A glaring glut of own goals

By Jonathan Freedland, July 1, 2011

Israel's new ambassador to Britain, Daniel Taub, is not just British-born: he grew up steeped in communal life. He will, therefore, already be familiar with the lament he will hear every day from the moment he steps off the plane at Heathrow until he finally heads back home: "Why does Israel have such bad public relations?"

The assumption is that if only Israel and its friends would hire more skilled professionals, run snazzier websites or, in its latest incarnation, start a TV station to match al-Jazeera, then everyone would soon see the shining merit of Israel's case. Usually, the solution has been to throw money at the problem. From Aipac to BICOM, that's often meant pretty serious money.

But sometimes there's rather more money around than sense. Take the case of the leading Barcelona gay activists, invited to Israel by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to take part in Tel Aviv's much-vaunted gay pride event.

It must have seemed such a good idea at the time. Not only did it fit with Tel Aviv's pursuit of pink tourism, with the Israeli city regularly ranked as a favourite gay destination, it also served a political end - implicitly contrasting Israel as a rare island of tolerance in a sea of repression and homophobia.

All that PR effort — and the result was just more bad publicity for Israel.

For a while, it worked, too. The gay dignitaries' visit to Tel Aviv was hailed as a gesture of support after their Madrid counterparts had cancelled a trip a year ago in protest over the Turkish flotilla affair.

What's more, the lead man from Barcelona, David Marti, declared himself impressed with what he saw. And then he and his boyfriend went to Ben Gurion airport, where the latter was strip-searched and the couple were submitted to a series of intrusive and personal questions, adding up to what they described as a humiliating experience.

As one Israeli newspaper reported it: "The positive impression that the pair had of Israel after their visit was erased by the security check, Marti said." All that PR effort, all that expense - and the result was just more bad publicity for Israel.

At least the visiting writers and intellectuals who attended this year's Palestine Festival of Literature were not guests of the Israeli government. But they were travelling inside the country, as well as the occupied territories, with their eyes wide open.

Presumably that did not weigh too heavily on the minds of the security guards at one checkpoint who waved through most of the UK passport holders - but held back those with Muslim-sounding names.

Given recent history, you might think that's a perfectly legitimate security measure. But here's what Geraldine D'Amico, director of Jewish Book Week, who was there, wrote on her blog: "This was just an exercise in control as they had already checked our luggage and searched the bus. Not the best PR exercise sadly with a bus full of writers from the UK and US who are going to write about what they see." Among those stopped - for eight hours - was the novelist Alice Walker.

Straight into print was one participant, my Guardian colleague Gary Younge. No kneejerk antagonist of Israel - he won wide Jewish acclaim a few years back for a column condemning the lazy equation of Zionism and racism - he couldn't help but be appalled at the discrimination he encountered. As if to underline how such missteps undermine even the most well-resourced PR efforts, he wrote: "Elsewhere, a vigorous marketing campaign ensures that, when the strip-searching is done, the first thing you see when you pull up your trousers are tourist posters of religious sites against azure skies saying 'Welcome to Israel'."

The latest such error has come from the head of the Israel government press office, who last weekend warned journalists that if they dared try to cover the newest aid flotilla to Gaza, they would be banned from entering Israel for 10 years. That threat has now been withdrawn but the damage was already done - suggesting Israel has a shaky understanding of press freedom and undermining the country's claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East.

The point here is not just that a few low-level security guards or officials scored avoidable own goals, alienating those who might have become friends, though they did. The more important lesson is that you can spend all the money you like on glossy PR but it will always fail if reality refuses to follow the script. Put another way, advertising can only ever do so much: in the end, sometimes it's the product that has to change.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

    Last updated: 9:49am, July 1 2011