September 23, 2002 – Zvi Alon and Eric Benhamou, two high-profile Silicon Valley moguls, were fed up with the negative publicity Israel was getting in the American media.
Alon is the founder of Netvision, the largest Internet provider in Israel, and the creator of TCPIP, an Internet protocol with which most people in the world access the Web.
Benhamou is president of 3Com, one of the most successful computer networking companies in the world. He is also CEO of Palm Inc., makers of the ubiquitous handheld Palm computer. Not content with fuming in California, the pair founded ISRAEL21c (Israel in the 21st Century) in order to improve the country’s image in the U.S. They recruited other influential Israeli and Jewish executives in Silicon Valley.
ISRAEL21c’s board now includes Tali Aben, a general partner of the Gemini Israel venture capital firm; Karen Alter and Ellen Konar, who were part of the strategic marketing brain trust for Andy Grove, CEO of Intel; and Cyndi Rubin, chief lobbyist for Intuit, a huge software company known for the Quicken accounting software program. Andrea Bronfman, co-chair of the Charles and Andrea Bronfman Philanthropies, is the only non-Silicon Valley board member.
Their first action program was a website with stories about aspects of Israel outside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That website, http://israel21c.com, set up at the beginning of this year, now has 300,000 visitors a month. But they soon concluded that a website alone was not enough to make a difference.
In July, ISRAEL21c started the second phase of an ambitious plan to promote Israel in the American media. “We want to show Israel beyond the conflict, and in spite of the conflict,” says Larry Weinberg, executive vice president of the new organization who worked previously for the mayor of New York. “We want to show that Israel is a global democracy, a good global citizen and has the same values as the U.S.”
The project is in its early stages. ISRAEL21c is employing two Israeli journalists, whose names it won’t divulge, to gather “positive” stories. In the U.S., ISRAEL21c has hired Ruder-Finn, one of the world’s biggest public relations firms, to shape the story ideas for an American plate and pitch them to the American media.
The website gives a taste of the kind of stories the group wants to promote: Israeli researchers find way to make cancer cells self-destruct; an Israeli team battling rural poverty in Brazil; Israel lending U.S. farm – The message is that Israel is the only peaceloving democracy in the Middle East – a message that the sponsors believe is still new to many Americans. Whether they buy it remains to be seen.
The new media approach is the result of research by Jennifer Laszlo-Mizrachi, a Democratic political consultant. She studied what does and does not work for an American audience, with polling and analysis done by Democratic consultant Stanley Greenberg and Republican strategist Frank Luntz.
“It is astonishing, but even well informed American opinion leaders are badly informed about Israel,” Laszlo-Mizrachi says. “They don’t know what Israel has done for peace and they don’t know that Israel has a voting Arab population that is represented in the Knesset. They buy the newspaper, but they don’t read it.”
Laszlo-Mizrachi says Israel’s message has to be consistent and repeated over and over: peace and democracy, democracy and peace. “The Palestinians repeat over and again ‘occupation, occupation.’ In the same way Israel has to repeat the message ‘democracy and peace.'”
In addition to the commercials, she argues,
Israeli spokesmen have to coordinate their message on American TV. So far Israel has sought to discredit Yasser Arafat. But now that George Bush himself has discredited the Palestinian leader, there is no need anymore to convince Americans.
The research has shown that Israel’s standing in American public opinion has dropped since the intensive reporting of Operation Defensive Shield, Israel’s April incursion into West Bank cities. Israel is still viewed four times more favorably than the Palestinians, but the ratio was 5:1 before Defensive Shield. And increasingly the American public is fed up with both Palestinians and Israelis.
The April coverage caused what Laszlo-Mizrachi calls story fatigue. “Americans like a good guy bad guy story with a happy ending. But there was no good guy and bad guy, and certainly no happy ending,” she says. “It was the same story day after day. The result was a drop in ratings. The more people saw the conflict on television, the more they were put off.”
The electronic news media responded by reporting less and less about the reinvasion of the West Bank and the problems of Arafat, under siege in Ramallah, that were so dramatically highlighted in April.
If Americans find the conflict depressing and boring, and want to watch a positive story they can identify with, Zvi Alon, Eric Benhamou and their friends in Silicon Valley aim to provide it.
“Those non-political stories will show Americans that Israel adds value to life in America on subjects such as health care, science and technology,” Weinberg says.
In its next phase, ISRAEL21c wants to develop an educational component by creating a syllabus to teach groups how to present a side of Israel the American public doesn’t know. It will develop the materials needed and train speakers.
More immediately, the Silicon Valley team is co-sponsoring, with the American Jewish Committee, a massive advertising campaign that is being launched in the first half of September on the national television news channels CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Fox. It will last at least a month. The ads are produced by the American Jewish Committee, which claims this is the first time a major Jewish American organization has launched a national advertising campaign on television to improve Israel’s image.
(Reprinted with the permission of the Jerusalem Report – Copyright 2002 – The Jerusalem Report)