Sunday, May 27, 2007

Does Israeli policymaking work like American Idol?
By Arlene Kushner
May 24, 2007

On May 8, American pollster Stanley Greenberg spoke before the Israeli Knesset's Subcommittee on Foreign and Public Relations. In a subsequent statement to The Jerusalem Post he shared his message: "There is strong support for Israel in the United States. It is very important to remind people that Israel is committed to peace. That commitment is important to Americans viewing Israel as an ally, and for Europeans seeing Israel as a moderate country." This was not Greenberg's first meeting with the subcommittee. According to chair Amira Dotan, he "makes recommendations to the Knesset and Foreign Ministry" when he is in Israel. An American pollster making recommendations to the Knesset? One does not have to dig too deeply to see what is going on. Greenberg's poll was commissioned by The Israel Project (TIP). On its website TIP describes itself as: "an international [i.e., American and Israeli] non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom and peace. The Israel Project provides journalists, leaders and opinion-makers accurate information about Israel. The Israel Project is not related to any government or government agency." That last sentence -- which I believe is a recent addition -- may be technically accurate, but only technically.

At the end of March, I read a report released by TIP entitled: "Israel seeks peace through two-state solution, Hamas continues to embrace terror." I saw this as misleading in two respects. Most significantly, the statement "Hamas continues to embrace terror" leads directly and inexorably to the conclusion that Fatah -- and Abbas -- do not embrace terror. But factually this is not the case, as an examination of Abbas's actions and his words in Arabic to his own people makes clear. What is more, it seemed to me inaccurate, as well, to say that "Israel seeks peace through two-state solution," for a significant portion of the populace is now exceedingly mistrustful of the idea of a Palestinian state.

It is the Olmert government, with disregard for public will, that promotes a "two-state solution." I saw the whitewash of Abbas in this report as serving the ideological goals of Olmert, while failing to address the reality of Fatah as a terror organization. This from an organization that purports to provide "accurate information." And so, I wrote to Calev Ben David, who is director of TIP's Jerusalem office. And I said, "The proper title for a report of yours would be 'Israel is prepared for peace negotiations when a true partner emerges.' "I know you're toeing the line of the Israeli government, but you are doing the people of Israel a disservice, in my opinion, by not being more forthright regarding the situation. We are at a critical juncture now?with regard to the long term security of Israel and concessions that may be demanded of us that put us at existential risk." In replying, Ben David wrote, "You are right: TIP is following after the policy of the democratically-elected government. "?If this government -- or the next one -- decides that Abbas is not a suitable figure to dialogue with, rest assured that we will be on the front line of explaining why he isn't." So it's clear where TIP is coming from. Ben David was describing the approach of the current government: As long as we intend to engage with Abbas, there's no need to explain why his terrorist connections make him an unsuitable candidate for dialogue. It is also clear where Greenberg is coming from.

In the fall of 2005, TIP held a press conference in Jerusalem featuring his most recently completed poll. Greenberg provided figures that purportedly demonstrated that the American public's approval of Israel increased after the (then) recently completed disengagement from Gaza. The implied message here was that the Sharon government had done a good thing to pull people out of Gush Katif, as it enhanced Israel's international standing. I was present, and may have been the only one there who caught the bias in Greenberg's polling technique. He explained that for purposes of the poll they sought persons knowledgeable about the issues -- people who read the NY Times or watch CNN. But these media sources are left-wing and obviously touted the disengagement as a good thing! Not a word about people who watch Fox news, or read the Washington Times, or the NY Sun. Not a word about striking a balance. A population skewed to the left had been polled. But in any event, the underlying premise was wrong: That the correctness of a policy can be determined by polling international public opinion. Which brings us to the current situation: Israel wages a constant uphill public relations battle. And so it is understandable that Israeli officials might be eager to secure favorable opinion ratings in the US. But the current practice of receiving "advice" on what would increase favorable opinion is a disaster. It promotes an approach that is precisely the inverse of what should be taking place.

An autonomous nation cannot responsibly determine its own most appropriate course of action by shaping it in accordance with what would please an international public. Yet this is what seems to be happening. Not only are we witnessing the phenomenon of a pollster "making recommendations" to Israel's legislators, we must keep in mind that this pollster, commissioned by TIP, has an agenda, as is perhaps inevitable. In delivering his message -- "It is very important to remind people that Israel is committed to peace" -- Greenberg is setting the ground for the Olmert approach to continued talks with Abbas. You want the world to like you? You must show good faith by doing this. It's what they are looking for. Imagine if Greenberg had done a very different poll and had come to tell the Knesset, for example, that the American public is afraid of Islamists and respects those who stand strong against them, or that a majority of Americans think Abbas is not a fit partner for peace. Perhaps these things are true. If Greenberg has polled Americans on these issues, he isn't telling us. And he certainly isn't delivering a message that strengthens Israel's resolve against terrorists.

A nation with a healthy respect for its own legitimate rights and needs, instead of attempting to devise policy to fit public opinion, would take a very different approach: Yes, we hope the world will like us, but first we must shape policies that are warranted and in the national best interest. Does this wipe away the need for a strong public relations effort? Not at all. Instead it assigns the appropriate ancillary role to public relations (and polling procedures). That role is an important one: Making the case for Israel and her policy decisions, and making certain that the message is being assimilated and properly understood. There is no lack of work to be done in this regard. The Western world simply does not get it, in good measure because it not being given the facts: - The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is existential and not about borders. - Fatah has terrorist connections. - A strong Israel advances American interests. - Iran already has influence with Palestinian groups in the West Bank. - Conciliation is interpreted by the Arabs as weakness. - If Israel is diminished, the Islamists will be emboldened. - Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not reduce tensions elsewhere in the Mid-East. These are messages that the Olmert government, for its own reasons, is not delivering. How different Israel's public relations situation might be if they were delivered.

Appeared first in Israel Insider

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