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Note to Israel’s spin doctors: It’s the policies, not the words

To win back the support of disillusioned American Jews, Israel must take real steps to end the occupation

US pollster and message-maven Frank Luntz has long preached the idea that Israel could transform its deteriorating image, especially among US progressives, if it only changed the words it uses.

In an interview with Times of Israel Sunday following publication of a poll showing that “Democratic elites” in the United States were increasingly critical of Israel, Luntz argued that Israel’s “messaging” has to be different if that lost ground is to be regained. “Obviously, policy has something to do with it, but the messaging is critical,” he said.

I would humbly suggest that he has that sentence exactly the wrong way around. A more accurate way to put it would be, “Obviously the messaging has something to do with it, but policy is critical.”

This insistence on words is at the heart of Israel’s hasbara delusion. There are people out there, including in Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who truly believe that if Israel finds the right images and the right words in the right order, it can change the way people think about it without any need to change its policies.

It can continue to build settlements and to control the lives of millions of Palestinians through military occupation and nobody will care — if only it finds the right words.

According to this logic, to win back the hearts and minds of American liberals, Israel should emphasize its social justice and human rights. Of course, those who suggest such a strategy see no contradiction in Israel trying to do this while simultaneously proposing laws that constrict the ability of human rights and other NGOs to operate in Israel.

As the recent annual human rights report issued by the State Department made clear, Israel does remain a solid democracy — within the Green Line. But on the other side of the Green Line, the situation is very different.

The report described “excessive use of force against civilians, including killings; abuse of Palestinian detainees, particularly during arrest and interrogation; austere and overcrowded detention facilities; improper use of security detention procedures; demolition and confiscation of Palestinian property; limitations on freedom of expression, assembly, and association; and severe restrictions on Palestinians’ internal and external freedom of movement.”

So-called messaging experts also tell us that the “words that work best” among Democrats are those to the effect that “we should be encouraging more communication and cooperation, not less. We should be encouraging more diplomacy and discussion, not less.”

However, messages about encouraging more diplomacy will likely fall flat at a time when Israel appears to be uninterested in diplomacy. Instead, it is continuing to build settlements, avoiding any opportunity to enter into peace talks, putting forward as pre-conditions it knows the other side cannot possibly accept and continually disparaging and belittling its supposed partner in the negotiations. And of course,  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that there will be no Palestinian state on his watch.

Another great message, according to Luntz, is: “Despite the ongoing conflict with Gaza, Israel still donates tens of millions in humanitarian aid to Palestinians and opens its hospitals to treat them.” This is true but unfortunately once you start talking about health conditions in the Gaza Strip, the conversation is unlikely to rebound to Israel’s advantage – not when 95 percent of the water is undrinkable, 57 percent of the population is subject to “food insecurity,” and where stocks of many essential drugs and medical equipment have run out, according to the World Health Organization.

 The fact is that tens of millions of Americans who are progressive in their political outlook and generally vote Democrat retain a warm place in their hearts for Israel. It is misguided to suggest that Democrats are anti-Israel. The majority deeply support the ideals expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and are committed to Israel’s security and its right to exist and to defend itself.  Many such people are sincerely searching for a way to support Israel without also supporting all of the policies of the current Israeli government.

But this government and its allies in the right-wing American circles make doing so very difficult by insisting on an all or nothing approach that says, “If you are not for us 100% of the time, you are against us.”

If supporting Israel entails supporting the occupation, Israel will find itself more and more isolated. What it needs is a strategy and realistic policies to find a way to reach out to its Palestinian neighbors to end the conflict — not just empty words.

About the Author
Alan Elsner, a former Reuters journalist and author, is Vice President for Communications at J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group. He is the author of four books including two novels. Elsner is a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who lives in Rockville Maryland. His posts at Reuters included Jerusalem correspondent, Chief Nordic Correspondent, State Dept. correspondent, chief U.S. political correspondent and U.S. national correspondent.
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