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Published Sunday, July 29, 2001

Israel turns to P.R. firm for makeover amid violence


JERUSALEM -- They have worked with Weight Watchers, the New York Yankees and the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Now the experts at Rubenstein Associates, a public relations company, are taking on a new client: the state of Israel, which hopes to spruce up its image in the deadly conflict with the Palestinians.

The New York-based agency, hired this year, has generated several suggestions.

First, reduce the number of security guards hovering around Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The strapping special forces men with dark sunglasses make the hawkish leader look constantly under siege.

Next, paint the Israeli military assault rifles that shoot rubber bullets purple or orange -- to make it clear to television viewers that soldiers are firing nonlethal rounds.

Then, clean up the mess left behind from hours of fighting on both sides: the shooting, shelling, rock throwing and the burning of tires, buses and cars. The idea, the company says, is to ``create a sterile and less threatening scene.''

Government officials said they are taking the recommendations seriously, including the idea of painting the rifles.

``This is not a fashion statement,'' said Emmanuel Nahshon, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ``The idea is to convey to the public that our soldiers are firing rubber bullets, and not live ammunition. It is a daily fight for Israel's image.''

But Palestinian officials and young boys interviewed at the Ayosh Junction in the West Bank town of Ramallah, one place singled out by Rubenstein as a problem area, say the proposals prove Israel would rather save face than lives.

``If they want to look better, they have to stop shooting,'' said Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

At least 484 Palestinians, 124 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began at the end of September.

Officials at Rubenstein declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Sharon. Questions were referred to the foreign minister's office and to the Israeli consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas.

Pinkas said that the cosmetic changes being recommended are only part of the strategy and that the company first and foremost told the Israelis to quickly release accurate information about daily events.

``Good policy will translate into good P.R.,'' Pinkas said.

Members of the public relations company toured the West Bank as part of their four-month study. They were particularly struck by the Ayosh Junction at the edge of Ramallah -- a dividing line between areas of Palestinian and Israeli control and a noted flash point of unrest.

They noted that the junction ``looks in photographs like a battlefield filled with shells of burnt-out cars, boulders and burning tires.''

The fire-scarred street, which reaches a virtual dead-end at Israeli-controlled territory, also is littered with shrapnel -- a convenient backdrop for television news crews based in nearby Jerusalem that need quick video to illustrate the uprising.

``It is a war zone,'' said Pinkas, the consul general. ``But there are certain areas that should be cleaned, if not for CNN's sake, then for the welfare of the Jews and the Arabs. But Israel is not going to invade to clean.''

Crisis management has long been a specialty of the 500-client, 190-employee firm that Howard J. Rubenstein founded in 1954. Miami's Convention & Visitors Bureau hired the firm to help burnish the beaches' image after tourist murders in 1993.

Other clients, according to the firm's website, have included New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, Yeshiva University, publishing magnate Rupert Murdoch and Sarah, the Duchess of York.

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