The Israel Project is a bi-partisan pro-Israel messaging organization with close relationships to many people spread across the Israeli political spectrum and with liberal centrist pro-Israel Democrats in the U.S. government.
TIP is perhaps best known for its polling and messaging efforts to improve Israel’s image with the public, and the helicopter rides they offer foreign journalists stationed in Israel, so that the size of the country, especially in comparison to its hostile neighbors, is understood.
In what has been a stable yet rapidly-expanding organization, several changes have recently taken place at TIP that surprised the somewhat inbred pro-Israel world.
First, TIP’s ubiquitous founder and president left – for good this time – but perhaps far more shocking, the former number two at TIP has joined J Street. Whereas TIP is focused on helping Israel improve its image throughout the world, many consider J Street to be the source of more harm to Israel’s image than just about any other organization, and certainly more than any other organization which claims to be pro-Israel.
TIP was founded ten years ago by three women, one of whom became the president and remained in that position until this summer. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi was a communications and political consulting strategist as well as a former operative with the Democratic National Committee until she launched TIP. After ten years, TIP grew to an organization with staff of more than 80 and with offices in three different cities – including Jerusalem – and an annual budget of up to $11 million.
The TIP Board came up with a new strategic plan last year, and Laszlo Mizrahi had already decided it was time for her to move on.
The board’s strategic plan was to scale back the enormous worldwide focus – TIP was not only working on pro-Israel messaging in the United States but was also working with Israeli, Russian, Spanish, British, German, Arabic and Chinese press to improve Israel’s image.
One former employee told The Jewish Press that it was hard to justify spending lots of money to improve relations with Russian and Chinese journalists, given that the press is tightly controlled by the government in both of those countries.
The search to find a new TIP president and executive director concluded when former American Israel Public Affairs Committee spokesperson Josh Block agreed to sign on. Block’s mandate included a more tightly focused agenda – concentrating on the U.S. market where results are more likely and more quantifiable. He also took the helm when the nature of the media messaging was shifting, with a stronger emphasis on digital engagement – twitter, Facebook and other social media. The nature of these changes – not in message but in delivery – meant TIP was going to become a leaner machine.
Alan Elsner, the former number two at TIP, saw the writing on the wall and left the organization earlier this fall. Elsner had been a journalist with Reuters for more than 30 years, but retired from that job two years ago. In a move that surprised some, Elsner joined TIP and was its senior communications director during his two year stint.
Elsner told The Jewish Press that he first met Laszlo Mizrahi while he was Reuters’ political correspondent. At that time Laszlo Mizrahi was what Elsner called a DNC “operative,” and she had been a source for him. Over the years the two maintained a friendship, and after Elsner left Reuters, Laszlo Mizrahi asked him to join TIP.
Taking a position at a hasbara organization is something few journalists would deign to do, especially one coming from an organization like Reuters. But while some folks expressed surprise when Elsner went to TIP, he said that because he was “retired” from journalism, he was finally able to do what he really wanted. And Israel has always been important to Elsner.
Alan Elsner grew up in England, but his parents eventually moved to Israel. Elsner lived in Israel for eight years, and served in the Israel Defense Forces from 1981-82. His sister and brother-in-law still live there, in the south, near Beer Sheva, as do their four sons. Elsner is a child of a Holocaust survivor, and one of the books he wrote is about his father’s experience during World War II, “Guarded by Angels.”
Laszlo Mizrahi – who told The Jewish Press that she had no comment for this article – developed the TIP style of not criticizing either journalists or Israeli government officials for doing the wrong thing, but instead to offer material and resources to the former and information and polling data to the latter, to help achieve the desired results – a more positive image for Israel. TIP does not create Israel’s message. Instead, TIP helps to package Israel’s message – either through changes in word choice, context or emphasis – so that the global audience is less likely to have its feathers ruffled – or its prejudices kick in.
Elsner, on the other hand, says he now understands that his personal style and ideology is better suited to J Street.
Echoing a statement released by J Street when Elsner accepted the new position as its senior communications director this week, he told The Jewish Press, “accentuating positive messages about Israel, while it can be useful, ultimately is not going to get Israel to where it needs to go.”
Unlike TIP, J Street is not interested in helping Israel deliver its message with better packaging. J Street has its own idea of what Israel’s message should be, and is perfectly happy delivering its own message to rather than for Israel. That message is that there must be a Palestinian State and any efforts that get in the way of creating that result – and their primary focus for criticism is Israel – is destructive and should be treated accordingly by the U.S. administration.
So what should Israel be doing? According to Elsner, “Israel should find a way to get back to the peace process.” He said, “continuing to build settlements, just eating up land where the Palestinian State is going to be established” takes everyone further away from a solution.
When asked what message he has for Israel, Elsner’s response was not surprising. He said, “the only way to safeguard Israel as a democratic, Jewish state is to reach a peace agreement with the ‘Palestinians’ so that they have their own state, that has to be the priority.”
Elsner continued, “Israel cannot take positions that make it [the ‘Two State Solution’] more difficult, and Israeli politicians are making short term choices for political reasons, ones that always outweigh the long term good of the nation.”
Elsner criticized the recent announcement approving a stage in the process of construction in the area known as E-1 by Prime Minister Netanyahu. Some former colleagues described Elsner as a “Bibi hater.”
“There should be room in the discussion for those who want to pursue a real peace process and who value dialogue above settlements,” is the way J Street, and also Elsner – now publicly – frame the issue.
When asked whether he thought it was acceptable for a future Palestinian State to forbid Jews from living there, Elsner’s response echoed what the J Street crowd calls “Jewish out of bounds talk,” i.e. they claim it is not acceptable to speak harshly about the “settlements.” In this instance, when it is suggested that those who push the Two State Solution are actually promoting a Judenrein state, the suggestion is balked at, turned away from, but ultimately never addressed head on.
In an effort to draw out Elsner on this concept, The Jewish Press reminded him of the tragic story of Koby Mandell, the 13 year old Jewish American-Israeli boy who, with his friend Yosef Ishran, was bludgeoned to death in 2001 by Arab Palestinians in the wadi outside of his home in Tekoa, in the Judean desert.
The Mandell family moved to Tekoa in the wake of the Oslo Accords. They believed peace was truly going to break out between Jews and Arabs, and when they moved to Tekoa, according to Koby’s father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, they really did not know whether the land would be part of Israel or of a Palestinian State, and they didn’t think it mattered.
Elsner’s response – while perhaps not intentionally harsh, and certainly not intentionally ironic – was that lots of blood has been spilled on both sides, and that there was an excessive level of naivete many years ago that no longer is as prevalent.
Since announcing his new position, Elsner said he has received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, especially from his friends and relatives in Israel.
How he lasted two years in senior leadership at The Israel Project is the real mystery.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus