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With Support for Israel Falling, Cabinet Pledges Stronger P.r. Effort

December 10, 2003
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Israel may be rebuilding a crucial weapon in its defense arsenal — P.R.

The Israeli Cabinet is reviewing a Foreign Ministry proposal to make public-relations fallout an integral part of regular debate about diplomatic and military measures, JTA has learned.

Gideon Meir, a deputy director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, told JTA that Cabinet Secretary Israel Maimon will convene a meeting of top officials of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office and the defense, finance and foreign ministries to consider a comprehensive plan to overhaul Israel’s P.R. efforts and its image abroad.

“This is a major change in the psychology of the Israeli government,” Meir told JTA.

Some think radical change cannot come swiftly enough for Israel — which, according to Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of the Israel Project, is losing the battle for American hearts and minds.

After three years of intense media coverage of the Palestinian intifada, Americans tired of the seemingly endless violence increasingly are neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said.

A November survey for the Israel Project by Neil Newhouse found that 62 percent of 800 registered voters said the United States should remain neutral in the conflict.

While she calls the result “frightening,” Laszlo Mizrahi said the survey found even more disturbing trends:

Forty-seven percent of Republicans said the United States should side with Israel in the Mideast conflict, a feeling shared by only 22 percent of Democrats. In contrast, 49 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of Democrats believe the United States should remain neutral.

At the same time, Americans are increasingly willing to draw moral parallels between Palestinian terrorism and Israel’s military responses, she said:

Forty-five percent of American voters say Israel “acts much like the terrorists it is fighting,” up from 39 percent in July.

“It’s three years of the same message over and over again — Israel is shown in the media as being the aggressor and an oppressor,” Laszlo Mizrahi said. “Eventually, people begin to believe it.”

The Israel Project has sounded similar warnings since its inception more than a year ago.

In the summer of 2002, for example, an Israel Project survey of U.S. opinion leaders found that 54 percent drew moral parallels between Israel and the Palestinians, while 42 percent remained neutral in the conflict.

This past July, a Gallup poll found that 32 percent of Americans believe the United States is too supportive of Israel, though that was down from 43 percent a year earlier.

Some Jewish leaders say they don’t see any weakening of U.S. government support for Israel — yet.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Bush administration and Congress remain solidly behind Israel.

Still, Hoenlein described the Israel Project’s poll as “an early-warning system” about public opinion, “one we take seriously.”

Since the group’s inception, Israel Project officials have tried to convince Israeli officials to reshape P.R. strategy to improve the Jewish state’s image abroad.

Some observers say the fault lies primarily with Israel’s failure to effectively manage news coverage, rather than the failure to win public approval for specific policies.

Some say Israel lacks the financial resources to launch a slicker P.R. campaign: The Foreign Ministry maintains only a $9 million budget, which Meir said is inadequate.

For example, there are 500 foreign correspondents based in Israel, but only a handful of Israeli officials tasked with answering their questions, Meir said.

Meir would not disclose how much more money Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom is seeking to bolster P.R. efforts, though he said officials recognize that more pressing budget items must take precedence as Israel weathers an economic downturn.

Still, Meir said the Cabinet’s decision Sunday to hear a draft report on the P.R. plan within 45 days signals a shift: The government is willing to consider how policy decisions impact Israel’s international image.

To that end, Meir prefers to drop the traditional Hebrew term for P.R., “hasbarah” — which loosely translates to “explanation” — in favor of “public diplomacy.”

“The word ‘hasbarah’ should disappear from our lexicon,” he said. “It has an apologetic connotation.”

Laszlo Mizrahi would go even further: She believes Israel should consider consolidating multiple military operations over several days into one operation so that they dominate just one news cycle.

Meir doubts that will happen, since “a democratically elected government makes policy” — in other words, the tail won’t wag the dog in Israel’s war on terrorism.

Others say the fault for Israel’s image lies at least partly with Israeli policy.

“You can explain settlement policy from 100 different points of view, but out in the real world, the fact that Israel continues to build settlements and illegal settlements are not taken down — the fact that this appears regularly in the press is a problem,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Yoffie said Israeli leaders have failed to spell out a vision for the future.

Meir and Laszlo Mizrahi also say Diaspora Jews can contribute more to improve Israel’s image.

Last week, Laszlo Mizrahi e-mailed the heads of major American Jewish organizations about the Israel Project’s latest poll, warning that American liberals and moderates are “starting to harden their hearts against Israel.”

The Israel Project would like to do more pro-Israel advertising, similar to a campaign earlier this year aimed at so- called “opinion elites,” legislators and journalists in the Washington area and voters nationwide.

Meir and Hoenlein agree that trouble signs are cropping up among the American left.

The Conference of Presidents has launched its own effort to boost Israel’s image, issuing a free daily news alert and increasing Israel trips for “opinion molders.”

Other groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee also are taking more lawmakers to Israel to see the situation firsthand.

Other efforts to help Israel also have surfaced. Israel21C, a group launched by Silicon Valley business leaders, aims to promote non-conflict news about Israel.

The American Jewish Congress recently hosted a workshop for Israeli spokespersons by P.R. maven Marco Greenberg.

Even Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has joined the fray with “The Case for Israel,” a book that rebuts many of the most common criticisms of the Jewish state in the manner of a court argument.

Still, the Israel Project found that when it comes to the average American Jew, much more can be done.

The November poll found that 52 percent of non-Jews have Jewish family or friends, but 74 percent of them haven’t been approached by their Jewish friends to discuss Israel this year.

The Israel Project recently published The Israel Project’s Guide to Proven Pro-Israel Communications to help American Jews make Israel’s case more often and more effectively.

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