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The Israel Project pitches peace as well as Israel

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Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and The Israel Project president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi are pictured at a Sept. 21 dinner in New York hosted by Mizrahi’s group. David Neff

WASHINGTON – Two months ago the Israel Project was wondering, in a Capitol Hill briefing, “Is the Palestinian Authority preparing its people for peace?”

The answer was a pretty unequivocal “no.”

Delivering the briefing was Itamar Marcus, a founder of Palestinian Media Watch who has posited that anti-Semitism is not just endemic to Palestinian nationalism but central to it.

Last month, the same Israel Project said it was “honored” to host a dinner for Jewish groups in New York with Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad — and was even more willing to be charmed by him.

“Prime Minister Fayyad’s spirit of hope was extremely welcome,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the founder and president of The Israel Project. “We know that some people will criticize us for falling for a Palestinian ‘charm offensive.’ However, there is nothing offensive about charm. More Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, should sit together over dinner and exchange ideas — especially when it can help lead to security and peace.”

Contradiction?

Not at all, Mizrahi told JTA in an interview: Both events stem from The Israel Project’s mandate to accurately represent Israel’s policies. In this case, Mizrahi said, she got her hechsher for Fayyad from Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The prime minister of Israel said that this is his partner for peace,” Mizrahi said. “If the supposedly right-wing prime minister of Israel says this is partner for peace, it is.”

Insiders say that The Israel Project’s recent aggressive outreach — to Palestinians in particular and Arabs and Muslims generally — is a signal of Netanyahu’s seriousness in his direct talks with Palestinian leaders, which were renewed recently at the behest of the Obama administration. Netanyahu is giving a green light to American pro-Israel groups to take the talks seriously.

“You’ve got to welcome anyone who reaches out,” said Hadar Susskind, director of policy for J Street, the self-described pro-peace, pro-Israel organization, which was not present at the meeting. “It can only help for people to understand each other and for all parties to end the conflict.”

Past peace negotiations have been hindered to a degree by vigorous opposition by some American Jewish groups. In 1995, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee played a critical role in getting a U.S. law passed that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital over the private objections of then-President Clinton and then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who did not want the issue hampering negotiations.

Mizrahi, 46, was an heir to a cosmetics dynasty who entered the political sphere through Democratic politics — she had an unsuccessful run for Congress in her home state of North Carolina. She cuts a figure that is at once imposing and disarming: Mizrahi is tall, always impeccably and brightly dressed, and exudes deference and charm as soon as she enters a room, remembering every face and details about her interlocutors.

She was among three women who co-founded the Israel Project in 2002, appalled by the image-battering Israel was taking during the second intifada. Their strategy was to help make Israel’s case through friendly outreach and assistance to the media.

The Israel Project has expanded to a team of 44 and two offices in Washington and Jerusalem. Its annual budget has surpassed $7 million.

Mizrahi, as president, occasionally has been caught in the trap of not testing ideas that may seem normative in Israel but sound a jarring note in the wider world. For instance last year, an internal document suggested referring to the removal of settlements as “ethnic cleansing.” She had the reference removed.

Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, which helped arrange the recent evening with Fayyad, said his organization sees engaging with the mainstream of the American Jewish community as critical to making negotiations work.

“We have to have the best possible relations with the widest swath of Jewish American groups,” Ibish said. “We want to talk with any organization that is interested in a two-state solution.”

The American Task Force on Palestine also has ties with AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, he said.

Ibish, however, questioned The Israel Project’s ties with Marcus and other figures who over the years have depicted the whole of Islam as implacably radical.

Mizrahi said her relationship with Marcus and Palestinian Media Watch, which tracks Palestinian incitement and has been criticized by left-wing groups for ignoring a diminution of that incitement in recent years, was tactical and not ideological. Exposing and tamping down incitement create the conditions for peace, she said.

“When you end the incitement, you can create space for Palestinian leaders to say ‘yes,’ “ said Mizrahi, recalling talking to a U.S. negotiator during the 1990s who said that Yasser Arafat never fully embraced peacemaking because he feared for his life.

“I believe that work is incredibly good for both sides, whatever its motivation,” Mizrahi said of Palestinian Media Watch.

That thinking also was behind a new initiative to replicate The Israel Project’s success with U.S. and European media by providing information for the Arab and Muslim media. A staff of four has cultivated relations with 2,000 Arab reporters in the region, Mizrahi said.

U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a board member of Mizrahi’s organization, said it was a natural next step.

“If you had to pick an area where we had to get the pro-peace-with-Israel message out, it’s in the Arabic language,” he told JTA.

After polling by The Israel Project showed increased support for a two-state solution in the Palestinian areas but steadfast opposition in Arab countries, Mizrahi said she saw an opening for outreach to Arab media.

The Israel Project emphasizes positive outreach and offers of assistance to media rather than the blandishments and chastisements that characterize many pro-Israel groups.

“We’re booking and doing interviews on Al Jazeera,” Mizrahi said, sounding slightly amazed at it herself.

JTA

 
 

Ari Fleischer comes to New Jersey

Former White House press secretary dishes on Bush, Obama, Israel

Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary, is coming to speak June 12 as part of an effort by the Republican Jewish Coalition to ramp up its outreach in New Jersey in advance of the 2012 election (see sidebar). The event, “A Conversation with Ari Fleischer and Steve Malzberg,” will take place at Cong. Sons of Israel in Manalapan. Fleischer will discuss his journey from Democrat to Republican from a Jewish perspective, and share impressions of “what September 11 was like, from within the White House,” according to RJC spokesman Greg Menken. In advance of his talk, Fleischer spoke by phone with The Jewish Standard about current affairs as well as his years working in the White House.

Jewish Standard: I understand you’ll be speaking this month in New Jersey about your journey from Democrat to Republican, from a Jewish perspective. Can you tell me a little bit, in advance, about that aspect of your talk?

Ari Fleischer: I was raised in a very Democratic family in New York and my parents were very involved with politics. I entered college as liberal Democrat and, because of Jimmy Carter, I graduated as conservative Democrat. Jimmy Carter kept apologizing for America, the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, and I thought Carter was leaving us weak. Because of his belief in peace through strength, I fell for Ronald Reagan. The Democratic Party at that time was for a nuclear freeze, and I thought that would be a terrible mistake. I thought we needed to respond to what the Soviets were doing, and so I changed parties a few months after I graduated.

J.S.: I think for many Republican Jews, awareness of the Holocaust links to the need to support Israel’s right to self-defense as well as a belief that it’s important, when possible, for a superpower to come to the aid of the defenseless. At essence it is an anti-appeasement mindset that is influenced by the Holocaust. Can you relate to that? Did awareness of Holocaust history help shape your political philosophy?

A.F.: The Holocaust has been in the backdrop [of my consciousness] in the past 15 years, not as a 21-year-old who made the change — I hadn’t been to Auschwitz at the time. It was more as I mentioned [the standoff between] the U.S. and the Soviets and the Iranian hostage crisis … but now … with regard to Israel, and how vulnerable Israel is, certainly, if the philosophy of peace through strength makes sense anywhere, it is in Israel.

J.S.: What did you make of last week’s flap in which President Obama said that, as part of a final peace deal, Israel would need to return to the pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed swaps?

A.F.: It was an unnecessary wound to inflict on those who care about Israel’s security, and about peace. He retreated from it two days later at AIPAC, which means he should not have said it to begin with.… My sense is he holds no special emotional bond toward Israel, he faults both sides equally, and he would like to be the man in the middle. That’s why he can say return to the ‘67 borders without having sensitivity about how bad that will sound to Israelis and Israel’s supporters.

Look at his Cairo speech — he talked about Jewish suffering in the Holocaust and in the next sentence about Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israelis. He equates the two and omits vital facts such as none of the Arab states took in Palestinians, Palestinians [and other Arabs] attacked Israel in ‘48 and [on an ongoing basis] because they fundamentally reject Israel’s right to exist. I found [his statement] troublesome and it was a self-inflicted wound that was unnecessary.

J.S.: There’s a general perception that President George W. Bush, your former boss, was sensitive to the importance of respecting Israel’s right to deal with its own problems in its own way. From your position within the White House, what factors do you think produced that understanding in him?

A.F.: From the beginning, the president distrusted Yasser Arafat. Arafat lied to the president about a shipment of weapons from Iran, and that convinced the president [that] Arafat couldn’t be trusted. After September 11, President Bush saw that what he was doing to protect the U.S. was similar to what Israeli leaders were doing…. He knew what he would do if rockets were fired into America. He came into office pro-Israel and that put even more steel in a solid spine.

J.S.: How do you think President Obama is doing on national security and foreign policy? Do you think he’s following [President George W.] Bush’s lead at all?

A.F.: Yes, I think he’s following [Bush’s] lead on wiretaps, indefinite detentions, Guantanamo Bay, military trials [for terror suspects], [and] predator drone strikes, all of which he accused George Bush of violating the Constitution over. I’m glad Obama is a convert to the cause; I just wish he hadn’t criticized Bush the way he did. On foreign policy, this president has a habit of speaking when he should be silent and being silent when he should speak. In 2009 Iranians took to the streets in peaceful protest and were brutalized by the Iranian government and the president didn’t [initially] speak out. When Syrians peacefully protested and were being gunned down, he was silent. When Israelis built housing he instantly condemned them using some of the harshest words in diplomacy.

J.S.: Do you approve of anything President Obama is doing?

A.F.: Obama is doing a good job on anti-terrorist activities.

J.S.: Would you say that in this area, his policies have vindicated those of George W. Bush?

A.F.: Yes.

J.S.: Where do you stand on the waterboarding controversy? Do you believe the waterboarding of the three high-value detainees that were subjected to this harsh interrogation tactic did lead to [Osama] bin Laden’s capture and in light of that, was President Bush justified in approving the tactic?

A.F.: Indefinite detention certainly led to information about the [bin Laden] courier [who eventually led to bin Laden], no ifs ands or buts. Waterboarding, depending on whom you talk to, may or may not have played a role in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed corroborating information about the courier. Whether it did or didn’t, I still think any president in office after September 11 would have faced difficult decisions about the use of these techniques. Uncomfortable as I am with waterboarding, I think there should be some allowance for the possibility we could have been attacked again at any moment.

J.S.: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about what it was like for you to serve as press secretary for President George W. Bush?

A.F.: It was always a great honor to work for someone who had so much Israel in his heart.

 
 
 
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