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Jewish World Review August 26, 2002 / 18 Elul, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Consumer Reports

Sales pitch or selling out?

A proposed P.R. strategy for Israel may not have all the answers | The stereotypical image most of us have of Israelis is one of arrogant and rude individuals who could care less about anyone's opinion of what they're doing.

Such an image is probably unfair to the average Israeli, but like many myths, it has more than a grain of truth to it. That's because, when it came to managing their country's image around the world, Israel's leaders and most of those who were supposed to manage this problem acted as if such concerns were beneath contempt.

Over the course of the last two decades, the world's media gradually adopted a story line that came to view the Middle East as a conflict between an Israeli Goliath and an Arab David. Much of the reporting that has reinforced this reversal of the truth has been distorted, at best, and, at worst, filled with factual inaccuracies and lack of historical perspective and context.

For many of us in the Diaspora, answering these charges long ago became a priority, but for Israel's leaders, it has always been at the bottom of their "things-to-do" list.

As long ago as 1977, when Menachem Begin was first elected prime minister, his aide Shmuel Katz suggested that the new government have a cabinet-level post devoted to hasbara - information policy - but Katz's idea was soon shot down by Moshe Dayan and his Foreign Ministry.

It's been all downhill since then as every Israeli government has seemed intent on topping their predecessors when it came to doing a lousy job presenting Israel's case to the court of public opinion.

Israeli diplomats who have excelled at speaking to the media and the American public have been few and far between. Outside of Abba Eban, Chaim Herzog and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the cast of Israeli characters has ranged from dismal to ridiculous.

While a few Israeli foreign service officers have labored mightily against the tide of pro-Arab propaganda, prime diplomatic posts are treated as political patronage plums to be doled out by Israeli politicians as payoffs to supporters. Even when Israel sends someone here who's qualified, such as the recently departed ambassador to Washington David Ivri, it turns out they are also allergic to the media and public speaking.

Even worse has been the fact that most Israelis in government have been uninterested in the problem. Leaders on both the left and the right have always shown contempt for the art of public relations. Living in a country where sabra culture views blunt speech - no matter how obnoxious - as synonymous with truth, and flowery speech and courtly manners as inherently dishonest, spin is not exactly a strong point.

Both the Israeli left and the right have their reasons for acting this way.

For the left, the characteristic belief in the virtue of their policies has blinded them to the need to answer Israel's critics or explain the justice of the Jewish state's cause. In the heyday of the Oslo peace process, current Foreign Minister Shimon Peres was often heard telling people that Israel's peace strategies would themselves be the best hasbara.

Though more open to the idea that the world would treat Israel more fairly if it understood it, the more cynical denizens of the Israeli right weren't much better. They, too, dismissed P.R. as "cosmetics" and were fond of saying that they prefer the military value of holding the high ground of Judea and Samaria to the hypothetical advantages of possessing the moral high ground.

But that hasn't ever stopped bright-eyed and bushy-tailed American Jews from coming up with brilliant strategies for selling Israel to the American public.

Such plans were ignored by the Israelis in the past, but that is changing. They have had to acknowledge that they need to do something to answer a massive Arab propaganda offensive that has helped much of the world ignore the fact that the Palestinians are carrying out a terror offensive against the Jews.

The latest such effort is being led by Democratic Party consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, with polling and analysis by Democratic consultant Stanley Greenberg and Republican strategist Frank Luntz.

These are political hired guns who know how to sell American voters on candidates and policies. And their Israel P.R. project is as professional as most Israeli efforts have been amateurish. Backed by polling that purports to show Israel losing support among Americans, they have crafted a plan that includes television ads and carefully chosen talking points for both Israeli and American Jewish advocates for Israel.

Much of the plan that Mizrahi has been presenting to Jewish groups and the Israeli government makes sense as it stresses the fact that America and Israel have much in common, especially democratic values. Making it plain that Israel desires peace, and has done everything it could to achieve that peace, is also a good idea.

But not everything these very smart people are telling the Israelis strikes me as prudent. Having analyzed the reactions of their focus groups to phrases and arguments, the spin doctors want the Jewish state's advocates to stop sounding so aggressive and cease casting blame for the current war on the despicable Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the rest of his criminal crew.

They also seem to want us to forget about explaining the history of the conflict and the historical justice of Zionism and the Jewish people's ties to the land of Israel. They see all of this as so much baggage that bores American viewers and think it feeds into the idea that there is a moral equivalence between Arab terrorism and Israeli self-defense.

Interestingly, some top Israelis are balking at this advice. And, much as I am loathe to side with the arrogant Israelis against the more sensitive Americans, it seems that, for once, the Israelis may be at least partially right and the American Jewish experts wrong.

Surely, these consultants, experienced in the world of American politics, understand that driving up your opponent's negative ratings is often as important as improving your own "positives." No matter what Luntz's focus groups are telling him, keeping the focus on the common values of the Palestinians with the Al Qaeda terrorists helps Israel.

Moreover, dropping the Israeli insistence on Arafat's removal and the complete overhaul of Palestinian culture and politics to root out terrorism are contrary to the policies of both the Bush and Sharon administrations. Advising them to let Arafat off the hook must strike many Israelis as not so much P.R. advice as pressure on them to drop the Likud and elect the discredited forces of the Labor Party.

An Israel that won't make the case for the justice of its cause is a country that has lost the game already. How are Israel's interests served by abandoning what it stands for?

An image of a kinder, gentler Israel might be a good marketing strategy, but, as many of Mizrahi, Luntz and Greenberg's American political clients have learned to their sorrow, spin without substance never wins.

Israel must learn to get its message across to American opinion-makers and ordinary citizens via spokespersons who speak coherent English and can think on their feet. But a P.R. strategy that undersells the vital interests of the nation, is one that's bound to fail.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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