Palestine and Main Street, U.S.A.: Transforming American Public Opinion

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VOL. 35

2005/06

No. 3
P. 72
Open Forum
Palestine and Main Street, U.S.A.: Transforming American Public Opinion
FULL TEXT

After decades of Israeli colonization, underwritten by the United States, Palestinians have realized that American public opinion is a pivotal factor in the struggle for justice in Palestine. One experienced U.S. Senate staffer estimated that only about 15 percent of the members of Congress are ardent Zionists, while 5 percent support Palestinian rights. The remaining 80 percent, she estimated, range between mildly and greatly irritated at the constant pressure to support Israel and, with constituent support, would gladly chart a more independent course. [1] Thus, a significant shift in public opinion could have a decisive influence on congressional behavior, and ultimately, on U.S. policy toward the Palestinians.

Polls consistently demonstrate that American public opinion toward Palestine/Israel is already more even-handed than U.S. foreign policy. Yet Americans’ current motivation to act is low. The challenge, therefore, is to transform Americans’ views in such a way as to lead them to different action—as voters, consumers, and participants in public debate.

The Current Situation

American public opinion is not a blank slate. For decades, Israel’s U.S. supporters have analyzed and exploited facets of American ideology that are amenable to Zionism. They have created ample infrastructure designed to promote pro-Israel themes, circulate negative images of Arabs, and silence narratives sympathetic to Palestinians. In other words, Israel’s U.S. supporters have been more clever and more aggressive competitors than those seeking justice for Palestinians.

Over the course of two generations, through sheer hard work, they rose to influential positions on Capitol Hill, in the media, and in business. As a result, they have achieved “insider” status, with legions of columnists, editors, owners, and decision makers able to advance a Zionist agenda with far greater ease than supporters of Palestine, who today largely try to influence media coverage as “outsiders.”

In addition, Israel supporters analyzed their situation and wrote—actually wrote—strategic plans for how to advance their interests. They encouraged a virtually unmatched culture of giving and volunteerism. Zionists have also reached fellow Americans through narratives. They have churned out countless books, plays, movies, works of art, and more that connect Americans with the Zionist perspective.

 The good news is that the Palestinian struggle can also tap wellsprings of American values, such as justice and equality. There is ample room to improve the dismal media coverage in the United States. The bad news is that while supporters of Palestinian rights have a better “product,” pro-Israel media advocates have, in addition to their insider status, better “marketing.” Their “marketing department” is staffed with hundreds of full time and trained media professionals.

Pro-Israel messaging is tightly coordinated and based on periodic research studies to determine how Americans perceive Israel and the Palestinians and what kind of pro-Israel messages they respond to. Zionists are instructed to emphasize themes that dehumanize Palestinians, depict Palestinian women as oppressed, and link Israelis with Americans. Top messages include “They teach their children to hate,” “Arab women enjoy more freedom in Israel than anywhere in the Arab world,” and “Israel and the United States are united in the war against terror.” The recent Hamas victory provides fresh opportunities for Zionists to frame the Palestinians as inherently violent people who support “terror.”

The United Jewish Communities Web site lists no fewer than 40 think tanks, research institutes, public relations firms, news sources, and other organizations that contribute to pro-Israel media advocacy in the United States. [2] Readers may be aware that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), with 165 employees and an estimated annual budget of $33 million, [3] engages in media work in addition to lobbying. One senior editor at United Press International (UPI) described his experience as follows:

I get useful, quotable information from AIPAC at least once a week. When the International Court of Justice ruling came down [calling Israel’s separation wall illegal], AIPAC had a press release and condemnations from Senators in my e-mail inbox within seconds. They do this consistently. I saw nothing from the Palestinians.

Another example is the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). This organization takes the offensive, painting Arabs in a negative light, by selecting the most inflammatory anti-Israel and anti-U.S. reports from the Arab media and translating—as well as mistranslating—those reports for use by the American press. Founded in 1998 by two Israelis, MEMRI had grown to a staff of over 30 by 2002. [4] 

A third example is HonestReporting.com, which was founded in 2000 and now has 140,000 activists on its e-mail list. Describing itself as “one of the world’s largest media watch groups,” its Web site boasted the following:

HonestReporting has succeeded in shaking up the media and putting them on alert. Correspondents and editors now think twice before releasing stories. . . . In June 2002, major editorial changes occurred at CNN which greatly shifted public perception of the Arab-Israel conflict. . . . HonestReporting was cited in the New York Times as playing a role in this shift, and the Jerusalem Post reported that “HonestReporting.com readers sent up to 6,000 e-mails a day to CNN executives, effectively paralyzing their internal e-mail system.” [5] 

In contrast, supporters of Palestinian rights have virtually no meaningful infrastructure for focused public relations (PR). Palestinians must invest their dollars in organizations that employ savvy PR professionals on their behalf. Even then, with fewer resources for the foreseeable future, Palestinians need to work smarter. The first step is to identify compelling messaging.

Reframing the Messaging

In the fall of 2004—in my capacity as a communications consultant on behalf of Adam Smith International to the Negotiation Support Unit in Ramallah—I worked with the market research firm Genesis Research on a low-budget but rare project to explore non-Jewish and non-Arab Americans’ perceptions of Israel and the Palestinians. The findings were surprising. We discovered, for example, that respondents knew virtually nothing about the conflict, believed the military gap between Israel and the Palestinians to be narrow, and were disturbed at how occupation hurts Palestinian children. They were not aware that the United States is very involved in the conflict and were angered to discover that terrorism against Americans may be related to U.S. support of Israel.

Respondents were surprised that 8 to 10 percent of Palestinians are Christian, and some said they felt more connected to the Palestinians after learning this. Images of Palestinians were mostly negative, but so were images of Israel; there was little admiration for Israel. We also found that people responded to language that ties to the American experience. They could not define or relate to terms like “Zionism” or “colonialism.” On the other hand, the concept of equal rights was a bedrock value, and respondents were stunned by the disparity in rights between Jews and non-Jews, which significantly altered their perceptions. “Discrimination,” “segregation,” and “equal rights” are meaningful words in the American discourse.

Reviewing the full set of results, it becomes clear that supporters of Palestinian rights should reframe their messaging. While at a tactical level the reasons for the recent Hamas victory should be explained, developments like these should not change the high-level reframing. The Palestinian narrative transcends particular governments and short-term political developments. It reflects a larger theme, and one that proactively emphasizes the Palestinian condition, historically, today, and into the foreseeable future. Reframed messages that Palestinians need to stress include the following:

• Palestinian Christian and Muslim Arabs live under a kind of apartheid, where superior rights are granted to Jewish people while Christians and Muslims are oppressed.

• The Palestinians are fighting for freedom and equal rights. Israeli military occupation hurts Palestinian women and children, but it also hurts ordinary Israelis, who are drawn into a conflict most of them don’t want.

• Americans play a critical role. The Israeli military occupation and apartheid rule would not be possible without massive financial, military, and diplomatic support from America. Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world. The Palestinians have no military.

What’s the Strategy?

Public relations expertise is a learned skill. A successful strategy relies on experienced PR professionals who understand how to frame a compelling story, pitch it effectively to the media, and follow through relentlessly until the story is run or aired. They are also excellent writers, emphasizing accuracy and clarity. They demonstrate high levels of integrity and responsiveness. They build trusted relationships with journalists by anticipating and providing what they need in a timely, useful fashion. They know how to identify and train effective spokespersons, who in turn need to crisp and eloquent in English and to have a thorough understanding of American culture. Spokespersons need to be well-prepared, likeable, punctual, and well-groomed. As to the PR campaigns themselves, they must be based on research and tested messaging that resonates with Americans.

The requirements described above are baseline and do not guarantee success.

Because Zionist “competitors” have a multi-decade and well-financed head start, and because their strategy has relied on the dehumanization of the Palestinians, a four-phase plan is suggested here:

Step 1: Humanize. This step is critical. Zionist organizations instruct their supporters to say “Palestinians teach their children to hate,” and they have been successful in conveying this message, partly because they have been largely unchallenged. In addition, our research showed that narrative and individual anecdotes had far more emotive power than statements of fact or history.

An example of a new messaging campaign was conducted by a new San Francisco media organization, the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU). Entitled “Christmas in Bethlehem,” it had a modest goal: to communicate that Bethlehem is a Palestinian town, surrounded by a wall, with people “like us.”

The IMEU placed four stories in the mainstream media over Christmas 2005 weekend. A Bethlehem-born woman was profiled on TV newscasts and in the San Francisco Chronicle. Another Bethlehem family was described in the San Jose Mercury News, along with three photographs. A full-page photo essay depicting Bethlehem at Christmastime also ran in the San Francisco Chronicle. The Palestinians spoke of peace, love, and family, creating the seeds of a connection and refuting the idea that “they teach their children to hate.”

Step 2: Educate. Of course, humanizing is not enough. Key facts must then be conveyed, in a way that causes Americans to say “In their position, I’d feel the same.”
Our research showed that the most compelling concept was “equal rights,” with 100 percent of respondents agreeing with the statement “Palestinians and Israelis who inhabit the same land should have equal rights.”

These are the facts that respondents found the most disturbing: (a) “Palestinians under Israeli rule experience pervasive discrimination in their daily lives”; (b) “A Jew from anywhere in the world can become an Israeli citizen. However, Palestinian Christians and Muslims do not have the right to return to their former homes and homeland from which they were expelled in 1948”; and (c) “A recent United Nations report concluded that there is an ‘apartheid regime’ in the West Bank and Gaza ‘worse than the one that existed in South Africa.’”

Premeditated harm to children was also upsetting to Americans. The following statements drew angry reactions: (a) “Palestinian children have a particularly difficult time getting to school. On the way, they routinely confront teargas, harassment, delays, and gunfire—from Israeli soldiers”; and (b) “Israel has jailed more than 2,000 Palestinian children aged 12 to 18 in the last 4 years. Human rights groups report that these children commonly suffer physical abuse amounting to torture.”

Step 3: Motivate. For many Americans, a distant tragedy does not alter how they vote, spend money, or otherwise behave. For them, Palestine needs to be tied to their self-interest. This means that Americans must learn that Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians would not be possible without relentless unconditional American financial and diplomatic support. They must be made to understand, primarily through publicizing existing opinion polls, that the top reason for Arab and Muslim anger at the United States—indeed a motivator of terrorism—is U.S. support for Israel.

Step 4: Penetrate. The sustainable, long-term strategy for change is to earn positions of influence in the media. As “insiders,” supporters of Palestinian rights will participate in deciding what stories are run and the prominence they are given. Young Arab-Americans must be encouraged to enter journalism. When the number of Arab reporters, editors, and producers begins to approach the number of Zionists in such positions, the words and the stories will slowly change.

But that is not enough. Americans absorb a great deal through culture and personal interaction. Palestinians must proactively showcase their best. Through Palestinian-inspired art, film, rap music, and poignant personal writing—and through consciously sharing a proud Palestinian identity and food and culture with friends and colleagues—Americans will begin to connect with the Palestinians. They will begin to question and to care and ultimately to act.

Exploiting the Internet

The Internet provides new opportunities both to reach and to act as journalists. Work that was previously prohibitively expensive can now be performed at lower cost. Because “ownership” is wide open, the Internet also provides new avenues for exposing the truth. However, Israel is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, and the Palestinians must work diligently to understand and exploit the Internet.

The Internet is the topic of a much longer paper; the following is meant merely to touch on three high-level elements of a successful strategy:

1. Create compelling content. Content-oriented Web sites are successful when they have a clean design, relevant information for a defined target audience, and frequent updates. Blogs—both diary and photo blogs—allow citizen journalists to record their perspectives in a human voice. Internet animations, with a crisp message, can reach millions. An example of a spectacularly successful animation can be viewed at www.themeatrix.com.

2. Attract traffic. Sites should be designed with search engine optimization in mind. When a user types a term into Google, it uses a set of algorithms to determine how to rank order the links that result. Our Web designers need to know such basics as what addresses to assign to Web pages and how to embed and present keywords. Sites and blogs can increase traffic by promoting links to other relevant sites and by signing visitors up for e-mail alerts.

3. Develop and nurture effective e-mail lists. Consider the following scenario: Israel dismantles a costly settlement outpost that lacks strategic value while it expands on prime Palestinian land. Journalists are inundated with information from Zionist organizations and conclude that this is a generous step toward peace. Imagine the difference if an e-mail went out to thousands of journalists, with comments from respected Palestinian experts, complete with contact information for interviews. Effective e-mail management follows key rules:

a) Target and assemble the correct audience. Total list size is unimportant: what matters is the number of people in your target set who might do something differently.

b) Deliver an incentive to sign up. For journalists it might be access to unique information and sources that will make their work easier.

c) Pay attention to frequency and relevance. Overly frequent, irrelevant, or inaccurate e-mails cause people to ignore missives.

d) Make the subject line compelling. “Action Alert” will not garner the same e-mail open rate as “ABC Airs Shocking Segment: Act Now”

e) Ensure the e-mail copy is short and has a singular message. Research any call to action meticulously.

f) Monitor response. Review open rates, click rates, and other meaningful measures. Revise campaigns according to what produces results.

Conclusion

There is ample opportunity to improve coverage of Palestine and the Palestinians in the American media. Success, however, relies on several factors: the funds required to assemble a sustainable infrastructure, experienced fulltime PR professionals to do the work, a smart Internet strategy, and messaging that Americans understand and find compelling. We are decades behind our “competition” and need to work smarter and harder through the four phases: humanize, educate, motivate, and penetrate. But we have one key asset: the truth. And when that truth unfolds, Americans will be moved and shocked and motivated into action on behalf of justice—for both the Palestinians and for themselves.

 


Jaleh Bisharat is a Silicon Valley marketing executive and a cofounder of the Institute for Middle East Understanding, on the web at www.imeu.net.

1. Interview with author, 16 July 2004.

2. See www.ujc.org/content_display.html?ArticleID=56726#think.

3. Thomas Edsall and Molly Moore, “Pro-Israel Lobby Has Strong Voice,” Washington Post, 5 September 2004, p. A10.

4. Yigal Carmon, “Media Organization Rebuts Accusation of Selective Journalism,” Guardian, 21 August 2003.

5. From www.honestreporting.com. This citation, which has since been removed, was originally accessed by the author in October 2004.