In some countries, reality television offers contestants fame and fortune. In Israel, the winner gets the equivalent of a job with the civil service.
The latest reality programme to catch the country’s imagination is The Ambassador, in which 14 contestants compete at defending Israel’s reputation abroad.
The winner will receive a year’s contract at an agency set up in New York to promote the country in the United States.
The show’s popularity and the prize it offers reflect, say academics, domestic confusion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it is perceived around the world.
The 14 contestants must carry out a variety of diplomatic tasks in Washington, New York, France, Britain and Israel. The judges are a former spokesman for the Israeli army, a former head of the Shin Bet internal security agency and a television political correspondent.
The winner will be the person who best demonstrates the qualities of a professional advocate and presents Israel in the most positive light.
The format is based on The Apprentice, the show in which the tycoon Donald Trump sets aspiring job applicants tasks and then tells one at the end: “You’re fired.”
The first edition of The Ambassador featured a debate between the seven male and seven female contestants at the Cambridge University Union.
Appearing for the men, Tzvika Deutsch asked the audience how they would feel if a football game in Manchester was cancelled because the stadium was threatened with rocket fire from militants. “For the people of Manchester this would be a very bad joke. But for people in the Israeli city of Sderot this is the reality.”
Ravit Shemtov, for the women, said Israel had offered the Palestinians many peace solutions but they had all been rejected. “Unfortunately, the Palestinian Authority has declined every opportunity the Israeli government offered them.”
Under hostile questioning, one contestant, Ofra Bin Nun, was prompted into saying: “Israel has not taken anything from anyone.” The audience groaned in response.
The judges ruled that Ms Bin Nun had made a major error and she became the first contestant to be expelled.
Candidates must strive to spin Israel’s story most effectively and need not pay much attention to reality or the Palestinian point of view.
Nachman Shai, a judge on the programme and a former spokesman for the Israeli army, described advocacy as an ongoing war for the past and for the future.
Yoram Peri, a professor of politics and media at Tel Aviv University, said the series went to the heart of Israeli society and its emphasis on how it is perceived rather than what it does.
“The major concern in Israeli society is that we do not explain ourselves well. When we discuss the horrible things that happen in the West Bank, we don’t talk about the issue but about how it will be seen.
“It’s a fundamental issue in Israeli life. It explains the popularity of someone like Benjamin Netanyahu [finance minister and former prime minister]. It’s not because he is a good ambassador, it’s because he is good at PR.”
Prof Peri added: “The programme reflects a major problem in Israeli society. We do not think we do anything wrong but we think we explain ourselves badly and that the international media is anti-semitic.”
The Ambassadors highlighted Israel’s real problem, the professor said, which was not one of advocacy but facing up to the true nature of its problems. “We are fighting two wars. One is a war against terrorism, which is legitimate, and the other is a war against Palestinian liberation, which is not,” he said.
“Most Israelis cannot make the distinction and President Bush has added to that confusion by seeing only terrorism.”