Dear Bibi: How To Raise Israel’s Approval Ratings

Right Angles

By Noam Neusner

Published August 12, 2009, issue of August 21, 2009.
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MEMO TO: Prime Minister Bibi

FROM: Wordsmith Noam

RE: Crummy Numbers

Mr. Prime Minister,

You’ve seen the lousy numbers that came out recently on American attitudes toward Israel. According to surveys from the Israel Project, only 49% of Americans call themselves pro-Israel, down from 69% last September.

It’s true that you’re not the prime minister of America, but American voters are your second-most-important constituency. You can’t afford to lose the Americans. If Israelis think that something you’re doing is hurting them with the United States, you’re sunk, no matter how strong your coalition is at home.

No doubt you are getting plenty of advice from the pollster/focus group crowd on how to move Israel back up in public esteem. Their ideas are often good but conventional. Sure, it makes sense to stress Israel’s democratic values; historic ties to America; cultural, military and strategic value to the West, etc.

Winning back rank-and-file Americans, though, requires more than repeating the same old talking points about the history of our two countries’ “special relationship.” Most Americans, after all, don’t remember what they ate for lunch on Tuesday, let alone that Israel took out Iraq’s nuclear program back in 1981.

So as you grapple with how to turn things around, here are a few pointers that might be useful:

First: Don’t panic. This isn’t a political campaign where favorability ratings on November 3 can ice an election. National favorability numbers bounce up and down, but your U.N. membership doesn’t rest on it. And even if things are really as bad as the Israel Project polls suggest, they could always be worse: In one 1982 Gallup Poll, you were at 32%, the Arabs at 28%.

Second: When you win, you lose. Everyone thinks that in 1967, plucky little Israel’s favorability ratings went through the roof. Not really: Gallup had you at 38% before the Six Day War, and 56% after it. A good pop, but it settled back to the high 30s, low 40s territory within a couple of years and stayed there during most of the 1970s. You didn’t hit the high-water mark of 68% with Gallup until the 1991 Gulf War, when you took a few Scuds without firing back. The enduring lesson of popularity contests is this: Sometimes winning isn’t worth it. If being the plucky underdog is the price of popularity among Americans, take a pass. They may not love a winner, but you can’t afford to be a loser.

Third: Cool it with the settlement saber-rattling. Your consul general in Boston, Nadav Tamir, was right: Your confrontational stance on settlements isn’t helping Israel’s image in America. Now that you’ve called Tamir back to Israel to answer for his internal memo (which was leaked to Israeli TV), perhaps you should take the opportunity to hear him out. Yes, by sticking out your chin at President Obama’s call for a total freeze, you’ve cemented your right-of-center coalition at home. But you’ve antagonized the people around the president, and you may need them if Hezbollah or Hamas decide to start launching missiles. Plus, all this haggling over settlements irritates Americans. Americans generally think that if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Here’s a solution: Send Tamir back to America with a message to Obama offering a six-month hudna on settlements. No more evictions of Arab squatters, no more building permits beyond the Green Line, nothing to get headlines. But after six months, revisit the issue and quietly urge the Obama administration to revert to the Bush-era tolerance of vertical growth within major settlement blocs.

Fourth: Build your base. For too long, Israel has relied mostly on American Jews and Evangelical Christians for support. But the untapped frontier of American public opinion is in its Hispanic communities. Dust off the Ladino, and remind Spanish-speakers everywhere that the Jews have a thousand-year love affair with Spanish culture. Remind American Hispanics where the Israelis stand on antisemites like Castro and Chavez and other commie caudillos. Israelis are dark, multicultural and, as Jackie Mason says, they seem like Puerto Ricans. That happens to be a very good thing these days.

Fifth: Stop worrying about being right all the time. So what if the BBC or Human Rights Watch takes potshots at you? That’s life in the red-hot center of a red-hot region. Get used to it. You can’t win every argument. Just focus on the big stuff: Deal with Iran’s nukes, do your best with the Palestinians and make sure Israel is a place everyone wants to visit. In America, nobody likes a whiner. Fight for what you believe in, and win. It may not make you popular, but it will always net you respect and admiration. That’s what truly counts.

Noam Neusner is the principal of Neusner Communications, LLC. He served as a speech writer and Jewish liaison for President George W. Bush.


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