A reminder of US-Israel links

By Mark Jurkowitz

After two years of bloodshed between Israel and the Palestinians – and with the possibility of war between Iraq and the United States – two organizations yesterday announced an unprecedented television ad campaign intended to
increase Americans’ sense of connnection with the Jewish state.

Two 30-second ads, sponsored by the New York-based American Jewish Committee and a California group, Israel21c, have begun airing in Washington and New York as the first step in a plan to roll them out in the top 100 media
markets. Focusing on ”shared values” and ”shared visions for peace,” they
are part of a Middle East battle for the hearts and minds of US citizens reeling from the Sept 11 attacks, and dividing the world into friends and foes. In May, Saudi Arabia, home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers, launched an ad campaign reminding Americans of the friendship between the two countries.

In one of the new ads, the announcer stresses the philosophical ties as an American flag waves in the background. “Israel, like the US,” he says, “is a true democracy based on freedom and equality.”

Like almost every other issue connected to that region, the pro-Israeli spots have triggered political and rhetorical skirmishing.

”I think it’s an extremely important message,” said Meir Shlomo, Israel’s consul general to New England. ”If people think democracy is a good system, they should know who is living according to that system … We found out when we did some polling that people don’t watch closely what is going on in the Middle East.”

But James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, said that because of the Palestinian-Israeli fighting, ”everyone’s image suffered.”

”The Palestinians went down to the basement and the Israelis went down to the ground floor,” Zogby said.

Zogby voiced criticism of the ads, saying their message is: ”We’re like you and they’re not. That has at its core a sort of racist edge.”

At a press conference yesterday, the American Jewish Committee executive director, David A. Harris, said this marked the first time that American Jewish groups had produced pro-Israeli TV ads. He said it was ”unprecedented
in American Jewish life.”

The spots, first aired in Washington on Sept. 12 and in New York on Sept. 17, will appear primarily on cable news networks. They are scheduled to debut in the Boston market by Oct. 1. Both current ads hammer away at the themes of
religious and political freedom and pluralism in Israel. One opens by declaring that ”Israel is America’s only real ally in the Middle East.”

CNN became a point of controversy at yesterday’s launch when Israel21c’s executive vice president, Larry Weinberg, assailed the outlet for declining to accept the spots. CNN was the only network directly approached by the
sponsors. The rest of the advertising buys were arranged through local cable
operators.

”I looked at CNN’s decision and said, `This is a sad day,”’ Weinberg said. ”I think that was a bad business decision. CNN alone said, `We think this is too hot to handle.”’

A CNN spokesman, Matthew Furman, responded that it had decided earlier not to accept ads on behalf of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and several other Arab countries. ”We don’t think it’s appropriate to take advocacy ads from regions in conflict. We treated both sides the same way,” he said.

Richard Parker, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said: ”Winning the hearts and minds of Americans is something Israel did a long time ago.” (Recent surveys by the Pew
Research Center and the Gallup Organization indicate that by roughly a 3-1 ratio, Americans sympathize more with the Israelis than the Palestinians.)

Parker also said the ads may be designed not so much to influence opinion on the Palestinian issue as to insulate Israel from criticism should it decide to act in its own interests – and perhaps not in tandem with US goals – if it
becomes entangled in a US-Iraq war.

”This is a good time to reinforce the connection,” Parker said. ”Having a reservoir of good will is not unimportant for giving Israel latitude vis-a-vis Washington.”

Zogby voiced skepticism that the spots would signficantly affect public opinion. For Israel, he said: ”It is not a question of: Do you, on paper, have our values, but what are you doing right now?”

But Michael Petruzzello, managing partner of the Qorvis Communications firm, which produced the pro-Saudi Arabia ads, says countries can shape perceptions through effective advertising.

”In the case of Saudi Arabia, our message is straightforward and simple: Reaffirm to the American people that Saudi Arabia is a friend and ally,” he said. ”We did a poll after we ran the ads in May. Yes, there was a
signficant increase in awareness and favorability.”

”I think certainly we’ve seen a lot of success in political advertising andadvocacy advertising and I’d even point to cause advertising.

”It works in America,” said Peggy Conlon, president of the Advertising Council, which produces public-service campaigns for government and nonprofit organizations. ”The important thing is that these messages are tested with
consumers.”

(© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.)