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After Israel’s major attack on Gaza in December 2008, it has faced
criticism around the world. This
criticism escalated after the publication of the Goldstone Report in 2009
that found evidence of war
crimes in the attack. This year, Israel’s security establishment declared a
full out PR war on
criticism that it identifies as “delegitimization” of Israel. Israel’s most
influential think tank, the Reut
Institute, developed the strategy for how to fight this PR war. It published
a massive report in
preparation for this year’s Herzeliya conference entitled “Building a
political firewall: against Israel’s
delegitimization” which advocated that the Israeli intelligence agencies
establish special units to
collect information on critics of Israel. The report also advocates the
establishment of pro-Israel
networks in “hubs of delegitimization” which it named as London, Paris,
Madrid, Toronto, and the
Bay Area. The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky spoke to Morton A. Klein, the
president of the Zionist
Organization of America who talks about how American lobby groups
help Israel fight its PR war.

Story Transcript

UNIDENTIFIED, FOX NEWS WATCH: The consulate general from Israel, who’s in New York, told on Monday there’s two wars out there that Israel’s�that we’re focusing on: the PR war, the war with the press; and then the war on the country. And it’s very difficult to win both.

LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER, TRNN: Indeed, Israel’s self-declared PR war is now raging on. According to Israeli officials, it is their response to condemnation of Israel. After the attack on Gaza in December 2008, Israel faced criticism around the world. This criticism escalated after September 2009, when the UN’s fact-finding mission to Gaza found evidence of war crimes in the attack. Israel refused to cooperate with the UN on the report. Instead, this year the security establishment declared a full out war against criticism, which it branded the delegitimization of Israel. Several think tanks claim the source of the problem is an orchestrated global campaign by terrorists and human rights groups alike to delegitimize Israel. The threat does not only come from abroad; it also emerges from within. And this, says Sarah Kass of the Avi Chai Foundation, puts too much focus on Israel. She writes in The Jerusalem Post that Israel must abandon what she calls its “whining” PR and instead go on the offensive. What would a public relations offensive for Israel look like? “[U]niformly, unequivocally, relentlessly, and without sparing the gory details, focus on the enemy.” The enemy, according to Israel’s most influential think tank, the Reut Institute, is almost everyone who’s critical. In preparation for this year’s Herzliya Conference, the institute published a massive report entitled Building a Political Firewall Against Israel’s Delegitimization.

UNIDENTIFIED: Every place has a brand. Israel has a brand, too. A brand can be a very strong brand and can be a detriment. We set out to explore the question: if Paris is about romance, then Israel is about what? And what we discovered was very interesting. We discovered that universally Israel’s DNA is about the conflict, and the context within which Israel is being perceived is all about bad news�whether you agree with Israeli policies or not; it’s irrelevant.

TARACHANSKY: The conference is an annual gathering of Israel’s security and military elite. Here the report was taken with the utmost seriousness.

UNIDENTIFIED: I agree that our main problem in the world today has become a legitimacy problem. It’s not that people do not think that our policies are right; it’s the people that question whether we should exist or continue to exist in the first place. We’ll be, more and more, becoming the South Africa of the 21st century.

TARACHANSKY: The report’s writers identified cities around the world where human rights groups have particularly strong support and isolated them. They urged, Israel must be “focusing on the hubs of delegitimization�such as London, as well as potentially Paris, Toronto, Madrid, and the Bay area�and on undermining its catalysts.” It also says that “[t]he hearts and minds of the elites�individuals with influence, leadership, or authority�are the battleground between Israel and its foes.” To do this, the report says, “[i]t takes a network to fight a network.” And American lobbyists for Israel have taken this instruction seriously. I spoke to the president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Morton Klein. He argues that American Jews must help Israel in its PR war.

MORTON KLEIN, PRESIDENT, ZIONIST ORGANIZATION OF AMERICA: Well, of course, this is a very serious time of the delegitimization and demonization of Israel, where Israel, throughout the world, in almost all quarters [snip] made to look like they are the new Nazis. It is a shocking development when you have one of the most human rights loving countries in the world, Israel, who gives equal rights to all of its citizens, and yet the world acts as if Israel is horrible on human rights, and ignores the Arab world, who truly is horrible on human rights. Now you have people in the mainstream harming Israel’s image, and it is one of the most serious problems, because this type of incitement against a people has been a predictor of murder and even genocide throughout history. So this is a very serious issue that we work on every day of the week. And I’m sorry to say Israel is not doing a good job.

TARACHANSKY: Klein’s efforts, however, have been lost on American young Jews, at least according to this research paper [Beyond Distancing] published by Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman for the Jewish Identity Project. The research concludes that “[i]n sharp contrast to their parents and grandparents, non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders. . . . [T]hese days, we find instances of genuine alienation, as many more Jews, especially young people, profess a near-total absence of any positive feelings towards Israel.” But is all criticism of Israel equivalent to delegitimization? To answer this, Eran Shayshon, an Israeli analyst at the Reut Institute who was central in the writing of the report [Building a Political Firewall Against Israel’s Delegitimization], identified four categories of criticism which he believes do qualify: challenging the two-state solution, promoting a double standard, demonizing Israel, or re-examining the 1948 war, the result of which was the creation of Israel. According to this analysis, not only do many Israeli historians and most Israeli human rights groups become automatic delegitimizers, but so do Israel’s strongest supporters. The Zionist Organization of America, for example, is a strong opponent to the two-state solution.


TARACHANSKY: In 2007, in your speech to Shalom TV on the ZOA annual dinner, you said the two-state solution is basically a 23rd Arab state solution.

KLEIN: Just by saying two-state solution, you imply an equivalence, that Israel’s getting something: they’re getting a state; the Arabs are getting a state. Israel’s already a state [snip] which we at ZOA think would be simply another terrorist state and a disaster under these circumstances.


TARACHANSKY: Sarah Kass’s advice that Israeli PR go on the offensive seems to have been given an excellent test run when Israeli commandos attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. While the Israeli government bombarded media with their images and versions of the events, the army confiscated all the materials of those who were actually on board. At the same time, Israeli think tanks likened the activists to terrorists and called the flotilla a Hamas-allied effort. The deaths on board, however, still led to condemnation around the world, which inside Israel was blamed on poor PR. Antony Lerman of The Guardian wrote that the focus on PR distracts from the main issues of the blockade on Gaza, the Israeli attack on the flotilla, and the deaths on board: “The fact that so much attention is paid in Israel to the PR and media implications … is surely deeply troubling evidence, albeit not exactly new, of the lack of a moral compass among the country’s leadership.” But the Israeli government says it’s all about misunderstanding. To enlist support in its PR war, Israel once again conscripted its entire population. This campaign, entitled Mazbirim, or “Explaining”, was aired on Israeli televisions before the summer, urging all Israelis who plan to travel abroad to paint a better picture of Israel.

[clip: TV advertisement]

TARACHANSKY: But the PR war won’t be won that easily. The Reut Institute report concludes that the Israeli military and government must invest significant resources in the effort. Their conclusions focus on increasing Israel’s intelligence-gathering on human rights groups and so-called delegitimizers, and developing a mode of operations to preempt and respond to delegitimization; collecting intelligence on delegitimizers, and making it available to those who will advocate for Israel; creating new units dealing with delegitimization in the Mossad, Shabak, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Security Council, and other relevant bodies. Their efforts are then coupled by a series of legal amendments, put forward mostly by the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which is headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. These 14 amendments, called by Israeli NGOs “antidemocratic”, will make criticism of Israel from within even harder. But some say repression won’t work. After the report’s publication, the Jewish Voice for Peace, a US-based group, published this response on its MuzzleWatch website. It predicted that “promoting these kinds of war-like responses against human rights groups will backfire and turn the most casual critics of Israeli policies into supporters of much harsher measures. This, after all, is the primary legacy of Cast Lead, Israel�s massive attack on Gaza�s entrapped population.” But Morton Klein believes the problem is that Israel has actually become too soft.

KLEIN: Well, I’ll tell you, Israel acting in a weak manner and being weakened by the pressures that they’ve endured around the world and not confronting these pressures has made more people think that that’s�you know, Israel is just a paper tiger; they’re not really so strong that we could necessarily depend on them for any military action or involvement or any help from them. I think Israel’s policy of appeasement and concessions has led the world to lose respect for Israel.

End of Transcript

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Morton A. Klein is the President of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the oldest pro-Israel group In the U.S. He is a member of the Executive Committee of AIPAC. Klein has delivered hundreds of lectures and is a frequent guest on television and radio networks.