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Tel Aviv's burgeoning gay scene may be the single most effective Israel-advocacy instrument in the Zionist toolbox, according to participants of a new program which uses Israel's vibrant gay culture to improve the country's image abroad. The five-day program, entitled iPride, opened on Wednesday by highlighting the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East where homosexuality is legal. It coincides with Tel Aviv's gay pride parade scheduled to take place today.

StandWithUs, the U.S.-based Israel-advocacy group, brought together a group of about 30 gay opinion-shapers and activists from Western countries for meetings with Israeli counterparts in show business as well as representatives from the army and the legal system. "When I was first invited to Israel, I thought there was no way I'm coming: Too many conflicts, too many issues," said one of the guests, Irish-born actor Brian Kelly. "But when I eventually did come, I found a place unlike any other."

Organizers meant to bring gay activists from Jordan and the Palestinian Authority as well. They say security issues have held up the participants' entry into the country, but that they expect one activist from Jordan to be let in today.

Kelly, a presenter for the television show Room 208 on Channel V in Germany, came to Israel from Munich with his partner, Mattias Zitel. "The only problem with the gay scene in Tel Aviv is that it's everywhere. It seems impossible to find a straight bar in this town," Kelly said.

"Israel advocacy needs to come from the gay community and it needs to come from the most liberal, leftist parts of society," said Yoav Sivan, a veteran gay rights campaigner who helped StandWithUs activist Ohad Salmon from Tel Aviv University put together the event. "It receives much more credibility that way," said Sivan, a former Meretz activist. One of the guests, an Australian man who has been living in Dubai for over five years, said that his gay Arab friends "hate Israel." The fact that Israel is gay-friendlier than Arab countries, Jin Peh said, does not change this as far as they are concerned.