PR plan to win Israeli approval

Barak seeks help from PR gurus, like James Carville, to persuade

Prime Minister Ehud Barak is busy at home, even though Syrian-Israeli peace talks in the US are moving slowly. He's designing a campaign to persuade his constituents to compromise on the Golan Heights.

In a throwback to his political campaign, he has appointed senior members of his Labor Party to organize stages of the campaign ahead of the expected referendum on a peace deal. Public relations firms will be hired to help. And assistance from abroad, say Labor party officials, will most likely be enlisted from the same man who helped Mr. Barak win the election last May: James Carville. Mr. Carville is the same adviser whose 1992 catchphrase, "It's the economy, stupid" is widely credited with winning the presidency for Bill Clinton.

This may be the first time in modern history that a peace agreement will be packaged by for-profit PR agencies, potentially treating a treaty as though it were the Pokmon du jour. On a cosmic compass, it perhaps epitomizes the extent to which the business of politics is run by those who sell it. And it represents an evolution in thinking since the days of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose policy of largely letting the peace sell itself was often overcome - or outshouted - by those who had no interest in his vision of peace among Israelis and Arabs.

"[Barak] is asking the Americans to come back ... I believe he has hired Carville," says Labor Party spokesman Yerah Tal. "It's hard to argue with success. We know the message, but you have to deliver it, and this is a professional craft."

Spinmeisters in action

Ranaan Cohen, the Labor Party secretary-general who is initially trying to sway public opinion in favor of a withdrawal from the Golan, ticks off talking points on which he wants the spinmeisters to focus.

*It will bring the boys home. (Israel's men will no longer have to risk their lives in south Lebanon.)

*It will isolate your real enemies. (Iran and Iraq will be marginalized when Syria and other moderate Arab regimes make peace with Israel.

*It's good for the economy, stupid. (Peace with Syria and Lebanon will bring the rest of the Arab world to seek economic relations with Israel.)

But Mr. Cohen says right-wing groups also will employ funding from overseas benefactors to mount an opposition campaign. He points to an Australian-Jewish millionaire, Joseph Gutnick, who has given generously to Jewish settlements.

"A lot of Gutnicks will come here and influence the campaign, so why shouldn't foreign people come and influence what we do?" Cohen asks.

Though they will not fully launch the peace marketing plan until Barak has an accord in hand, they are already debating what the key catch phrases will be.

"Peace is best for the security of Israel," says Tal, hitting the hot button word that seems to represent what most drives Israeli politics. The one simple word in Hebrew, bitachon, stands in for security, defense, and confidence.

"No, no, that's not enough," Cohen says. "We have to show people how it will help unemployment." Just back from a trip to Golan, he has the difficult job of trying to persuade residents from his own Labor Party who were told to "go north" as young pioneers 30 years ago.

"Most of the people in Israel love the Golan Heights, and now they like it much more than they like the Labor Party. I tell them that the Golan is in my heart, but peace is in my soul," Cohen says.

So far, gathering a majority of voters in a referendum promises to be an uphill battle. On Friday, a poll released by the Dahaf Institute found that only 41 percent of Israelis would back a full withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for a full peace, down from 45 percent on Dec. 10.

Naturally, Israelis stiffly opposed to giving up the Golan are irked by the concept of the government engaging in a costly advertising campaign to sway Israelis.

"It's kind of insulting, if you think of how this thing is being sold to the Israeli public," says Marla Van Meter, spokeswoman for the Golan Residents Committee. The committee is running its own public crusade to keep the strategic plateau, and takes money from local taxes as well as domestic and foreign donors. But that's no match, she lobs, for Barak's coffers.

"It's unfair that anyone from here or abroad try to sell people something that isn't true or has no foundations," says Van Meter, who traded her California upbringing for a home in the Golan 17 years ago. "It seems like a bunch of businessmen sitting down and discussing arrangements for a merger. Israel has never had a public referendum, and this will be ... as deep a question for the people as it goes."

Making the campaign work

Even within the Labor party, there is dispute over how the campaign will work. Barak wants the campaign to be funded by contributions from individuals, allowing his aides to do the job with the utmost freedom possible. But others in the party say it would be "cleaner" if the referendum were treated like any other Israeli political campaign. In other words, it would be regulated by an elections commission that distributes public funds for advertising and allots radio and television time according to party size in the Knesset.

The very fact that Barak is planning to invest in those with expertise in selling the message perhaps evinces how much has changed in five troubled years of peacemaking in the Middle East. His mentor, the late Mr. Rabin, chose what he thought was the moral high ground on peace with the Palestinians, dismissing his critics among hardline Jewish settlers to the point where they felt neglected and even demonized - and grew angrier.

His assassination in 1995 by an Israeli ultranationalist left a deep impact not just on Barak, but also on peace advocates who feel, in retrospect, that they didn't do enough to rally Rabin supporters in the face of anti-Oslo street protests gripping the country in 1994 and 1995.

"We will not leave Barak alone," says Cohen. "We will follow him to every speaking engagement and make sure there are crowds there to cheer him along the way, to support him when he gets there. We will not make the mistakes we made with Rabin."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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