Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
February 17, 2010 - 1:00am

The Israeli government, deeply worried about the country’s declining international image, began a campaign on Wednesday to turn every Israeli — and ultimately every Jew — into a traveling public relations agent.

With a Web site backed by an advertising blitz, the Information and Diaspora Affairs Ministry began issuing Hebrew-language pamphlets to passengers on Israeli airlines and offering coaching courses to groups heading abroad. The message: “Are you fed up with the way we are portrayed around the world? You can change the picture.”

The information minister, Yuli Edelstein, said in a statement that a poll he had commissioned found that 91 percent of Israelis believed that their country had a poor image and that the vast majority wanted to play a role in improving it.

“To counter the big money invested by Arab states in propaganda against Israel, we have to mobilize our human capital, meaning the residents of Israel,” Mr. Edelstein said.

The new Web site presents a conservative interpretation of the issues over which Israel is most often criticized abroad — its settlements in the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians, including the war in Gaza a year ago. But it also seeks to puncture what the ministry considers common myths about Israel — that it is a big and primitive country, that its food consists of little more than hummus and falafel, and that Israelis as a group do not seek peace.

On the Web site, fake news clips show a British television journalist asserting that in Israel the camel is the main means of transportation and a Spanish reporter claiming that Israelis grill meat outdoors because they lack kitchens. A French news anchor is seen saying that life here is a series of endless explosions.

The beginning of the campaign coincided with a growing controversy over the killing of a Hamas official in Dubai. Many Israelis have wondered whether the assassination was the work of their Mossad spy agency, especially because a number of the false identities used by the killers were of Britons who had immigrated here.

One main message of the campaign is that Israel is a technically advanced and diverse society and that its government policies are not the source of regional conflict. It notes that a number of important agricultural breakthroughs have occurred here, including drip irrigation and the development of the cherry tomato.

“The campaign stems from a genuine fear that Israel is misrepresented, sometimes in very vicious ways,” said Shlomo Avineri, who teaches political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “On this level it is understandable. But I think it is puerile. Some of the information is ridiculous, and behind it I find a Bolshevik mentality — to make every citizen an unpaid civil servant for the policy of the government. There is never any intimation that some of our problems have to do with actual policies.”

Mr. Avineri said this was the first time in decades that Israel had had a separate Information Ministry, and its existence, in his view, was a sign that the government was approaching the issue without sophistication.

Eytan Gilboa, director of the Center for International Communications at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv and a longtime advocate of improved public diplomacy for Israel, said that some of what the ministry published was fine, but he added that he did not believe that the country’s poor image had to do with a misperception that it was primitive.

“This country’s main challenges are the false comparison people make with an apartheid state and the questioning of its right to exist,” Mr. Gilboa said. “And the pamphlets don’t deal with those.”


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