watched the start of the tour in Israel will have been shown a portrait of the country that they may not have seen before – one of a positive home for international sport.
But as the mixed reception to the Giro d'Italia has shown, international sympathy for Palestine is widespread. Subtle soft power doesn't work if the audience is aware of the intentions behind it. And for Palestine's supporters around the world, only substantial change in Israeli policy will start to normalise Israel's image.
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