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A woman tacks a dress to an oversized opera singer as workers put the final touches on dozens of floats to be used next week in Purim carnivals throughout Israel. (David Silverman/2010 Getty Images)
A woman tacks a dress to an oversized opera singer as workers put the final touches on dozens of floats to be used next week in Purim carnivals throughout Israel. (David Silverman/2010 Getty Images)

For Israel, every traveller is an ambassador Add to ...

Israel has come under harsh criticism for waging a one-sided war against Hamas in Gaza, for possible involvement in assassinations and for belligerent comments by its foreign minister towards some of its neighbours - and the government has decided to fight back.

It is enlisting the help of citizen-diplomats to take the battle to foreign destinations. But instead of tackling its human-rights or international-relations image, the Israeli government wants the world to know Israelis don't ride camels or eat only kebabs, if a just-unveiled series of TV spots is an indicator.

Israel is more than camels, kebabs and kabooms

The commercials, part of an initiative called Making the Case for Israel, were first seen this past weekend, and are aimed at the large number of Israelis who travel abroad each year. One ad says people around the world think camels are a common form of transportation in Israel, another alludes to the belief that the Israeli diet consists of kabobs grilled over a primitive barbecue, while a third notes that Independence Day fireworks are often mistaken for military action.

"Are you fed up with the way we are portrayed around the world?" each of the three spots asks. "You can change the picture."

The campaign urges citizens to show that Israel is modern, sophisticated and peace-loving. Brochures that provide helpful examples and statistics are being distributed by airlines.

"In light of Israel's negative image in the world, we realized that Israel had to counter the vast sums of money available to Arab countries for propaganda by taking advantage of our human resources," explained Yuli Edelstein, the government minister responsible for public diplomacy. "We decided to give Israelis who go abroad tools and tips to help them deal with the attacks on Israel in their conversations with people, media appearances and lectures before wide audiences. I hope we succeed together in changing the picture and proving to the world that there is a different Israel."

Mr. Edelstein has called his new recruits the Israeli Public Diplomacy Forces, after the name of the Israel Defence Forces, the country's military. The citizen-diplomacy effort, however, falls short of addressing some of the more serious impressions people have recently formed about Israel.

Indeed, a recent survey by Mr. Edelstein's own ministry found that 91 per cent of Israelis believe Israel has a bad or very bad image abroad, with 80 per cent saying that Israel is perceived as being overly aggressive.

To be sure, the TV ads are part of a larger campaign to fight the negative images that afflict the country.

A study released earlier this month by the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank, found Israel is facing a global campaign of "delegitimization" and urged the government to treat the matter as a strategic threat. It cited examples of anti-Israeli demonstrations, attempts to boycott Israeli products and academics, and threats to arrest Israeli government officials for alleged war crimes. The campaign, the institute said, is being waged by a network of individuals and organizations with hubs in London, Brussels, Madrid, San Francisco and Toronto.

In December, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government will stand up to those who besmirch Israel's reputation, citing the UN report into the war on Hamas in Gaza chaired by the South African judge Richard Goldstone, as Exhibit A. "We must delegitimize the delegitimizers," Mr. Netanyahu said.

That's where the citizen-diplomats come in, as well as other groups.

Hadar, a newly formed action group of English-speaking Israelis, hopes to be part of such a network.

At one of its first public events, it will host a panel discussion in Jerusalem today led by Canadian MP Irwin Cotler on how to combat "lawfare," by which it means false legal actions that demonize Israel. As examples of lawfare, the group cites the Goldstone Report, attempts to arrest Israeli officials on war-crimes charges and complaints to the World Court in The Hague.

Meanwhile, more-established institutions are taking up the cause and employing new means to do so. At the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a think tank run by Israel's former UN ambassador Dore Gold, young people are paid to wage cyberwar on various blogs known to criticize Israel. As Israelis learned during the war on Hamas in Gaza, they need to be inventive if they are to counter the critical view of their country projected by Palestinian and other groups.

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