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Israeli Officials Welcome P.r. Plan, but Differ on Need to Discredit Arafat

August 21, 2002
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Israeli officials are notoriously loath to learn from outsiders — but they have been deeply impressed by an American study of Israel’s public relations needs in the United States, and say they intend to carry out most of its recommendations.

Among them: Be less confrontational and more hopeful in television appearances; don’t trash Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat or the Palestinian people; and, whenever possible, stress Israel’s desire for peace, its vibrant democracy and the values it shares with America.

Steven Cohen, a professor at the Melton Centre at Hebrew University, puts the strategy this way: “When you’re speaking for Israel, say the word ‘peace’ four times, like the other side says ‘occupation’ four times.”

The study is part of the Israel P.R. Project led by Democratic Party consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, with polling and analysis by Democratic consultant Stanley Greenberg and Republican strategist Frank Luntz.

Mizrahi and Greenberg came to Israel in late July to present their findings, and were followed two weeks later by Luntz. All three met officials in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the Army Spokesman’s Office — and all three, officials say, made a powerful impression.

“I have been working in this job for two years now and I say this is a huge contribution, because it gives us a quality of feedback we have never had before,” says Gidon Meir, the deputy director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “It will enable us to build a more professional campaign.”

Until now, Israeli P.R. has not been able to afford the professionals who could give it this kind of advice, Meir said. His annual public relations budget at the Foreign Ministry is only $9 million, and last year he turned down an offer for similar research because he simply could not afford the $1.2 million cost, Meir said.

Already, Meir said, his ministry is reshaping the way it packages Israeli government policies to the media.

“We are discussing the suffering of the Palestinians, the shared values of democracy, the fight against terror,” Meir said. “And we are always emphasizing the light at the end of the tunnel. Even after a major terror attack, we are asking, ‘Are the Palestinians better off now than they were two years ago’ ” before the intifada began?

Meir agrees with most of the consultants’ recommendations — but not all.

“If we talk terror, terror, terror all the time, and don’t add hope at the end, maybe we are missing the mark,” he says. “We must tell the Americans that we and the Palestinians are suffering because they don’t want peace. If they did, we would welcome them with open arms, as we did Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat and Jordan’s King Hussein.”

But Israeli officials balk at stopping their negative campaign against Arafat. They point out that discrediting Arafat is not just a P.R. gambit, but a central element of Israeli policy.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, they say, really believes that as long as Arafat is around there is no chance of peace with the Palestinians, and that Israel’s biggest foreign policy success since the intifada began two years ago has been convincing the Bush administration that Arafat must go.

The foundation for the change in administration policy was laid by a P.R. effort launched last December, Meir says, followed up by a file on Arafat put together by Cabinet minister Dan Naveh.

It was sealed by the revelation of Arafat’s involvement in the Karine-A arms smuggling affair in January and the documents found by Israeli intelligence in Arafat’s Ramallah Headquarters in April, implicating him directly in financing terrorist groups.

But as the Palestinians desperately try to revive Arafat’s fortunes, Israel must continue explaining why he must be replaced and Palestinian institutions reformed to allow a genuine peace process, officials say.

Indeed, Sharon’s P.R. people claim that Labor party leaders such as Foreign Minister Shimon Peres — and the latest leadership hopeful, Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna — who indicate that they would talk to Arafat are undermining this policy at a critical time, when only a few more weeks or months are needed for its final success.

The Arafat issue aside, the key problem in Israeli hasbarah, or public relations, has been its narrative of peacemakers fighting terrorists against the Palestinian narrative of freedom fighters opposing occupiers. That has led to Israel’s emphasis on the nihilistic and immoral nature of Palestinian terror and the duplicity of the Palestinian leadership.

In many focus groups, however, this leads to a kind of “moral equivalence,” a blurred perception of violence and suffering on both sides and an inability to distinguish between them, the American group says: Both sides are seen as aggressors, both as victims, both as having justified claims.

The insight that most impressed the Israelis, Meir says, is that to break this P.R. deadlock, Israel should stress the uniqueness of its relationship with the American people. That is what will make Israel, rather than the Palestinians, special in the collective American consciousness.

Despite Meir’s enthusiasm, the plan was received less warmly in Sharon’s office.

Sharon spokesman Ra’anan Gissin called polls “subjects of some circumspection,” and compared public relations to “cosmetics.”

“In order to have good hasbarah, Israel has to stand by its birthright. We failed because we neglected to explain that Jews have a birthright to live here, not just a security need,” Gissin told JTA. “But our neighbors haven’t recognized our right to live here.”

Ironically, Luntz says the historical message is precisely one that Israel should play down.

In tests where viewers used a dial to indicate their reactions to a television advertisement, the needle sank upon mention of the Jews’ ancient connection to the Land of Israel. That’s because it makes viewers think the Israeli- Palestinian conflict is a timeless blood feud that will never be resolved, Luntz said.

When the ad stressed Israel’s multiculturalism and democracy, response ratings shot up.

Privately, several sources said Gissin’s confrontational media appearances were singled out for criticism, with Cohen saying Gissin has been described as “bellicose.”

Gissin doubted that all Israeli spokespersons would accept the new P.R. directive.

“Israel is a democracy, a complex political system, and you can’t organize your P.R. like in other types of regimes — you can’t speak in one voice,” he said.

But Meir, who is responsible for public relations in the Foreign Ministry and often appears on camera to give Israel’s perspective, said he intends to implement the American strategy.

“I asked Frank Luntz to take all his findings and summarize them on a page or two, and we will distribute them to all our spokespeople,” he said.

The coming weeks and months will tell if it makes any difference.

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