The Israeli propaganda playbook

In January 2009, Israel took advantage of the period before Barack Obama’s inauguration to unleash a yet another massive assault on Gaza, killing over 1,400 Palestinians, again mostly civilians and children. Operation Cast Lead, as it was called by Israel, created a major worldwide outcry because of the sheer brutality of the Israeli bombardment, similar to what is happening again now, and even led to a UN commission to investigate.

The UN report titled the Goldstone Report accused the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian militants of committing war crimes but since Israel, by definition, does not commit war crimes whatever atrocities it commits, it rejected the Goldstone Report. And of course the US government. Congress, and media provided cover for Israel by burying the report, thus enabling Israel to once again set about destroying Gaza and killings its inhabitants.

But the public relations beating that Israel took for Operation Cast Lead led it to plan out a more careful media strategy. The only opinion the Israelis care about is that of the US Congress because that it the entity that provides it with all the money it asks for their military and to subsidize their high standard of living, and that can exert pressure on US administrations to provide diplomatic cover for Israel even though successive administrations realize that Israel is a rogue state that is causing immense headaches for the US on the global stage.

But US Congressional support is contingent on US public support and to bolster both in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, Israel hired Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and message guru in the US who has made a career out of finding ways to make unsavory policies palatable even to the people who are adversely affect by them. The resulting 112-page confidential booklet titled The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary lays out how to influence American and European public opinion, and you can see that strategy being implemented in the way that the Israeli government, its spokespeople, and its fervent supporters currently defend the indefensible in Gaza. [Update: Commenter Silentbob has kindly provided a link to the actual document.]

Patrick Cockburn describes what the propaganda booklet recommends and says that it should be required reading for journalists to avoid being suckered by Israeli apologists.

These are highly illuminating about the gap between what Israeli officials and politicians really believe, and what they say, the latter shaped in minute detail by polling to determine what Americans want to hear. Certainly, no journalist interviewing an Israeli spokesman should do so without reading this preview of many of the themes and phrases employed by Mr Regev and his colleagues.

The booklet is full of meaty advice about how they should shape their answers for different audiences. For example, the study says that “Americans agree that Israel ‘has a right to defensible borders’. But it does you no good to define exactly what those borders should be. Avoid talking about borders in terms of pre- or post-1967, because it only serves to remind Americans of Israel’s military history.”

How about the right of return for Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled in 1948 and in the following years, and who are not allowed to go back to their homes? Here Dr Luntz has subtle advice for spokesmen, saying that “the right of return is a tough issue for Israelis to communicate effectively because much of Israeli language sounds like the ‘separate but equal’ words of the 1950s segregationists and the 1980s advocates of Apartheid. The fact is, Americans don’t like, don’t believe and don’t accept the concept of ‘separate but equal’.”

So how should spokesmen deal with what the booklet admits is a tough question? They should call it a “demand”, on the grounds that Americans don’t like people who make demands. “Then say ‘Palestinians aren’t content with their own state. Now they’re demanding territory inside Israel’.” Other suggestions for an effective Israeli response include saying that the right of return might become part of a final settlement “at some point in the future”.

Dr Luntz notes that Americans as a whole are fearful of mass immigration into the US, so mention of “mass Palestinian immigration” into Israel will not go down well with them. If nothing else works, say that the return of Palestinians would “derail the effort to achieve peace”.

The study admits that the Israeli government does not really want a two-state solution, but says this should be masked because 78 per cent of Americans do. Hopes for the economic betterment of Palestinians should be emphasised.

The report goes into specific details about what words to use and what to avoid.

There is a list of words and phrases to be used and a list of those to be avoided. Schmaltz is at a premium: “The best way, the only way, to achieve lasting peace is to achieve mutual respect.” Above all, Israel’s desire for peace with the Palestinians should be emphasised at all times because this what Americans overwhelmingly want to happen.

Perhaps most cynical is how Israeli spokespersons are encouraged to use Palestinian deaths to harness sympathy for the Israelis who caused them.

Much of Dr Luntz’s advice is about the tone and presentation of the Israeli case. He says it is absolutely crucial to exude empathy for Palestinians: “Persuadables [sic] won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Show Empathy for BOTH sides!” This may explain why a number of Israeli spokesman are almost lachrymose about the plight of Palestinians being pounded by Israeli bombs and shells.

Dr Luntz cites as an example of an “effective Israeli sound bite” one which reads: “I particularly want to reach out to Palestinian mothers who have lost their children. No parent should have to bury their child.”

In a sentence in bold type, underlined and with capitalisation, Dr Luntz says that Israeli spokesmen or political leaders must never, ever justify “the deliberate slaughter of innocent women and children” and they must aggressively challenge those who accuse Israel of such a crime.

Mark Regev, the Israeli spokesperson, has received harsh grillings from both UK’s Channel 4 and the usually-friendly BBC despite slavishly following the Luntz playbook, although US media as usual have been much more accepting of it. Maybe Israel will commission Luntz to update his manual to better deal with European media.


  1. md says

    Elliot Abrams, of all people, wants to end aid to Israel. I’m not sure this idea that Israel relies on Israel is valid and if we cut it off it would change Israels military behavior. Nor do I believe Israel needs us for PR reasons. Israels PR can’t be much worse. The EU may handwring but its never going to lift a finger to curb Israeli behavior. All parties know this. Israel does rely un us for a U.N. security council vote and that is significant. Should that relationship ever sever I suspect Russia or perhaps China would step up to fill that role.

  2. thewhollynone says

    No argument with you about this Israeli propaganda playbook. And the Hamas and PLO propaganda playbooks are?

  3. Ravi Venkataraman says

    As another example of US mainstream media’s unbiased reporting, the first line in the main article ( reads “An Israeli soldier was “abducted” by Palestinian militants Friday during an attack in Gaza in which two other Israeli soldiers died, ”

    A soldier is abducted during a war? Amazing to what lows they will sink. Maybe the CNN team is also using Luntz’s playbook.

  4. Silentbob says

    @ thewhollynone

    And the Hamas and PLO propaganda playbooks are?

    The behaviour of Israel as seen by the world’s media. (Would they need anything else?)

  5. busterggi says

    Worse yet is that for about 30% of the US population they don’t need a playbook of lies, all they need is for that 30% to keep believing Israel is necessary for the return of Jesus so the Jews are in one place for easier slaughter.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Another way of using words relevant to the current Palestinian situation occurred to me last night.

    From now on, I intend to refer to the present Israeli Prime Minister as “Klaus Bibi”, the Butcher of Gaza.

  7. Chris J says

    I wonder where in the playbook it suggests you use the phrase “Let me be clear…” a lot. That was the biggest thing I noticed in watching the interviews of Regev.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Chris J,

    I too noticed that habit of his. When a politician uses that phrase, alarm bells should go off. I recall it being a favorite of Richard Nixon.

  9. thewhollynone says

    The Shakepearean line which comes to my mind is “A plague on both their houses!” Human beings are being killed and maimed and terrorized over there in the Land of Canaan, and that’s very painful for us to have to watch.

    I read today that the Saudi king has pledged $80 million to help the Gazans. Will he then invite them to take up residence in some part of his unoccupied desert?

  10. Chris J says

    @Mano Singham:

    I wasn’t around for Nixon, but I do know Obama uses the term a lot, and he had quite a bit of political support. Since the playbook seems entirely focused on appealing to the US (despite being a “global” playbook), I figured there’d be some link.

    But yeah, in general the phrase seems less to mean “let me be clear” and more “let me repeat the party line again.”

  11. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @12. thewhollynone : “I read today that the Saudi king has pledged $80 million to help the Gazans. Will he then invite them to take up residence in some part of his unoccupied desert?”

    I doubt it but he should.

    The Arab side could solve the humanitarian problem in a heartbeat if they just allowed the Arab (“Palestinian”) refugees to resettle and become full citizens of their lands.

    Why dont they? Internal politics and keeping a handy scapegoat handy. That’s the cause for the Palestinian suffering.

    India and Pakistan were divided and people shifted. Greece got free of the Turks and people got shifted. Its notliekthere’s no precedent.

    Israel was created -- and the Arabs refuse to resettle their own making them go through torment and war and agonies instead. Bastards!

  12. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    That’s :

    Its not like there’s no precedent

    Of course.

    Plus the Arab side is even more ethically responsible given they told the “Palestinian”* Arabs to shift for a whlile so they could going and drive the Jews into the sea quickly and move back after the intended Jew-butchering was done back in 1948.

    * A term that, of course, was invented for a people previously mainly just called Arabs & really onlycame intouse back in 1970’s or so -- see :

    Thanks for sharing that btw to whoever did that on another thread here. 😉

  13. busterggi says

    “The Arab side could solve the humanitarian problem in a heartbeat if they just allowed the Arab (“Palestinian”) refugees to resettle and become full citizens of their lands.”

    Yes, if only they gave up (without compensation of course) the territory where their ancestors lived for centuries and forsook citizenship in their homeland to make religious zealots happy.

    We should have been so nice to the native Americans and shipped them off to Brazil or Greenland perhaps instead of almost wiping them out.

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