New assault in war for public opinion

NEW YORK, March 13 (JTA) – The Palestinians may not be winning the war for American public opinion, but Israeli diplomats and American Jews are still forging ahead with efforts to augment Israeli “hasbarah” – a uniquely Hebrew term that falls somewhere between explanation and propaganda.

The Israeli government recently took the unusual step of contracting two prominent American public-relations firms – Rubenstein Associates and Morris, Carrick & Guma – on a three-month trial basis.

More controversially, a handful of Jewish mega-donors has created a think tank they hope will generate long-term strategies for presenting Israel in a favorable light.

Some Israelis have asked whether such a group is necessary; after all, isn’t that why Israel supports two embassies and 11 consulates in North America?

And, they ask, if American Jews are to get involved, shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the official Jewish community, rather than private interests?

But American Jewish leaders say international condemnation of Israel during the past half-year of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed has made a stronger P.R. effort necessary.

“There’s always a need to do more, to educate about the hate toward Israel that exists, the unwillingness to accept Israel, that Israel is under threat,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“As long as Israel makes news, and has perhaps the largest foreign press corps in any non-war zone, then Israel needs to be concerned about how it is presented,” he said.

For much of the past decade, Israel appeared to be guided by a notion advanced by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres: If Israel’s policy is right, there’s no need for hasbarah, and if its policy is wrong, hasbarah won’t help.

That notion was put to the test over the last half year – and, many believe, disproved.

When former Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered far-reaching concessions in peace talks, the Palestinians responded with street clashes and terror attacks – and much of the world blamed Israel.

The vitriol appeared to catch Israel’s Foreign Ministry by surprise. Before Israel could organize its hasbarah effort, the Palestinians had scored major victories on the battlefield of public opinion.

“We need to be proactive, not reactive,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations. “Israel is always served by the truth, because its case is fundamentally sound.”

Enter the new think tank – “Emet,” the Hebrew word for truth.

Spearheading the project is Leonard Abramson, the Philadelphia-based founder of U.S. Healthcare, along with philanthropist Michael Steinhardt and World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman.

The group consulted with Hoenlein, Foxman and other Jewish activists – and only then notified Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Foxman said.

American donors are expected to provide $7 million for the think tank, with another $1 million requested from the Foreign Ministry, according to reports.

When news got out earlier this month of Emet’s formation, it touched off consternation in the Jewish state.

Some Foreign Ministry officials grumbled that American Jews were poaching on their turf. Not surprisingly, they would prefer that any extra money be funneled to the ministry’s efforts.

Both right and left also have concerns about Emet.

Israel’s left appears concerned that hawkish American Jews will use Emet to push a hard-line approach to the peace process.

On the other hand, some right-wingers were rankled by the hiring of Itamar Rabinovich – a former Israeli ambassador to the United States who is closely associated with the peace process – to head up Emet’s Tel Aviv office.

Rabinovich is still searching for a director for Emet’s U.S. office, and a governing board is now being assembled.

Some right-wingers fear Emet will promote the idea that peace talks should resume under new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon where they left off under Barak – with President Clinton’s proposals, which included the division of Jerusalem.

Both Clinton and Barak pronounced those offers dead after the Palestinians rejected them and the Israeli and American leaders left office.

Steinhardt and Bronfman referred all queries to Abramson, who refused to comment.

A spokesman for the Abramson Foundation, Joe Yohlin, said “any speculation” about the think tank would be “premature.”

It is unclear exactly what the Emet will do, and the principals’ reluctance to talk has raised eyebrows.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, some Israeli diplomats have taken a more sober approach.

“Whoever is willing to put their efforts into” hasbarah, “to improve the general understanding of what the situation is all about, is welcome,” said one diplomatic source in Jerusalem, who did not want to be identified.

“Sometimes when there are more doing it, there’s competition,” the source said. “But the principle of cooperation and sharing the burden is much more important than who is doing what to the other.”

If there’s one thing American Jewish leaders agree on, it’s that Israel needs help with its hasbarah.

The Palestinians gained the high ground early in the conflict, painting themselves as oppressed, rock-throwing victims of brutal and heavily armed Israeli troops.

It took a little while for the Palestinians’ self-portrayal as “peaceful protesters” to be exposed as a partial truth. But although the media now reports more accurately on Palestinian tactics, Jewish observers lament that Israel has not capitalized further on Arafat’s diplomatic intransigence and his resort to violence and terror.

Opinions differ as to why the Foreign Ministry has had difficulty getting Israel’s view across. Some say it’s arrogance or incompetence, some that Israel places a low priority on hasbarah or that it’s hampered by endemic anti- Israel bias in the media.

Others say Israel simply doesn’t understand what messages will move an American audience – and no one knows the American media market better than American Jews.

“Even if your product or service is good, you still need advertising to let the world know it,” said Morton Klein, president of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America.

Klein said there is a need for an outfit like Emet, but objects to the choice of Rabinovich.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, also indicated his support for an organization like Emet.

But he wondered whether Emet would discredit itself by defending Israel in every circumstance.

What if Israeli soldiers commit atrocities, for example, or if Sharon decides to expand Jewish settlements, which much of the world considers provocative?

“An effective P.R. will say ‘This is a mistake, we accept it, we don’t try to excuse it, but we have to look at the broader message,’ ” Yoffie said. “Will this group be able to say this, or will it offer a public relations that will be rigid and propagandistic?”

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