Took America by storm. Obama
Photo: AP

Image is everything

Obama, Palestinians embody world where symbols more important than substance

If the polls are getting it right, early next year we shall see Barack Obama entering the White House and taking George W. Bush’s place in the Oval Office. Despite his relatively meager experience and the absence of any substantial achievements during his Senate career, the Democratic candidate has been able to take America by storm thanks to his explosive charisma, catchy messages, and promises of “change.”


Yet more than this teaches us about Obama’s nature, it mostly serves to inform us about the nature of our present-day world, where a flashy image and proper “branding” are the key to victory.


In his best seller "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", author Stephen Covey presents a fascinating insight. After examining success literature in the past 200 years, Covey discovered that almost all books written on the subject in the first 150 years were based on what he refers to as the “Character Ethic” – that is, traits such as integrity, fidelity, and courage. However, in the 20th Century the basic view of ethics changed considerably, and today we see the “Personality Ethic” reign supreme – that is, public image and sophisticated branding techniques have cast aside character and principles.


We, Israelis, are probably more familiar with this reality than others; our archenemy Yasser Arafat was able to turn the Palestinian people into one of the most successful “brands” in history. By shrewdly making use of symbols and slogans, Arafat was able to stir the world’s imagination, brand himself as a “freedom fighter” with his perpetual Kaffiyeh and military uniform, and portray his people as the ultimate victim.


While doing so, Arafat did not shy away from resorting to manipulations and blatant lies, fully realizing that a picture is worth a thousand words and that catchy messages are more effective than elaborate explanations. And so, the deliberate murder of Israeli civilians turned into a “just struggle against the occupation” and the Israeli rule in the territories became “apartheid.” These days, every misfired Israeli bullet is “genocide” and every roadblock is a “war crime.”


In due course, the photo of Muhammad al-Durrah in his father’s arms became the ultimate symbol of “Israeli evil.” Later it turned out that the IDF did not kill the child, who was likely hit by Palestinian bullets, yet the image has already been etched into the world’s consciousness.


Wrong man at wrong place

We are well familiar with the “Personality Ethic” in the domestic Israeli arena as well. The best example is former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who enjoyed immense popularity despite turning his silence into his most effective weapon and refraining from clearly presenting his plans and vision for the future. Nonetheless, we fell in love with the image of the friendly grandpa from Sycamore Ranch, who once upon a time crossed the Suez Canal, defeated the Egyptians, and knows how to deal with the Arabs when necessary.


Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, has become an all-out worshipper of “spins” and public relations. Yet ironically, it is his public image of all things that will soon terminate his political career – Olmert has been unable to shake off the image of a “failed leader” in the wake of the Lebanon War, regardless of his actions since then, and by now has been forever branded as “corrupt” even though he has not yet been found guilty of any crime.


And back to America: Thus far, Obama’s plans and character have been far from impressive. In recent months he mostly proved himself to be an inconsistent character able to sell any message to any audience – while saying the opposite later.


Recently he pledged to support a “united Jerusalem” but soon changed course; this week he claimed that his declarations were a case of “poor phrasing.” Similarly, he obligated to withdraw American troops from Iraq within a year, but later shunned the decisive tone, pledging to end the war “responsibly” instead. He also vowed to fight the influence of lobbyists in Washington, before waiving roughly $85 million in public funding once he realized he can raise much more from large donors.


And so, if all goes according to plan, Obama will soon become the leader of the world’s greatest superpower – the wrong man and the wrong place. Here in Israel we already saw, two years ago, what can materialize when the wrong people make their way to the wrong posts. Yet in Obama’s case, the implications may be much graver. In the Second Lebanon War it was mostly northern Israel residents who sustained the damage – this time around, the whole world may end up paying the price.


פרסום ראשון: 07.20.08, 17:10
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