February 3, 2005
Who Wants to Be Israel’s Ambassador?
Quiet on the set," shouts a production assistant, and silence falls over the fake marble floor of a studio designed to look like a conference room in Jerusalem's King David Hotel.
As a makeup artist dabs more powder on the forehead of Yaakov Perry, former head of Israel's Shin Bet internal security service, the contestants on Israel's hit reality show, "The Ambassador," adjust their dark, tailored suits, clutch leather attache cases and eye each other nervously.
The cameras roll and Nahman Shai, the thin, bespectacled former Israeli army spokesman who is one of the show's three judges, looks up and says in a voice as serious as war, "It's time to decide."
The time has come to vote another contestant off of the show, which features 14 young Israelis competing to be chosen as the best person to promote Israel's image abroad. The show taps into Israel's desire to be better understood on the international stage, and to replace the army generals and stiff government spokesmen on CNN's screens with engaging, telegenic young people who might more easily win sympathy for Israel's side in its conflict with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world.
Shai notes that Israel has been defending its right to exist since the state was born. "The Ambassador" has brought that task into the living rooms of Israelis, who for the first time are discussing such questions as how Israel should best explain its decision to build the security fence to the world at large.
On each slickly produced episode, the contestants are presented with a different challenge, ranging from debating the Israel-Arab conflict before an audience of Cambridge University students to meeting with real-life ambassadors to conducting television interviews with French and Arab journalists.
In between the serious parts, there are also reminders that this is reality television after all, with all the requisite backbiting, scheming and personality politics.
The contestants, all between 24 and 30 years old, include lawyers, business students, an Ethiopian immigrant and both religious and secular Jews. Selected from a pool of thousands of applicants, they are attractive and well-spoken in both Hebrew and English.
Like Donald Trump's "The Apprentice," at the end of every episode of "The Ambassador," the panel of judges kicks another contestant off the show. The winner will be rewarded with a yearlong job at Israel at Heart, a New York-based organization that promotes Israel's image.
"You watch the way Israel is seen around the world and it hurts," said Joey Low, the American millionaire who founded Israel at Heart, explaining why he agreed to the producer's request that he provide the prize.
Yael Ben-Dov, 27, one of the show's finalists, acknowledged the difficulty of explaining to the world images that seem to show Israel as the aggressor.
"We need to let people see the whole picture, to let people know the facts before they judge us," Ben-Dov said.