A Roadmap of Spin

Frank Luntz, the Republican Party’s shape-shifting pollster, political consultant, and spin-doctor, is never far from the political spotlight, for good or ill. During the height of the war in Iraq, the focus group guru was on display, conducting televised sessions in Cairo, Paris, and elsewhere for MSNBC. Earlier last month, it was Luntz the spin-master making headlines, as a memo he prepared for GOP leaders on how to win “the environmental communications battle” was leaked to the press.

Now, another messaging missive attributed to Luntz has been leaked, one that outlines how American Jewish leaders should incorporate the war in Iraq into their public comments about Israel.

The new report, entitled “Israeli Communications Priorities 2003” (which is available as a PDF download), features 11 key recommendations. Some are pure PR manipulation (“Find yourself a good female spokesperson. In all our testing, women are found to be more credible than men. And if the woman has children, that’s even better.”), but most reflect the group’s conclusion that “the words, themes and messages on behalf of Israel must include and embrace the new reality of a post-Saddam world.” The war in Iraq colors the entire report, but the primary focus of the messaging guide is the country’s deposed and disappeared leader.

“Saddam is your best defense, even if he’s dead,” reads the document’s first communications recommendation. “For a year — a SOLID YEAR — you should be invoking the name of Saddam Hussein and how Israel was always behind American efforts to rid the world of this ruthless dictator and liberate their people. Saddam will remain a powerful symbol of terror to Americans for a long time to come.”

“This document is about language, so let me be blunt,” the main body of the report begins. “ ‘Saddam Hussein’ are the two words that tie Israel to America and are most likely to deliver support in Congress. They also just happen to be two of the most hated words in the English language right now.”

People who believe that Saddam Hussein is old news “don’t understand how to integrate and leverage history and communication for the benefit of Israel,” the report declares. “The day we allow Saddam to take his eventual place in the trash heap of history is the day we loose our strongest weapon in the linguistic defense of Israel.”

But the report offers a political caveat: “20% of America … opposes the Iraqi war, and they are overwhelmingly Democrat.” The lesson to draw from that fact? Don’t compliment President Bush, and don’t use the president as a synonym when speaking about America. “You antagonize [Democrats opposed to war] every time you compliment the President. Don’t do it.”

The report, attributed to The Luntz Research Companies and The Israel Project, also recommends that Jewish leaders take a ‘wait and see’ approach toward new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas.

“To some extent, your job as proponents of Israel has been easy. Under the Arafat regime, it’s not difficult to convince the American public of the corruption of the current Palestinian leadership. While many sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people, there is no love lost for Yassir Arafat. Arafat is a terrorist; they know that. Better still, he looks the part.”

“The emergence of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian Prime Minister comes exactly at the wrong time. His ascent to power seems legitimate. He is a fresh face, and a clean-shaven one at that. He speaks well and dresses in Western garb. He may even genuinely want peace.”

Sprinkled throughout the document are boxes titled “Words That Work,” providing quick sound bites that the authors have determined test well with American audiences. Among the key words: ‘security’ and ‘democracy.’

“Security has become the key fundamental principle for all Americans. Security is the context by which you should explain Israeli need for loan guarantees and military aid, as well as why Israel can’t just give up land. The settlements are our Achilles heel, and the best response (which is still quite weak) is the need for security that this buffer creates.”

As for democracy, the document encourages spokespeople to climb aboard the Bush administration’s promise to foster democracy in Iraq. “Emphatically state that while you are proud of Israel’s democracy, you would much rather be the FIRST democracy in the Middle East than the ONLY democracy in the Middle East.”

Finally, the report calls on Jewish spokespeople to show “a little humility” and admit that Israel has made mistakes.

“Assertions that Israel enjoys a blameless history are soundly rejected. This will not be received well by everyone but it is essential for your spokespeople to acknowledge [that] Israel has made some mistakes.”

This would not be the first time Luntz has turned his PR skills to Israel’s cause. He helped to craft former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election campaign, and last summer joined with Democratic Party consultants Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi and Stanley Greenberg to brief Israeli government spokespeople on how they could be more effective in swaying American public opinion. Then, in August, the group made the same pitch to American Jewish leaders, advising them to follow a communications strategy built around “Ten Commandments.” Among the “commandments”: stress Israel’s commitment to peace; draw parallels between Israel and America; don’t attack Yassir Arafat; and distinguish between the Palestinian people and their leaders.

The document was published last week on the Electronic Intifada web site. The site was launched two years ago by four activists: Laurie King-Irani, the former editor of Middle East Report; Nigel Parry, the former webmaster at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank; Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian graduate student and Vice President of the Arab American Action Network; and Arjan El Fassed, a Palestinian activist and co-founder of Al-Awda, the Palestine Right of Return Coalition.

The document’s authors note that their recommendations are based on two “dial test” sessions, in which subjects are asked to rate language using a simple dial mechanism, held in Chicago and Los Angeles during the first ten days of the Iraq war. The sessions, the report states, were held for the Wexner Foundation, one of two philanthropic groups created by Leslie Wexner, the founder of The Limited and one of the world’s 200 wealthiest people. The Wexner Foundation is best known for its support of the arts in Ohio, whereas the Wexner Heritage Foundation’s stated mission is to “educate Jewish communal leaders in the history, thought, traditions and contemporary challenges of the Jewish people” through a two-year program of seminars and Institutes.

However, the foundations were quick to distance themselves from the Israel Project report. In a prepared statement, the New Albany, Ohio-based organization stated, “the views in this document are solely the views of its authors and no way represent the views of the Wexner Foundations. The Foundations never requested such a document, nor did they author, edit, or review this document, which was disseminated without the Foundations’ knowledge or authorization.”

Staff members at Arlington, Virginia-based Luntz Research Cos. said Luntz was traveling, and declined several requests for comment on the report.

Related Links:

  • A roadmap of spin, MotherJones.com, May 1, 2003
  • Wexner Analysis: Israeli Communication Priorities 2003” (PDF)
  • The Luntz Research Companies