Battle for hearts and minds

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 May, 2011, 12:00am


It's no secret that Israel's foreign ministry has put the word out to its diplomatic missions abroad to step up efforts to change perceptions of Israel by fostering contacts among political leaders and opinion makers.

Worldwide reaction to a spate of incidents has given cause for concern. These range from a botched interception of a pro-Palestinian aid flotilla to international protests triggered by the military incursion into Gaza. Following the robust response by the Israel Defence Forces, assertions that the Gaza incident came after repeated rocket attacks on Jewish homes have largely been lost in the pall of international criticism.

In Hong Kong, Israeli Consul General Amikam Levy's concerns are more weighted towards ensuring companies from back home - particularly the growing hi-tech sector - strengthen their foothold in the China market. While he admits that perceptions of Israel as a nation at the centre of Middle Eastern conflict irk him, he is happy that the bilateral agreements and exchange visits he has cultivated here have put him a few steps ahead of diplomatic colleagues elsewhere in winning hearts and minds.

'I wonder how come, after 63 years in which we have achieved so much, we did not succeed in explaining to the world the real situation in the state of Israel. This is the weak point and, in my eyes, it's a paradox,' Levy says. 'We are for a two-state solution. We are ready to make a dramatic compromise to achieve clear progress ... but before that we ask the Palestinians to recognise the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people.'

Another paradox Levy has noticed is how China is prepared to do business with Iran despite the Israeli government and its allies seeing Iran as a rogue state sponsoring terror groups. He hopes Beijing's positive response to the killing of Osama bin Laden will pave the way for a better understanding of Israel's position.

'We want a better future for the next generation. That is why we have some sympathy with Chinese civilisation because we are both striving for peace and stability. We are eager to stop the cycle of violence and to focus on hi-tech, agriculture, to improve medical infrastructure, and to have many more start-up companies.'

High-level meetings and exchanges recently have included the visit of Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Knesset, who led a delegation of Israeli legislators to meet Legco counterpart Tsang Yok-sing last month. Two cabinet ministers also attended Israeli national day celebrations in Hong Kong last year, while former commerce minister Rita Lau Ng Wai-lan visited Israel last November to strengthen collaboration in information technology, green energy and biotechnology.

Levy says he has noticed a distinct change in attitudes among ministers who have visited Israel and he now wants this to permeate the rest of Hong Kong until it surpasses what he calls 'taxi driver syndrome'. He has noticed trepidation in the eyes of Chinese journalists before media trips to Israel and the pleasant surprise they have expressed on their return. Now he wants the rest of Hong Kong society to instantly associate Israel with technological innovation, enterprise, and peace and stability, so much so that taxi drivers will ask him about start-up companies instead of conflict.

Executives with the roughly 85 Israeli companies registered in Hong Kong will also be keen on furthering this change of perception. At the end of October, the consulate is planning to send a 'huge economic delegation' to Israel representing each sector of the business community in Hong Kong to bolster bilateral investment.

With Dead Sea products now joining the list of sought-after items among the tai tais, a 19-strong delegation of Israeli companies attended the Cosmoprof Asia cosmetics industry event last November. Levy hopes Israeli wine sales will also see a similar rise in popularity.

Guests at Israeli Independence Day celebrations here, including Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, will be privy to an exhibition by El Al, Israel's national carrier, showing the country's appeal as a holiday, business and cultural destination. 'Through El Al, I can demonstrate that the best way to see Israel is to be there,' Levy says.

On the cultural front, the consulate and organisers of the Israeli Film Festival have been impressed by the event's success, with most showings sold out. The artistic director of the Hong Kong Ballet, Madeleine Onne, also visited Tel Aviv as a guest of the foreign ministry last December to participate in the International Dance Exposure.