A Palestinian schoolgirl walks by a mural at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on Wednesday. Israel is learnt to be revving up its PR machinery to counter fallout of the Gladstone report about atrocities in Gaza. Image Credit: AP

Herzliya, Israel: For Israelis, debates at the United Nations over the Goldstone report and its allegations of war crimes in Gaza go far beyond dry legal argument — their government sees it as a battle for the nation's very survival.

A keynote national security conference this week made clear Israel is considering arming itself with a battery of weapons for a propaganda war against Palestinians and their supporters, who many Israelis fear want to turn the Jewish state into an international pariah reminiscent of apartheid South Africa.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month spoke of a "Goldstone effect" — action by international courts that might crimp Israel's military superiority — and ranked it alongside Iran's nuclear programme and the rocket arsenals of Palestinian and Lebanese freedom fighters among three main threats facing Israel.

Questions raised

"People are questioning whether we should exist," Eyal Arad, a marketing guru and former government adviser, told the annual Herzliya Conference. "We're ... becoming the South Africa of the 21st century. What we need is a global political campaign."

Serving officials assured audiences in seminars entitled "Winning the Battle of the Narrative" that work was in hand to win hearts and minds abroad. Indeed, one revealed the previous government briefed PR advisers on a Gaza war three months before the December 2008 attack that left 1,400 Palestinians dead.

Israel refused to cooperate with judge Richard Goldstone, the UN investigator who faced accusations of anti-Semitism from fellow Jews for saying Israeli troops may have committed war crimes. But under threat of referral to an international court, it has published measures it took against some soldiers

Proposals aired at Herzliya for improving Israel's image abroad ranged from increasing spending sharply on its embassies through grass-roots diplomacy in the form of citizens engaged in internet social networking to full-scale "rebranding".

Former diplomat and advertising man David Admon, writing in the leftish Haaretz newspaper, demanded a "Ministry of Hasbara" to coordinate Israel's message — hasbara, Hebrew for explaining — has long been a common term for Israeli public diplomacy.

Britain, Israeli advocates say, plays a special role as home to major international media, a large Muslim minority and many foreign students. The British government, Prosor said, had shown growing signs it was taking heed of anti-Israel public opinion.

A legal move to have Tzipi Livni, foreign minister during the Gaza war, arrested on a visit to London last year soured relations. Prosor said he was concerned Britain would set an example for anti-Israel campaigns on foreign campuses.