Consultant uses political savvy for Israel

Democratic political consultant Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi. ()

Democratic political consultant Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi. ()

WASHINGTON, Aug. 19 (JTA) — As a political consultant for both overseas elections and U.S. Democratic candidates, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi has a pretty keen eye for an image problem. On maternity leave in 2000, as her colleagues worked on the U.S. presidential election and the ensuing vote recount in Florida, Mizrahi noticed that Israel was not being perceived positively in the United States. Israel continued to project a more positive image than the Palestinian Authority, but it seemed to Mizrahi that Israel was being seen as opposed to Middle East peace and as an instigator, not a victim, of the region’s violence. Almost two years later, after developing a team of Jewish political consultants and pollsters, Mizrahi has formulated a thorough message strategy to change American perceptions of Israel. The strategy has been circulating for the past month among American Jewish leaders and Israeli officials Started with $50,000 of her family’s foundation money, the Israel PR Campaign has begun seeking support from Jewish groups to create television ads geared toward “opinion elites” nationwide. Some say Mizrahi’s project has been able to do what other groups only dreamed about — create a formal strategy to enhance American perceptions of Israel. The strategy is focused on television ads, which are expected to launch early next month, and training for Israeli and U.S. Jewish spokespersons. Gathering the information and getting Jewish communal leaders on board has been a bit of a struggle, Mizrahi says. In the early months of the intifada, Mizrahi found herself complaining to family, friends and Jewish leaders about Israel’s negative image. Others, however, were focused on more practical needs such as bulletproof ambulances and security zones around senior citizen centers. “A lot of people feel that image is fluff, like plastic surgery,” she said. But given her experience on political and advocacy campaigns, Mizrahi said she understood that negative views could result in larger problems, such as anti-Israel policies from the new White House. For their part, Jewish leaders say they weren’t ignoring Mizrahi’s ideas, but that she wasn’t saying anything significantly different from others who also were theorizing about how to paint Israel in a better light. Some say they wondered whether Mizrahi was motivated primarily by self-promotion or by real concern for Israel. But many groups now say Mizrahi has proved to be one of the first to develop a thorough plan to improve Israel’s image, and they are eager to listen. Unable to get funding for her project last spring, Mizrahi turned to the one place she knew she could get the resources — her own political strategy company and the charitable trust she and her husband have established. She supplemented that with money from other private family foundations whose representatives she met at a conference of the Jewish Funders Network. She recruited some of the biggest campaign names in Washington: Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist who has worked for former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster for Public Opinion Strategies; and Stanley Greenberg, President Clinton’s former pollster who worked extensively with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. “I wanted it to be the best and the brightest,” Mizrahi said. While some of the consultants and pollsters are ideological opposites, they have joined in the past to work for associations and corporations. But this was different, they said. “You’re dealing with a country under siege and you’re trying to help them. There are much bigger consequences than your standard political campaign,” said Patrick Lanne, research director for Public Opinion Strategies, who ran some of the focus groups for the Israel PR Campaign. The initial strategy was to affect the perception of Washington elites, and Mizrahi used the research data to create television ads in Washington that were funded by defense organizations such as the Center for Security Policy. The ads ran on Washington-area cable networks throughout the spring and summer, at a cost of $30,000 a week. The second round of polling, launched in early summer, looked at the general American population, with specific emphasis on American Jews, college students, African-Americans and “opinion elites.” The new results have been used to formulate talking points for both American and Israeli spokespeople, with Mizrahi’s team coaching spokespeople in both countries on effective media strategies. They also will be used to formulate a new series of ads that will air nationwide starting in September. For this, Mizrahi has garnered support from prominent Jewish groups such as the American Jewish Committee. She also hopes Hillel and other Jewish groups will use her plan to craft new message campaigns. Continuity in the message is crucial, she believes, because the main points may not have enough critical mass to get across if every Jewish group has a separate message. Jewish groups say it’s easier to join the PR campaign now that they have seen Mizrahi’s polling data. But while there is much anticipation for the ad campaign, there also is skepticism that it will really affect public opinion. Mizrahi says she believes she was able to put together a comprehensive workplan — and beat many Jewish organizations to the punch — because she followed the successful formula of some of her past political campaigns, while Jewish groups were venturing into unfamiliar waters. This time, however, she is working for a patron closer to home. “My son is the client,” says Mizrahi, who is three months pregnant with her second child. “When a Jew is not safe to walk in Jerusalem, give it 20 years and no Jew will be safe to walk the earth.” She hopes to expand the PR campaign to Europe, trying to tackle the roots of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias there. Her political consulting business has suffered because of her new activism, Mizrahi says, as she has not taken on many new clients. And though she is looking for someone to take over the project, she also is starting to realize that she may be in this for the long haul. “There is no Nov. 6,” says Mizrahi, referring to the day after Election Day, when the consultant’s work normally is finished. “There is no date where you win or lose, and I hate that. I like to win and I like to be done.”

NEXT STORY