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Israel shines its PR act

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NEW YORK, Aug. 7 (JTA) — With image almost as important in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle as the actual fighting on the ground, American Jewish activists note with approval the strides Israel’s public relations machine has made.

Criticism of Israel’s PR response to the violent Palestinian uprising rose earlier this year until Israel hired two New York public relations firms. Jewish philanthropists even proposed creating a permanent, Israel-specific PR agency.

Today, though, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and its embassies are using e-mail and the Internet to disseminate facts and opinion more quickly and efficiently.

Smooth-talking spokesmen like Alon Pinkas, Israel’s consul general in New York, take to the airwaves with greater frequency to make Israel’s case.

Spokeswomen like Deputy Defense Minister Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff, the daughter of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, gradually are elbowing aside the gruff, English-challenged generals who often have been charged with taking Israel’s message to the world.

Still, shortcomings persist, and errors are committed.

Take the Aug. 1 assault on Hamas headquarters in Nablus.

It took several hours after the world media began beaming images of the Israeli helicopter attack — which killed six Hamas members, plus two Palestinian children — before the Israel Defense Force issued a statement. When it did, it was a doozy:

“The Palestinian establishment media is devoting her main broadcasting from the morning to intensive dealing to the assassination in Nabulas (sic) and increasing in significant way the dosage and the sort of the incitement broadcasting, the media also started to broadcast national songs in very high frequency.”

So read the first “sentence” of the release, according to a story in the Jerusalem Post.

In the process, the release misspelled the name of the targeted city; used the “assassination” terminology that Israeli leaders have gone to great pains to avoid; and neglected to offer condolences for the innocent blood spilled.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” Ra’anan Gissin, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s foreign press spokesman, told the Post. “I will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The pro-Palestinian sympathy the incident stirred highlights Israel’s failure to convince the world that its assault on terrorist groups like Hamas is justified, Jewish observers say.

Palestinian propaganda efforts aside, it also underscores the need for quick-thinking, English-speaking Israeli experts in “hasbarah” — a Hebrew term that means explanation or propaganda — who are able to spin a given situation before the Palestinians and the world media define it for them.

An Aug. 3 editorial in The Jerusalem Post called for an investment in PR planning and professionalism to match the effort given to military actions.

“The missiles that can pinpoint a single window on the third floor of a building may be ‘smart,’ but the information campaign that should accompany such an operation has been clumsy by comparison,” the Post wrote.

Changes must be made soon, observers say.

Recently, the hasbarah campaign waged by Israeli officials and their U.S. advocates has been thrown another curveball — efforts challenging the conventional wisdom of what happened at and after the Camp David summit in July 2000.

The basic narrative, propagated by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Clinton, was this: Barak offered far-reaching concessions to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Arafat rejected them and offered no alternatives of his own, and the Palestinians then resorted to violence to try to squeeze from Israel concessions they failed to win at the bargaining table.

Now, however, analyses in such publications as The New York Times and The New York Review of Books cite missteps by all three sides, seeming to imply that all parties to the summit share the blame for its failure.

The danger of that conclusion, Jewish leaders say, is that if it becomes the new conventional wisdom it may erode whatever support exists for Israel’s claim that it is acting in self-defense against Palestinian aggression.

Moreover, there is concern that the American public, not to mention much of the world, may begin to consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as intractable as the war in Bosnia, where all sides are equally bad — and where no one deserves international sympathy.

In response, Israel’s American defenders have swung into action.

Pundits and analysts are churning out articles and emails.

In the Aug. 13 edition of U.S. News & World Report, publisher Mortimer Zuckerman — the new chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — opens his piece “A Surfeit of Cynicism” with the following question and answer: “How much longer will the violence persist in the Middle East? As long as lies are believed and responsibility is evaded.”

Barak himself recently has appeared on television, opinion pages, a think-tank speech and a New York Times interview to reiterate his version of events.

Other U.S. Jewish leaders say they are redoubling efforts to arm grass- roots activists with fresh “talking points” to lobby opinion-shapers such as journalists and politicians.

Studies indicate that Americans — both Jews and non-Jews — have less and less knowledge and understanding of historical context, both in general and about the Middle East conflict specifically.

“No one is suggesting that Barak and Clinton were flawless, but to say they’ve all made mistakes doesn’t mean they’re equally culpable,” said Martin Raffel, associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “The Palestinians are fundamentally responsible for the violence, they made the decision to respond with violence rather than negotiations, and everything over the past 10 months starts from there.”

Nevertheless, activists appear resigned to the fact that Israel always will face an uphill PR battle in what appears to much of the world to be a David vs. Goliath struggle.

Despite the Palestinians’ widespread use of guns, mortars and other weapons, television images continue to portray Palestinian civilians confronting heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

Also, American journalistic style and the news cycle dictate that the freshest information leads a story. In the case of the Mideast, that usually means that the Israeli action comes first, followed by mention of the Palestinian attack that — reportedly, the stories point out — provoked it.

Still, some Israelis, like Pinkas, express confidence that “the truth” will win out.

The revisionist history “is not credible, it’s not believable,” Pinkas told JTA. “There’s the truth, and everything else is interpretation. The truth is about the forest; revisionism is about dissecting the trees.”

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