Girl [peering down the camera's frame]: Uhhh...
Girl: Don't be mad. But it's small.
Boy: It's small?!
Girl: I just ... I don't know if I can go there.
Boy: I consider this a spot of worship. It may be small, but it's brought the driest places to life. Baby, this is paradise!
The camera then pans out to show the young couple, peering at a map of Israel and tourist guidebooks sitting in the boy's lap.
Girl: OK. But, if I go down there for you, you have to promise you'll go down south for me next winter.
The video, sponsored by the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students and the Canadian Council for Israel and Jewish Advocacy (CIJA), was met with ridicule -- both in Israel and abroad. Bloggers went wild, and the bemused Israeli Foreign Ministry and CIJA were reduced to pointing fingers at each other, trying to shift the blame. (Though it is unclear whether the Israeli government funded this ad, overseas advocacy organizations generally take their cues from the homeland.)
The past year has brought many public-diplomacy own-goals for Israel -- refusing to cooperate with a U.N. commission, deliberately humiliating the ambassador of a major ally, and snubbing a U.S. congressional delegation, for instance. But rather than addressing the problems underlying Israel's lack of popularity abroad -- the stagnated conflict with the Palestinians, and especially the brutal war waged on Gaza last winter -- the government has gone for diversion, with a series of flashy (and, in the case above, idiotic) global ad campaigns.
Such ads have a lot more to say about Israel's insecurities -- e.g., its small size -- than the world's concerns. Another advertisement shows a camel ambling across a sandy vista, with a narrator deadpanning in English, "The camel is a typical Israeli animal, used by the Israelis to travel from place to place in the desert where they live." Don't quite get the joke? It sends up Israelis' concern that foreigners perceive them to be backward and Oriental.
There's hardly an argument that the ads are falling flat with international audiences. It increasingly seems Israel is trying to persuade not foreigners, but itself. In March 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu created a ministry of public diplomacy (in Hebrew, hasbara). Last week, it launched a website called "Masbirim," or "Explainers," offering Israelis talking points to chat up foreigners when traveling overseas. (The information on the website is also available in booklet form.)
The Masbirim project does not just offer up harmless trivia about Israeli agriculture and inventions -- for instance, "Israel invented the solar water-heater" and, crucially, "An Israeli electric hair remover makes women happy the world over." It also provides hard-line political arguments. We're told the West Bank (described as "Judea and Samaria") settlements are "restored" ancient Jewish villages, not impositions on Palestinian villages or lands. The conflict is not about territorial disputes, but about Israel's very existence as a state, it says. And the Golan is not only a strategic stronghold for Israel, but a place stuffed with Jewish heritage sites. The materials, unsurprisingly, do not mention the illegality of annexing occupied territory.
The campaign then marches into right-wing wilderness roamed only by the likes of the long-debunked 1984 book From Time Immemorial. It advises Israelis to tell new foreign friends that "there has never been a state called Palestine" and that most Palestinians are "immigrants from other Arab states" -- many of whom were drawn to the economic prosperity created by Zionist Jewish immigration. Just in case the foreign folks had heard many Israelis' central argument for a two-state solution -- that discrepancies between Jewish and Palestinian birthrates mean Jews will soon be outnumbered in the territories currently under Israeli control -- the Masbirim project's materials explain that the Palestinian birthrate has actually dropped and the Jewish one is "underestimated."