Babes in the Holy Land; Israel Flirts with a Racy New Public-Relations Strategy

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Byline: Kevin Peraino

Jim Malucci has two tatoos, one on each bulging bicep. On the left one, the photographer for Maxim magazine has etched an image of a seductively dressed pinup; on the right, he has stenciled the words go with god in Portuguese. He leans on his left arm and points his camera at a model in a bikini on the Tel Aviv beachfront. "That's hot, that's wicked," says Malucci, as the model shifts her hips and parts her lips. "I wanna see the curves. That's it, honey. On your knees, legs apart. Nice arch in your back--boom !" The flash flickers as the sun drops toward the Mediterranean. A Hassidic man in a black hat accidentally steps into the frame. "Love the guy with the hat!" Malucci says, chortling.

Taking in the scene, David Saranga can't help but grin. The Israeli consular official based in New York approached Maxim six months ago. His proposal: the government and other pro-Israeli groups would fly a camera crew across the Atlantic in an effort to remake the Jewish state's public image. Israel's reputation had suffered after last summer's war with Lebanon; in a recent BBC poll taken in 27 countries, 56 percent of respondents considered Israel a "negative influence" in the world, higher than both Iran and the United States. But Israel's real PR problem, according to Saranga, is that Americans--particularly men aged 18 to 35--either associate the country with war or holy relics, or don't think of it at all. "We have to find the right hook," he says. "And what's relevant to men under 35? Good-looking women."

Saranga's effort is the latest volley in a long-running battle over how to sell Israel to the world. Tourism is a nearly $2 billion-a-year industry in Israel, and the art of public relations is something of a national obsession. In Hebrew it's called hasbarah, which means "explaining." For a country that's always craved international acceptance, hasbarah was "the first growth industry of Israel," the American author Richard Ben Cramer wrote. "We almost have a psychological disorder when it comes to public image," adds Eytan Schwartz, the first winner of Israel's top-rated reality TV show, "The Ambassador." Schwartz's prize is proof of that: the winner of "The Ambassador" gets to become a public-relations flack.

Still, by definition, hasbarah is open to interpretation. …