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Eurovision diplomacy: Israeli Arab-Jew duo hope to show that peace is possible – at least on a stage

Israel's image abroad is a bit tattered. Can Eurovision come to the rescue?

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The joint venture comes at a difficult juncture for Israel: Generals are being accused abroad of war crimes for attacks on Palestinians in Gaza, and the new conservative government is rethinking negotiations toward a Palestinian state.

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Eurovision, which admittedly is better known for kitsch than its cachet in international affairs, has traditionally been seen as a big stage from which Israel can send a message to one of its most critical audiences: Europe.

For a country accustomed to international isolation on the world political stage, the annual contest – held in Moscow this year – has always been opportunity to cast itself in a different light at one of the continent's most-viewed events on TV. Through the decades, Israel has preferred optimistic songs of world peace to offset its military image.

"Israelis see the Eurovision as an international stage to transmit messages to Europe," says Nitzan Perry, an advertising executive and a Eurovision enthusiast. "We like to exploit every chance to show that we are OK. We're obsessed with it."

Israel has won the song competition three times. In the most recent victory, a decade ago, the country broke images of conservatism with a transgender singer who had no political allusions.

Yoav Ginai, who penned the 1998 winning song and headed the search committee this year, says Noa (Nini) was selected because she is well-known internationally, having played at jazz festivals abroad as well as for the pope. Noa asked to appear with Awad, an accomplished actress and singer, with whom she had previously collaborated on a cover of the Beatles, "We can work it out."

"I wanted to use this stage as a platform to communicate a message. That's central, and I'm saying it out loud," said Noa at a recent send-off party in Tel Aviv, which was sponsored by the pro-peace group, One Voice. "The music competition for me isn't important."

Israel's ebony-ivory?

Although Eurovision's overriding theme is pop culture, politics inevitably winds its way into the spotlight.

This year's host, Russia, disqualified Georgia's act for poking fun at Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Two years ago, an Israeli pop band rankled sensibilities with a song that was seen as a taunt aimed at Iran.

Noa and Awad are all too familiar with politics, though, given the landscape back home in Israel.

"There is a complexity in this place," said Awad at the send-off party in Tel Aviv. "For a Palestinian that wants to be an Israeli, even if he really wants to, it's not clear how it will be accepted. There's more to solve."

With mocha skin and jet black curls, Noa looks more Middle Eastern compared with Awad's European features. It's a striking inversion of stereotypes about the Jews and Arabs as they sing: "Your eyes say / one day, the fear will be gone."

And even if they don't win, they're likely to continue performing abroad to support a new album collaboration.

"If anyone can be successful in turning the Eurovision song contest into something more serious, it's those two. They're strong, they're powerful," said Alon Olearchik, an Israeli musician at the send-off party. "They have a message. It's a strong message. Any song about peace could be perceived as kitschy.... I don't care if the message is kitschy."