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Israel urged to speak directly to Arab world

Few countries are as active in courting international opinion as Israel.

An entire ministry is devoted to a kind of global PR called hasbara, the Hebrew word for "explaining."

Israelis studiously track public opinion in the United States and Europe, and Israel's military has taken to using YouTube, Twitter and an army of bloggers to disseminate real-time updates around the world, sometimes in the middle of battle.

But the public diplomacy campaign, which has largely focused on the West, has ignored the Arab world, which many in Israel have viewed as a lost cause.

But now, as popular unrest, organized in part by the use of social media tools, topples long-standing Arab regimes, some say Israel has an opportunity to make use of those same tools to try to improve its image among its many enemies in the region. With political reforms promising to give Arab citizens a greater voice, some say that Israel's stability and security will rest partly on whether it can adapt its well-oiled PR machine to launch a new relationship with the Arab street.

"We live in the Middle East and we need to start speaking in the language of the region, which we are not doing," said Eli Avidar, a former Israeli head of mission to Qatar and co-founder of the think tank Smart Middle East Forum, which works to encourage Israel to take a more proactive role in delivering its message directly to Arab populations.

Whereas the U.S., Britain and France launched Arabic-language news channels in recent years to speak directly to Arab populations, Israel let its Arabic-language satellite station go dark in most of the region. The hasbara-focused Public Diplomacy Ministry employs plenty of English speakers but no one fluent in Arabic, its top official said.

The Israel Defense Forces have released hundreds of YouTube videos and Twitter messages in the last two years, but only a few have been in Arabic.

For years, many Israelis dismissed the idea of "Arab hasbara" as a waste of time, doubting that the Jewish state could overcome generations of hostility from some nations, particularly without a resolution of Israel's 44-year occupation of the West Bank.

Even in Egypt and Jordan, two neighboring Arab nations that signed peace treaties with Israel years ago, public opinion remains negative, partly because Israel has focused most of its attention on appeasing heads of state rather than seeking to forge better relations with the public, some analysts say.

"We are to be blamed for much of our bad image in the region because Israel, as a state and as a government, has failed to address the Arab world," said Bar Ilan University professor Mordechai Keidar, one of the few Arabic-speaking Israeli pundits seen on Arabic satellite channels defending Israel. "We haven't invested anything to promote the image of Israel. We are always putting out fires, and never doing anything to prevent them from starting."

In a report last year, Israel's comptroller cited the government's "intolerable foot-dragging" in launching efforts to boost its Arabic-language outreach.

Rather than appealing to the U.S. Congress, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did last month, Avidar said Israel's leader should deliver a speech similar to President Obama's 2009 Cairo address, seeking to establish a new relationship with the Muslim world based on mutual respect and interests.

In order for such a strategy to have a chance of working, he said, Israel should stop publicly criticizing its Arab neighbors, which Israel has long portrayed to the West as unstable, undemocratic and militant.

"Our leaders need to change their mentality," Avidar said. "The climate has changed, and we need to change also."

Avidar's group also encourages Israeli officials and pundits to work more closely with Arabic-language media, particularly television networks such as Al Jazeera, and use websites and social media to directly appeal to the new generation of democratically minded Arabs.

Yuli Edelstein, Israel's minister of public diplomacy, said the government appreciates the new political situation in the Arab world and is working to improve its advocacy.

"There is more of an understanding that without somehow changing the minds of the people and building a future peace from the bottom up, it won't be worth it to even try to sign another treaty," he said.

As an initial step, the prime minister's office in May hired its first Arabic-speaking spokesman and unveiled a new Arabic-language website. The Israel Defense Forces, which already had an Arabic-language spokesman, began tweeting in Arabic for the first time this month, during the deadly pro-Palestinian protests along the Syrian border.

"It's correct to say that we have a very long way to go," Edelstein said, adding that he disagrees with those who reject such efforts as futile. "The main enemy is not anti-Semitism. The main enemy is ignorance."

Ofir Gendelman, who coordinates the government's Arabic-language campaign as Netanyahu's newly hired Arabic spokesman and held a similar job at the Foreign Ministry, says he does up to 100 interviews a month on Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC Arabic and other international channels. But airtime on state-run Arab TV stations remains problematic. Jordan's state-run channel, for example, refuses to interview Israeli officials, Gendelman said.

"It's definitely a challenge," he said. "We're not naive. Israel has been a scapegoat for a long time, so we don't think we're going to turn them into an audience that is pro-Zionist. But up until now, there was no connection between us and them. The idea is to shed some light on what we are, because they really have a twisted idea."

That will prove a hard road, skeptics say. It's policy, not public relations, that will change attitudes, according to Palestinian media consultant and political analyst Nashat Aqtash.

"Maybe that kind of thing works in the West, but Arabs live in the neighborhood," he said. "They are not fools."

The first step to an improved image, he said, is the creation of a Palestinian state.

"They can have good relations with the Arab people or they can continue to occupy the land of Palestine," he said. "They can't have both."

Proponents of an Arab world campaign say the next priority is the launch of an Arabic-language news channel, which they bill as an Israeli version of Al Jazeera or CNN Arabic. Years ago, the Israel Broadcasting Authority, the nation's public television provider, beamed such a channel throughout the Mideast, but over the years the channel lost funding and focus, Edelstein said. Unfortunately, he added, Israel lost interest in the channel just as satellite television exploded in the Arab world.

Now the IBA is developing a plan to spend more than $30 million to double its Arabic-language programming to eight hours a day and next year launch a new satellite that can beam its signals to the entire region, Gendelman said.

"We are certain it will have a huge viewership in the Arab world," he said. "Israel is an obsession. Even if just for the curiosity, people will watch it."

edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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