Israel Project ‘makeover’ shows how U.S. stands between Israel and total isolation

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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The Israel Project
A photo of an Israel Project panel (The Israel Project/Flickr)

President Barack Obama’s big speech to youth in Jerusalem warned of Israel’s growing isolation around the world. But the image of Israel remains overwhelmingly positive in the U.S.–and Israel advocacy groups want to keep it that way.

A profile of The Israel Project’s (TIP) “makeover,” as the Jewish Daily Forward put it yesterday, highlights how that mainstream Israel lobby group is putting all of its eggs in the American basket. The group has closed down its international offices, and are instead focusing intently on shaping U.S. opinion and making sure that Americans’ high support for Israel stays that way.

The Israel Project seems to be admitting that Israel’s image around the world is shot irreparably; its colonial settlement project and daily human rights abuses don’t do it any favors with most people. The Arab world’s continuing changes could further shake Israel’s regional position as hegemon. But it’s the U.S., the reigning global superpower, that really matters for The Israel Project.

Here’s more from the Forward’s profile, authored by Nathan Guttman, of The Israel Project head Josh Block:

From traditional hasbara — the Hebrew term for viewpoint promotion —focused on educating the press, TIP expanded to a global operation working in Europe, China, India, Latin America and Russia, and hosting an extensive Arabic-language operation. [Founder of TIP Jennifer Laszlo] Mizrahi saw the group’s Mandarin and Arabic operations as particularly crucial to the future of pro-Israel advocacy. The group also spent $1 million a year on polling, hiring top political pollsters to examine messaging on Israel and to gauge international public opinion.

Much of this is now gone. TIP board members ultimately rejected Mizrahi’s view of China as a key arena in the battle to influence public opinion on Israel. TIP does still maintain its program in Arabic, which is based in Israel and will soon expand its publications. Funding for this program is provided mainly by one TIP donor, New York businessman Richard Perry. But beyond that board members have stressed the need to “go back to the basics” of the organization’s mission. By the time Block took over, TIP had completed the process of shutting down its other international operations in favor of focusing on the United States.

Polling numbers on how Israel is viewed around the world and in the U.S. paint two very different pictures, so TIP is on the ball on this front.

For example, an annual poll released by the British Broadcasting Corporation last May reveals that 50 percent of those interviewed globally view Israel negatively–an uptick of three points from the last year the poll was taken. In both China and India, rising powers where TIP closed offices in, the image of Israel is also negative (in China more so). The vast majority of Europeans also view Israel badly. European diplomats have started talking about sanctions on Israel over its settlement policy, though this talk has yet to translate into concrete action.

In the U.S., the disgust with Israeli conduct doesn’t translate. A Gallup poll released ahead of Obama’s trip to the Middle East shows that Americans overwhelmingly side with Israel:

As President Barack Obama prepares to visit Israel, the Palestinian West Bank, and Jordan next week — his first trip to the region as president — Americans’ sympathies lean heavily toward the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64% vs. 12%. Americans’ partiality for Israel has consistently exceeded 60% since 2010; however, today’s 64% ties the highest Gallup has recorded in a quarter century, last seen in 1991 during the Gulf War. At that time, slightly fewer than today, 7%, sympathized more with the Palestinians.

The Gallup poll is a stark reminder of how much work advocates for Palestinian rights in the U.S. have ahead of them. But those advocates are up against well-oiled and funded groups like The Israel Project, which are doubling down on protecting Israel in the U.S.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist and graduate student at New York University's Near East Studies and Journalism programs. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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