July/August 2000

Neutralizing the Fear Campaign

by Aaron Lerner

Prime Minister Ehud Barak's star studded public relations team is already preparing the fear campaign that will be the key feature of the battle over the national referendum.

Barak's experts know that the poll data they are pushing is soft. They know that the Israeli public has consistently nodded in favor of the amorphous while objecting to the specifics of the "peace process."

Polls show the majority of Israeli Jews support the amorphous term "peace process" yet less than a third of support Oslo (68.4% vs 32.1% in the late June poll by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University).

The same is the case with any Camp David agreement.

Dahaf found last week that when they ask Israelis if they would vote in favor of a deal Barak brings back from Camp David without saying what might be in the deal 49% say that they would vote "yes." Not exactly the massive Jewish majority Barak predicts when one considers that the 49% includes probably all the Arabs polled - but certainly a workable starting point for a professional campaign.

But the same Dahaf poll found, for example, that only 37% of the Israeli public says Israel should agree to a deal that gives the Palestinians control over municipal affairs in East Jerusalem. When it comes to the Jordan Valley the position is even tougher with only 24% agreeing to giving Arafat even a part of the Valley while leaving the settlements intact.

Barak's professionals know that when you only need to hold your ground and win over some of the undecided you can rely on an upbeat campaign with nice music, smiling children and politicians, and the promise of a better future.

The situation is quite different when you have to win over all the undecided as well as a good chunk of those who plan to vote against you. They know that there is only one way to push so many people into their column and that is by fear.

Barak's fear campaign won't blindly focus on the fear of war as they know that this could easily be counterproductive. After all, if Barak argues that a conflict with the Palestinians is dangerous today, it would be child's play for his opponents to drive home the message that Arafat's army would be even more dangerous if the deal goes through.

A fear campaign that argues Israel has to cut a deal with Arafat to keep the Iraqi and Iranian wolves at bay would also be on shaky grounds: there have been more than enough wars in the region having nothing to do with the implementation of 242 or 338. The Israeli public is sophisticated enough to appreciate that there are many reasons leaders go to war, most of them domestic.

The fear campaign instead will consider the regional threats to Israel's survival and make it clear that if Israel turns its back on peace, then the US may very well turn its back on the Jewish State in its time of need.

If the Israeli public rejects peace, the campaign will warn, Israel will be a pariah state. And Israel cannot survive as a pariah state.

What can be done to counter this fear campaign?

Before the campaign is rolled out in full force it is important to let the public know it is coming. To turn it into an object rather then a message. If we talk enough about it in advance, it will serve to desensitize the public to the message much as an overdose of previews reduces the shock value of over-analyzed scenes in a horror film.

This being an election year in America makes it particularly tough for the Clinton Administration to take an active role in the fear campaign.

Friends of Israel could go a step farther, encouraging American candidates to declare that the Israeli public and the Israeli voters alone have the right to decide to accept or reject the agreement. Once a major candidate declares his unwavering support for the Jewish State regardless of the outcome of the national referendum, the remaining candidates - even President Clinton's own wife - will have no choice but join the "freedom of choice" chorus.

These unconditional declarations of support for Israel, properly integrated into the overall campaign, will go a long way towards neutralizing the fear campaign.

And what if the best campaign professionals in the business overcome these problems and fear sells?

Then sell fear. Because if Ehud Barak comes back from Camp David with a deal with even half of the concessions his team has been leaking to the press, American support in time of crises simply would not be able to fill the yawning security gap caused by the perilous position on the ground of a post agreement Israel.

The campaign won't be easy, but it can be won.

Prime Minister Barak's professionals are already hard at work. We simply cannot afford the luxury of reacting to rather than anticipating their campaign

Dr. Aaron Lerner, Director Source: IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis)

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