Israel tries to clean up its image abroad

Israel's ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister is proposing a major new public relations drive in Europe aimed at bolstering Israel's flagging image.

The campaign, expected to launch early in the new year, would rely on teams of volunteers in Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Spain to deliver Israel's message, while professionals from public relations and lobbying firms would also be hired to for the rebranding initiative.

The campaign is the pet project of Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's Moldovan-born Foreign Minister, who is better known for his public relations gaffes than for his diplomacy.

Nevertheless, the move also reflects a growing sense among Israelis that they are misunderstood and misrepresented overseas. Many have smarted at international condemnation of the Gaza blockade and have vociferously defended two soldiers convicted in Israel for their treatment of a civilian during the Gaza War two winters ago, arguing that they were operating in difficult circumstances.

Moreover, Israeli officials have railed against media portrayals of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as an unwilling partner for peace with the Palestinians, contending that the Palestinian refusal to recognise Israel as a Jewish state is as much of a stumbling block as is ongoing settlement building in the occupied West Bank.

"Israel's public image today is dismal," wrote Alon Ben-Meir, a New York University lecturer in a recent editorial in The Jerusalem Post. "The public relations problem is not due to a lack of attention. The entire world is watching Israel closely, but it does not like what it sees."

Aryeh Green, head of the Israeli advocacy group MediaCentral, welcomed the new PR initiative, but said efforts should also remain focused on promoting accuracy of news reporting from Israel, rather than solely concentrating on putting across a message. The Foreign Ministry initiative, if it goes ahead, will join private advocacy efforts led by groups such as the Israel Project and British-led Bicom, which, among other things, lead tours examining threats to Israel's security and fly over foreign journalists and commentators to meet politicians, decision-makers and analysts.

Other pro-Israel groups, such as Honest Reporting and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America scour media reports to root out what they perceive as biased or incorrect reporting, and lead email campaigns against journalists or organisations regarded as prejudiced.

Whether Mr Lieberman's plans can do more remains to be seen. At least one Israeli official has argued that such initiatives have failed before: "With every change of season, there will be a politician announcing unofficially a big PR campaign that will change Israel's image," the official said.

Others will likely question Mr Lieberman's suitability for the role. A former nightclub bouncer with an assault charge to his name, he has alienated many foreign officials.

Many Israelis feel that there is little that can be done to improve Israel's international image, particularly in Europe, where anti-Israel sentiment is seen to be on the rise.

In a recent poll conducted by Tel Aviv University, 56 percent of Israelis said they believed "the whole world is against us," while 77 per cent said the world would always criticise their efforts to resolve the decades-long conflict.

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