Israel’s Cycling Diplomacy
28 octobre 2020
Dr Yoav Dubinsky is an Instructor of Sports Business in the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon. His research line focuses on country image, nation branding, and public diplomacy and sports. He received his PhD from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, writing his doctoral thesis on “Israel’s use of sports for nation branding and public diplomacy”.
In recent years, Israel accelerated its interest and investment in sport, especially cycling. Indeed, Israel has hosted the first three days of the Giro d’Italia and opened a new velodrome in Tel-Aviv close to the national track and field stadium and the offices of the National Olympic Committee of Israel. Furthermore, Israel Cycling Academy started to compete internationally and became a development team for the newly established Israeli Start-Up Nation, an elite Israeli-based cycling team that competes in the World Tour including in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Tour de France (AFP, 2020; Israel Cycling Academy, 2019; Rosenbaum, 2019). The team has also recruited top international cyclists, including four times Tour de France winner Chris Froome, who will represent the Israeli group starting 2021 (AFP, 2020; Rosenbaum, 2019). To add to that, Israel hosted a friendly football match between Argentina and Uruguay including their top stars Leo Messi and Luis Suarez, and the Israeli national baseball team that consisted of mostly naturalised Jewish-American players, became one of the only six baseball teams to qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo (AFP, 2020; Grossman, 2019). Some of these tactics might seem familiar when analysing how other Middle Eastern countries, especially from the Arabic Gulf, namely Qatar and the UAE which have been using sports for nation branding and public diplomacy purposes for some time (Brannagan & Giulianotti, 2018). Cycling offers an interesting backdrop, indeed there are several teams that compete in the World Tour, including in the Tour de France, that are owned and sponsored by non-democratic countries and regimes, such as “UAE Team Emirates” (2020) by the UAE, “Bahrain McLaren” (2020) by the Kingdom of Bahrain, and “Astana Pro-Team” (Astana, 2020) by the President of Kazakhstan. However, in the case of Israel there is a very significant difference, as while some of these activities are purposefully aiming to improve Israel’s international image (AFP, 2020; Brinn, 2019), the initiator is not the state of Israel but a private citizen.
Sylvan Adams, a Jewish-Canadian billionaire who made Aliyah to Israel, has invested in Israeli sports, culture, and innovation aiming to improve Israel’s international image (AFP, 2020; Brinn, 2019; Rosenbaum, 2019). As a cycling enthusiast, Adams recognised the potential of the sport to expose the name and brand of Israel to international audiences. Since investing in the Israeli cycling team and becoming a co-owner of “Israel Cycling Academy” (Israel Cycling Academy, 2019), Adams invested millions in cycling activities, sports activities, culture and science initiatives to frame Israel in the context of innovation, technology, and progress to foreign publics. Among other projects, Adams invested in SpaceIL’s spacecraft “Beresheet” and bringing Madonna to perform in the Eurovision song competition, held in Tel-Aviv in 2019 (Brinn, 2019). The media addresses Adams as “Israel’s self-appointed ambassador” (Rosenbaum, 2019), with the billionaire even printing business cards which read “self-proclaimed ambassador of the state of Israel” (AFP, 2020).
Israel’s Image Problem
Traditional definitions of public diplomacy refer to attempts to communicate efforts to achieve a more favourable image of a country in the minds of foreign publics that are ultimately tied to foreign policy (Cull, 2008; Gilboa, 2006). Foreign policy is one of the components of soft power – the ability to shape preferences through attractions without the use of payments or military force (Nye, 2004). Culture, political values, and foreign policy are the main tools of soft power. Sports diplomacy relates directly to soft power, falling under cultural diplomacy (Arning, 2013; Dubinsky, 2019; Signitzer & Coombs, 1992). While traditional definitions attribute public diplomacy to foreign policy conducted by the state, there are other stakeholders who also shape a country’s image (Dubinsky, 2019; Fan, 2010; Nye, 2004). Such a process is often referred to as place (or nation) branding (Anholt, 2010; Fan, 2010). The main two approaches in nation branding are trying to change an image of a country as a tourism destination, and trying to change an image of a country through products associated with it (Anholt, 2010; Nadeau et al, 2008).
Israel’s international image has been gradually deteriorating since the 1967 Six Days War (Avraham, 2009; Gilboa, 2006). In the early decades since Israel’s independence in 1948, Israel enjoyed international sympathy, being portrayed as the “David” – a country founded by Holocaust survivors which manages to strive in challenging geographic conditions surrounded by enemies (Avraham, 2009). However, since Israel’s territory tripled in size since 1967, including controlling the West Bank and Gaza, and especially as a permanent peace agreement has not materialised with the Palestinian administration, Israel ironically became the “Goliath” in the mind of international media, with some reports even comparing Israel to Apartheid South Africa and Nazi Germany (Gilboa, 2006).
Sports and public diplomacy are rooted in the DNA of Israel as a Jewish state (Dubinsky & Dzikus, 2019). Muscular Judaism and the Maccabiah Movement played an essential role in the growing of the Zionist movement, building a Jewish homeland and connecting the Jewish diaspora to the State of Israel (Dubinsky & Dzikus, 2019). However, while other countries, places and communities have been using sports for decades, centuries, or even millennia to expose themselves through sports aiming to improve their images and achieve social, political, and economic goals (Dubinsky, 2019), Israel’s ability to use sports efficiently for public diplomacy has traditionally been limited. Israel’s participation in international sports has often been overshadowed by international politics including escalations of violence, protests, boycotts, expulsion, and even terrorism (Dubinsky & Dzikus, 2019). The Munich Massacre, the terror attack during the 1972 Olympic Games in West Germany, when Palestinian terrorists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israeli athletes, coaches, and referees, is integrated in Israel’s participation in sports, including shaping Israel’s collective identity and Israel’s public diplomacy (Dubinsky & Dzikus, 2019). Unlike other countries, security concerns and the political situation prevent the State of Israel and Israeli sports organisations from fully capitalising on sports as a tool to disassociate the country’s image from a distancing armed dispute.
Israel’s Cycling Diplomacy
From having the landscape of Israel being broadcasted around the world during the 2018 Giro d’Italia, to having the name “Israel Start-Up Nation” repeatedly mentioned to billions watching the Tour de France, the sport of cycling embodies public diplomacy and nation branding possibilities through hosting, participation, winning, owning, and sponsoring, and ultimately, Adams’ attempt to capitalise on this. The state of Israel aided the support of the three days of the Giro d’Italia (Davidovich-Weisberg, 2018), recognising the opportunity of having the top cyclists in the world ride through Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, the Israeli coastline, and down the Negev Desert to Eilat, exposing the scenery and culture (riding past historic and modern landmarks) to international audiences. While some of Adams’ initiatives are supported financially or politically by the State of Israel, which in recent years has been governed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the right-winged Likud Party, they are still not generated through official foreign policy, and combine different forms of diplomacy, such as people-to-people diplomacy (Handelman, 2012) and corporate diplomacy (White, 2015). People-to-people diplomacy is an informal form of diplomacy that “suggests various modes of interaction linking the opposing sides at the grassroots level, such as: dialogue groups, educational projects, scientific collaborations, multinational workshops, and partnership in peace-making grassroots organizations” (Handelman, 2012, p. 2). As a self-proclaimed ambassador (AFP, 2020), Adams’ initiatives are by definition informal. Adams’ initiatives have been supported by other organisations, such as the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, branding the riders as “Peace Ambassadors” (Israel Cycling Academy, n.d.). Having an Israeli team compete in the UAE is very much on-brand with both the diplomatic efforts of Adams, and with the peace initiatives of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation of using sports to bridge between Israelis and Arabs. Thus, Israeli collaboration with Adams’ activities transcend political differences and affiliations.
Another fitting collaboration based on shared values is with Start-Up Nation Central – an independent non-profit organisation that promotes the Israeli technology industry (Ostanek, 2019; Start-Up Nation Central, 2020). The term “Start-Up Nation” was coined by author Dan Senor and Saul Singer. In their book “Start-up nation: The story of Israel’s economic miracle” (Senor and Singer, 2011), the authors discuss how through a DNA of innovation and adaptation the State of Israel has not only managed to survive in difficult conditions, but to become a technological powerhouse. Several scholars have identified the branding potential of Israel though its technological ecosystem and innovations as a way to attract international audiences without forcing them to pick a side in the Israeli-Arab dispute. Through investing in Israeli innovations, and of course by adopting the name “Israel-Start Up Nation” to the elite cycling team, Adams promotes and applauds such approaches (Ostanke, 2019). As he explained: “We are reaching out to people whose only interest is the activity itself. We are not preaching to them nor presenting propaganda” (Rosenbaum, 2019). The connection between the Israel Start-Up Nation team and the tech industry in Israel, leads to another form of manifested diplomacy in the form of corporate diplomacy (White, 2015), which involves the private sector as well. For example, the team’s riders wearing anti-viral masks produced by an Israeli company for protection from COVID19 during the Tour de France (Israel Cycling Academy, 2020).
Nation branding is structured through two main approaches: (a) a tourism-based approach analysing a place as a tourism destination, and (b) a product-based approach analysing products associated with a country (Anholt, 2010; Nadeau et al, 2008). Israel’s cycling diplomacy, as manifested through Adams’ initiatives, address both these approaches, exposing the history and culture of Israel through hosting events televised to international audiences and through exposing Israeli products and reinforcing the name “Israel Start-Up Nation”. As a result, Israeli authorities, individuals, NGOs and the private sector are willing to support Adams’ initiatives. While Israeli officials might find diplomatic value which fits the country’s foreign policy, the other stakeholders – who might not agree with Israeli policies on the Israeli-Arab dispute – see value in being associated with the branding of Israel through the country’s creative and innovative DNA, its rich history and culture, and its technological ecosystem through sports.
There is also much local and international criticism on Adams’ use of sports as a tool for nation branding. Indeed, several Israeli journalists have been skeptical and criticised Adams’ initiatives, making comparisons to the situation in Qatar (Chasdai, 2019), using terminology as “an illusion” (Peleg, 2020) and “megalomania” (Idan, 2020). Internationally, there has also been backlash, especially related to Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a Palestinian-led movement protesting the normalisation of ties with Israel, protesting against Israel “occupying and colonising Palestinian land” (BDS, 2020), claiming “Israel maintains a regime of settler colonialism, apartheid and occupation over Palestinian people”. In the context of cycling, anti-Israeli BDS groups tried to persuade French athletes not to compete for “Israel Start-Up Nation” in the Tour de France (Aharoni, 2020) and referred to holding the Giro d’Italia in Israel as “Sportswashing” – a term that was repeatedly used by international media (Abraham, 2017; Amnesty International UK, 2019), used mostly in the context of non-democratic regimes trying to launder their image of violating human rights through sports (CNN, 2020). Thus, even though diplomatic efforts for “Israel Start-Up Nation” originate from a private citizen through people-to-people diplomacy and is different than in state-owned-and-sponsored teams that compete in top cycling competitions, Israel’s name in international sports still triggers connections to a distancing armed-dispute. To better understand the impact of Israel’s cycling diplomacy, future studies should analyse the projected image of Israel in future international cycling competitions.
 “Making Aliyah” is the act, for Jews around the world, of immigrating to Israel.
This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon