A snapshot taken by a Miss Universe contestant in the lead-up to the pageant has sparked criticism in Lebanon because the photo features a smiling Miss Lebanon next to her Israeli counterpart.
The controversy began when Miss Israel Doron Matalon posted a photo on Instagram on Jan. 11 of herself with the smiling Miss Lebanon Saly Greige, along with Miss Japan and Miss Slovenia. The selfie sparked a debate rooted in the conflict between Israel and Lebanon.
Israel and Lebanon share a tense border. A cease-fire followed a 2006 war, but violence still flares on occasion.
After an outcry in her home country over the photo, Greige quickly distanced herself from it, writing on her Facebook page that Matalon had jumped into a picture Greige was taking with two other contestants and then posted the photo to social media.
"Since the first day of my arrival to participate to Miss Universe, I was very cautious to avoid being in any photo or communication with Miss Israel," she said in the Facebook post. She added that Matalon had tried several times to take a photo with her, and Greige asked that her fans continue to support her in the contest.
A similar incident occurred in 1993, when then-Miss Lebanon Ghada Turk posed in a photo with then-Miss Israel Tamara Porat at the pageant in South Africa. The photo caused a fracas in Lebanon, where Turk was taken before a military judge and questioned on charges of treason, according to an Agence France-Presse article in 1994.
David Siegel, Israel's consul general for the southwestern United States, said it would be natural for Miss Israel to take a picture with Miss Lebanon because "Israelis have their hands outstretched in peace.
"I think that those who seek peace should be celebrating this photo, not condemning it," Siegel said. "It is such a shame that there is so much intolerance in Lebanon that Miss Lebanon was forced to apologize for standing next to Miss Israel."
The Consulate General of Lebanon in Los Angeles was closed Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day and could not be reached for comment.
Matalon posted an article about the photo to her Instagram and Facebook page Sunday, saying, “It doesn’t surprise me, but it still makes me sad.”
"Too bad you can not put the hostility out of the game, only for three weeks of an experience of a lifetime that we can meet girls from around the world and also from the neighboring country," she said.
The 63rd Miss Universe Pageant will be held Sunday in Florida. Pageant organizers did not respond to requests for comment, but said in a statement to CNN that it was unfortunate the photo had been perceived in a negative way and that the picture represents what the pageant is about: a celebration of universal friendship.