TEL AVIV, Israel -- As the beautiful face of a nation, supermodel Bar Refaeli has few rivals. So Israel’s foreign ministry thought it was on to a winner this month when it picked the blond, blue-green-eyed, willowy, tall and curvy Refaeli to lead a public relations campaign highlighting Israel’s world-beating technologies.
Instead, it sparked a bitter controversy about just who is a 'real' Israeli. The Israeli army attacked the proposal, saying that the 27-year-old Sports Illustrated cover girl was a draft dodger and a bad example to Israel’s youth.
"I wish to turn your attention to the negative message that could be delivered to Israeli society," an army spokesman wrote to the foreign ministry.
The foreign ministry’s private response to the military was to mind its own business. As diplomats, though, their public reaction was phrased more carefully: "Bar Refaeli ... is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world and she is widely recognized as Israeli. There is no reason to dredge up the past when we are dealing with a public diplomacy campaign of this kind."
The dispute hit a nerve.
With compulsory conscription of three years for men and two years for women, army service is traditionally seen as a social equalizer and the glue that holds the society together. But today, about half of Israeli women don’t serve and about a third of men don’t. In both cases, these numbers are made up of Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews who are excused, as well as those who are exempt for a variety of medical and other reasons.
Refaeli’s case, however, was particularly provocative.
She stated that she did not want to serve because it would obstruct her career. Then, when obliged by the system, she reportedly evaded service by marrying a family friend and getting an exemption as a married woman. It was widely reported in Israel that she got a divorce as soon as her exemption was accepted.
That didn’t win her many friends. But her beauty did, as did her liaison with one of the world's most eligible bachelors, film star Leonardo DiCaprio.
Refaeli is very popular. So much so that sometimes it seems like everyone in tiny Israel has claimed acquaintance with her or her family. She also routinely espouses Israeli causes like calling for the release of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who has languished in American jails for 28 years. She never fails to support Israel in any forum and when at home she hangs out on the beach like anyone else.
But according to the army, the fact that she didn't serve in the army disqualifies her from representing her country. For them, she is not a true Israeli.
And that is exactly the message the foreign ministry is trying to do away with. The diplomats want to dispel the notion that Israel is merely a military success story. They want to highlight Israel’s many other achievements in the field of technology, where Israel shines, to show the world that it is more than just a country in conflict.
So who is the 'perfect' Israeli? Refaeli in a bikini or Refaeli in battle fatigues?
It is a metaphor for a country seeking peace yet is mired in conflict -- a nation in transition and struggling to define itself.
Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List,""Breaking News" and "Walking Israel."