How to Sell Americans on Israeli Settlements

How do you sell the American public on the idea that Israel has the right to maintain or even expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank? Be positive. Turn the issue away from settlements and toward peace. Invoke ethnic cleansing.

Those are three of the recommendations made by Frank Luntz, a political consultant and pollster, in an internal study he wrote for the Washington-based group The Israel Project (TIP) on effective ways to talk to Americans about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The 117-page study, titled The Israel Project's 2009 Global Language Dictionary, was commissioned by the nonprofit group, which aims to promote Israel's side of the story, and leaked to NEWSWEEK. It includes chapters with such titles as "How to Talk About Palestinian Self Government and Prosperity" and "The Language of Tackling a Nuclear Iran."

The report is strewn with bolded examples of "Words That Work" and "Words That Don't Work," alongside rhetorical tips such as "Don't talk about religion" and "No matter what you're asked, bridge to a productive pro-Israel message." Taken together, the 18 chapters offer a fascinating look at the way Israel and its supporters try to shape the public debate in their favor.

The full report can be viewed here.

Asked about the document, TIP's founder and president, Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrahi, told NEWSWEEK it was based on polling and work with focus groups and is used to formulate communications strategy. She said setting people straight about settlements is particularly important: "The idea that some have in Washington that unilaterally putting pressure on Israel to make concessions on settlements is going to lead to peace is unfortunately shortsighted."

The settlement issue has been the single biggest source of friction between the United States and Israel since Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister in March. President Obama has said he wants to see a complete halt to housing construction in Jewish communities of the West Bank. About 300,000 Israelis live in settlements in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem; Palestinians regard the area as the heart of their future state.

Luntz, who has advised mostly Republican candidates, appears to have tested a variety of messages on the focus groups. He concludes that "public opinion is hostile to the settlements," even among supporters of Israel. "Nothing is tougher to articulate effectively to neutral Americans than a message in favor of the settlements," Luntz writes. "Let me be clear about this conclusion. Plenty of Israeli and American Jewish leaders have tried, but American and European audiences rejected almost everything we tested." Luntz did not respond to NEWSWEEK's request for comment.

The report cites three particularly ineffective arguments Israeli officials often make in defense of settlements:

(1) The religious argument: "Quoting from the Bible in defense of the current settlements will have absolutely the opposite impact. Even your Jewish audiences will recoil at an attempt to use Biblical passages to justify the settlements."

(2) The ownership argument: "Some of those reading this document will reject this advice ideologically but to claim that Israel 'owns' the land that the settlements are on will cause most listeners to reject everything else you say. Semantics does matter, but if we correct Palestinians using the words 'disputed territory' when they say 'occupied territory,' we have to accept that the settlements are disputed territory as well."

(3) The scapegoat argument: "Claiming that Palestinians and other Arab groups are using the settlement issue to gain political advantage may be correct but it does nothing to legitimize Israeli policy."

In the report, Luntz describes the "best settlement argument" as one that draws a parallel between the Arab communities in Israel and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank—and refers to the idea of evacuating Jews as racist. "The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can't be any Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea," he suggests saying. "We don't say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews. We don't accept it. Cleansing by either side against either side is unacceptable."

One line of argument that Luntz says actually harms the cause is Israel's policy of restricting Arab housing construction in East Jerusalem: "The arguments about demolishing Palestinian homes because they are not within the Jerusalem building code tested SO badly that we are not even going to dignify them with a Word's That Don't Work box. Americans hate their own local planning boards for telling them where they can and can't put swimming pools or build fences. You don't need to import that animosity into your own credibility issues. Worse yet, talking about 'violations of building codes' when a TV station is showing the removal of a house that looks older than the modern state of Israel is simply catastrophic."

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