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ISRAEL: New campaign for citizen diplomacy irks foreign press

March 1, 2010 |  7:26 am

During a radio debate a few months ago, legislator Zevulun Orlev bemoaned the fact that the Israeli government's budget for PR was smaller than Coca-Cola's advertising budget. "This is no way to win" the battle for public opinion, he said. Legislator Yuli Tamir argued the opposite point: The country is on the defensive, and "no advertising budget in the world" could help Israel explain its positions to the world.

This debate crops up periodically, a longstanding argument over whether Israel can't get its point across because of the messengers -- or because of the message. In some countries, government outreach is called public relations, affairs and diplomacy -- or propaganda, by others. In Israel, it's called hasbara, which translates as "explaining." This reveals an Israeli conviction that if they only explain it right, everyone will surely get it.

Now, a new campaign invites all Israelis to serve as ambassadors, saving Coca-Cola-size budgets.

Many traveling Israelis encounter prejudice among misinformed foreigners and find themselves constantly engaged in arguments and defense while abroad. Now the government is offering its traveling ambassadors tips and talking points. "Together, we can change the picture," says the website launched by the ministry of diaspora and public diplomacy, inviting people to brush up on their history, geography and current affairs to better convey their point.

Aside from providing hard facts on hard matters, the website also encourages the accidental ambassadors to make note of Israel's impressive achievements in fields such as agriculture, technology and medicine and to encourage others to visit Israel.  It is, perhaps, a wise government that knows some of its people have shortcomings in the diplomacy department and has a few correctional tips: Listen first, then answer; keep your body-language confident and stable, and don't move your hands furiously when you talk -- it really makes people nervous.

But campaign "Explaining Israel," meant to show that Israel is on the right side of stuff too, is already rubbing some people the wrong way, including members of the foreign press. Tired of Israel being portrayed as conflict-central and backward? Myth-Busting 101 includes a series of humorous clips that poke fun at ill-informed and stereotypical coverage of Israel. It's not going down well.

Israeli satire has already poked fun at its own hasbara, and of course skewered the foreign press for its coverage of Israel. Whether international coverage of Israel is biased or not is an old argument and in the eye of the beholder. But don't make us look like ignorant, gullible fools, says Conny Mus, chairman of the Foreign Press Association.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Photo: One of three campaign clips, via YoutTube. Credit: YouTube

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