x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Unsettling words

A leaked document intended to provide "words that work" for pro-Israel advocates in America strikes a few surprisingly panicked notes.

A protester is carried away by Israeli police officers during the "ethnic cleansing" of settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005.
A protester is carried away by Israeli police officers during the "ethnic cleansing" of settlers from the Gaza Strip in August 2005.

Marriage metaphors have reliably found their way into commentary on the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East since at least 1897, when two representatives of Vienna's Jewish community visited Palestine on a fact-finding mission. "The bride is beautiful," they reported, "but she is married to another man." Perhaps, though, it is the modern-day alliance between the United States and Israel that is better suited to the language of romance. After all, it seems that whenever the two countries are at odds, it is merely a lovers' quarrel - in the end, all is forgiven.

These periods of uneasiness, which invite endless (and often fruitless) scrutiny and speculation in the press, can nevertheless be revealing: they illuminate the tensions that lie just beneath the surface, the anxieties that shape a close relationship between two states whose interests are similar but hardly identical. We are currently in the midst of one such rough patch. It began in May, when Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Washington for a closely watched meeting with Barack Obama. Even after a meticulously staged joint press appearance in which the two leaders affirmed the strength of the partnership, it remained clear that Obama and Netanyahu reached no agreement on the crucial issue of Israeli settlement expansion - and that Netanyahu had little interest in pursuing a two-state solution.

The possibility of any public disagreement between the United States and Israel is a constant source of worry within the so-called "Israel lobby", the loose-knit collection of organisations that seek to ensure American policy and public opinion remain decidedly pro-Israel. Unsurprisingly, in the run-up to the meeting, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allies in Congress delivered the usual message to the White House, perhaps a bit more loudly and clearly than usual: Don't publicly pressure Israel.

But influencing elected officials isn't necessarily the most important goal of the self-appointed guardians of the American-Israeli alliance. At least as crucial is a well-financed, well-coordinated effort to shape the way Israel and the Palestinians are discussed in the mass media - to frame public discourse on the issue and win over the "persuadables". Delivering campaign contributions and helping to craft legislation remain key elements of pro-Israel advocacy in the United States. But on that playing field Israel's defenders face very little competition, so any strife in US-Israel relations remains difficult to detect on Capitol Hill. To understand the state of the "special relationship" at moments like this, we should look instead at the less visible messaging effort that seeks to influence a much broader audience.

A unique opportunity to do so presented itself with the recent disclosure of a closely guarded manual for talking to Americans audiences about Israel. The document, strangely titled the 2009 Global Language Dictionary, was produced and privately distributed in April by The Israel Project, a non-profit "devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel". The dictionary is intended to assist "visionary leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel" - in other words, the army of professional spokespeople always available to make Israel's case to the press and the American public. (The Palestinians, needless to say, field no such army.)

The author of the Dictionary is a Republican pollster and political-communications consultant named Frank Luntz. In the past 15 years, Luntz has been cast in - and has energetically embraced - a familiar role in American politics: the master manipulator of words and images, working behind the scenes to craft poll-tested messages for politicians and corporations. Luntz's catchphrase, which he never misses an opportunity to repeat, goes like this: "It's not what you say, it's what people hear." He is credited with popularising the term "death tax" to stir unlikely middle-class opposition to the estate tax levied on money left by wealthy individuals to their heirs. And he advised Republicans to stop using the alarming term "global warming" and instead talk about "climate change", which sounds less dire.

Luntz's key insight is that emotional responses to political language are far more important than rational ones. "I'm much more interested in how you feel than how you think," he has said. Careful testing of the emotional impact of words helped Luntz create a powerful linguistic alloy that has become his trademark: one part fear mongering, one part euphemism. The Middle East provides a fertile ground for this sort of dissimulation. On Iran, Luntz suggests, Americans should be constantly reminded of their "greatest fear" - nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists - and they can be sold on the idea of harsh sanctions if they are renamed "economic diplomacy". Whenever images of the suffering of Palestinian civilians threaten to complicate the message, Americans' memories of September 11 should be exploited at any opportunity to "put them in Israel's shoes".

Such manoeuvres are intended to set up what Luntz calls "the trump card" of pro-Israel messaging: the idea that, above all, Israel wants peace. "The speaker that is perceived as being most for PEACE will win the debate," he writes. "Every time someone makes the plea for peace, the reaction is positive." This may seem like obvious advice. But a plea for "peace", Luntz has found, tests better than the appeals that typically emanate from advocates for the Palestinians: "justice", "human rights" and "statehood", alas, lack the same emotional punch. Of course, "peace" is the ostensible goal of the two-state solution, which Luntz informs his readers has the support of 78 per cent of Americans. The problem is that the current Israeli government isn't ­really on board - Netanyahu's recent half-hearted repositioning notwithstanding. The challenge for Israel's advocates, then, is "to uphold the ultimate goal of a Palestinian self-government while legitimately questioning how soon the solution can be reached", Luntz writes. "This is the rhetorical area in which you need to operate." It's a tricky balancing act. The best slogan to rely on, he writes, is "peace before political boundaries". A rational listener might believe that, in a violent conflict between two groups, "peace" would be the result of negotiations to end the fighting and achieve a political agreement. The subtle redefinition of "peace" as a means, instead of an end, is one of the signal achievements of pro-Israel messaging, and Luntz can justifiably take some credit for it. But what's most interesting about his Dictionary is where it fails. "Whoever came up with the phrase 'settlements' set in motion a lexicon that was doomed from the start," Luntz complains. (He finds the terms "occupation" and "right of return" equally infelicitous.) He struggled mightily to find a way to persuade Americans that Israeli settlements are consonant with peace, but his research audiences "rejected almost everything we tested". The "best argument", he reports, went like this: "We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews." Equating the dismantling of settlements with "ethnic cleansing" is deeply provocative and misleading in the extreme. Would it be considered ethnic cleansing by the solid majority of Israelis who opinion polls consistently show are willing to part with most of the settlements? If we accept that Luntz's pro-Israel language has been effective in the past - and it's safe to say it has been - then it's difficult to understand why he would endorse this rhetoric. These are precisely the sort of words Luntz claims don't work - angry, ­inflammatory, intemperate. Indeed, it's the kind of language Americans might associate with the "other side". The phrase "ethnic cleansing" evokes images of violence and victimhood, not peace and a ­brighter future for all. As Luntz himself cautions elsewhere in the memo: "There is anxiety around activity in the Middle East. The way you talk about it should not add fuel to the fire." Luntz, it seems, has finally met his match: a policy so flawed that even he can't figure out how to sell it. And yet the "ethnic cleansing" meme has nevertheless slowly ­begun to make its way into pro-Israel ­commentary. Even Prime Minister Netanyahu seems ­enthusiastic about it. ­According to a Reuters ­report, ­during a meeting earlier this month, Netanyahu said that the ­occupied territories could not become "­Judenrein" - the Nazi term for "cleansed of Jews". (Netanyahu, ever subtle, was talking to the ­foreign minister of Germany at the time.) When a typically sophisticated effort to persuade resorts to this kind of language, it signals the ­onset of something resembling panic - akin to the sinking poll numbers that lead political candidates to "go negative". What's remarkable is just how little it took for the "pro-Israel" message on settlements to sink to this level: not a demand for withdrawal, but the simple reaffirmation of a long-standing US call for an end to settlement expansion. Of course, a communications crisis is hardly the same as a diplomatic crisis. But in the strange world of US-Israeli relations, where images and myths are often as important as facts and history, it may be a sign of things to come. Justin Vogt, a regular contributor to The Review, is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.