Founded in 2002, the Israel Project (TIP) is a Washington- and Jerusalem-based advocacy organization that aims to disseminate information about Israel and the Middle East with the goal of giving a "more positive public face" to the country. Among its more important donors is the controversial right-wing hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, whose financial dealings have at times appeared to track with key items on TIP's advocacy agenda.TIP has supported the controversial wall along the West Bank, advocated a hard line on Iran, and promoted the work of militarist think tanks and writers—even as it has claimed to be a non-profit educational organization that "gets facts about Israel and the Middle East to press, public officials and the public."
TIP's core activities include publishing talking points, issuing action alerts, promoting speakers, creating PR booklets for Israeli spokespersons, commissioning public opinion polls, and placing television advertisements. Since 2013, it has also published The Tower, an online news magazine on Middle Eastern affairs. In addition, TIP publishes an Arabic-language news site, Al Masdar, which claims to deliver "a balanced and honest picture of the Jewish world, Israel, and the international scene."
TIP is well connected politically. As of mid-2014, its Board of Advisors included approximately a dozen members from both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Advisers have include Reps. Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Sens. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), among others. Retired Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and former Rep. Allen West (R-Fl) have also served on TIP's Board of Advisors.
TIP's president and CEO is Josh Block, a former spokesperson for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and fellow at the hawkish, Democratic Party-aligned Progressive Policy Institute. Block has helmed the organization since August 2012, when he replaced TIP founder, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi. Commenting on the change in leadership, Nathan Guttman of Forward wrote: "Block's reputation as a pro-Israel bulldog seems to stand in stark contrast to that of Mizrahi, who chose mostly to engage with journalists and policymakers rather than fight with them."
Block has helpedsteer the group away from the global focus it maintained under its former president and toward a more parochial, Washington-centric approach. "There exists today," Block said shortly after taking over the organization, "a well-coordinated and financed, albeit fringe, echo chamber of organizations and individuals ranging from anti-Zionist conspiracists and apologists for Iran, and [for] terrorists like Hamas and Hezbollah, to anti-Israel advocates and those hypocritically and relentlessly critical of Israel, seeking to spread and mainstream distortions and misinformation in pursuit of their misguided and often hostile agenda." TIP, Block added, "blunts the spread of false, malignant, even anti-Semitic claptrap."
Under Block's leadership, TIP has engaged directly in divisive partisan battles in Washington. In one instance, when Block derided future Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's "realist" views on Iran as "well outside the mainstream" during Hagel's confirmation battle, a former administration official familiar with TIP remarked that Block's confrontational style "calls into question what the role of TIP is, could be and should be."
Action Alerts and Talking Points
TIP has received notoriety for a number of its activities. For instance, it has been criticized for undertaking confidential studies on how Israeli spokespersons can enhance their PR skills before an American audience. A 2009 study leaked to Newsweek and titled "The Israel Project's 2009 Global Language Dictionary" was created by Republican pollster and strategist Frank Luntz. It claimed to serve as a "guide to visionary leaders who are on the front lines of fighting the media war for Israel."
Among its suggestions, the 2009 study suggested framing the issue of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as "mass Palestinian immigration." The logic behind this, Luntz explained, is that Americans are "afraid of mass immigration of anyone right now" and thus would be more inclined to side with Israel on this issue.
Patrick Cockburn of the Independent commented that the report should be "required reading for everybody, especially journalists, interested in any aspect of Israeli policy because of its 'dos and don'ts' for Israeli spokesmen." He added that it helped illuminate "the gap between what Israeli officials and politicians really believe, and what they say."
TIP has been accused of frequently overstating purported threats to Israel. In 2013, for example, Josh Block announced that TIP opposed the Obama administration's nuclear diplomacy with Iran, warning that any agreement that allows Iran to peacefully enrich uranium on its own soil—a right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—would be an "unacceptable outcome."
In an August 2012 "TIP Take Action Alert," the group proposed a number of alarmist "talking points" for a message that TIP followers could send to U.S. leaders, including that "Iran's leaders are defying U.N. resolutions and world opinion by continuing to develop nuclear weapons while issuing frequent threats to destroy Israel." However, at the time of the action alert, U.S. intelligence agencies held that there was no evidence indicating that the country had begun work on a nuclear weapon.
In July 2014, TIP launched a new website, "No Bomb for Iran," which included fear-mongering images and statements about Iran and its nuclear program.The Inter Press Service (IPS) described it as "complete with a scary black-and-white photo of a mushroom cloud and the slogan, 'If Iran Goes Nuclear, Terror Goes Nuclear.'"
Geared towards mobilizing individuals to sign petitions to "help increase pressure on Iran and Washington," the website implicitly critiques the Obama administration's diplomatic strategy towards Iran. According to the site, a "good deal" with Iran is one that curtails Iran's ability to develop its "ballistic missile program" and "dismantles" centrifuges in the country. Iran has never been required to dismantle all of its centrifuges—which it has the right to operate for power generation purposes—and the Obama administration has clearly stipulated that missiles are not the subject of ongoing negotiations.
In July 2011, TIP issued a dire warning about a then-impending flotilla planned by pro-Palestinian activists to show solidarity with the people of Gaza and the West Bank: "Almost two months after Lebanese and Syrian protesters stormed Israel's northern borders threatening Israel's national security, activists are again ready to challenge Israel's legitimacy by air and sea." TIP quoted Israeli Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch as saying, "The same hooligans who tried to break the law and disrupt the peace will not be allowed into Israel and will return to their home countries."
TIP has heavily criticized the Obama administration's policy on Israel. During the 2009 settlements row between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama administration officials, TIP claimed that efforts to freeze the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories amounted to "a kind of ethnic cleansing to move all Jews" out of the West Bank.
During the 2013-2014 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Block said, "Jewish groups throughout the process should be urging sensitivity to Israeli security needs in a tumultuous neighborhood" and "should be prepared as well for the possibility of the talks failing due to Palestinian intransigence."TIP launched a website called "Yes to Peace," which stresses "Israel's need for a security presence in the Jordan Valley." The site has a detailed infographic advocating for an Israeli presence in the West Bank's Jordan Valley and features a quote from UN Security Council resolution 242, saying Israel must have "safe and secure borders."The website fails to mention that resolution 242 also requires Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and establish its borders at the pre-1967 War boundary—a position accepted internationally, including by the United States.
In 2009, the group found itself in hot water for dubious signatures on an anti-Iran petition it commissioned. Reported Spencer Ackerman: "A closer look at those signatories raises substantial questions about their authenticity. For instance, signatories 84,854 through 85,071 are all named 'Vince Vince'—although the Israel Project claims that all those different Vince Vinces are from different states. Well, sort of. Some of them are from states listed by recognizable acronyms like MN or AZ or PA. Others, however, are from the great states of GU and AA and XX. … Nor does the curious reader even have to examine the list that far down. Signatory number five is listed as Comfylovely ……. —and no, those aren't ellipses I've placed in for dramatic effect; that's Comfylovely's listed last name—from the proud city of Davao in the historic state of XX. …That's not even the most disturbing part of the signatories. The Israel Project lists the following as enthusiastic supporters of sanctioning Iran: Viagra Kaufen Viagra Kaufen, London, N.Y. (signatory #84,570); Porn Sex Video from London, N.Y. (signatory #62,751-62,756); Stupidwhiteman V, who declined to list an address (signatory #83,780); and Xbox 360 accessories — that's a first and last name — from New York, N.Y. (signatory #90,046)."
Ackerman quoted TIP's founder and president Jennifer Laszio Mizrahi as telling him, "They're activists and they go through a secure thing. We have 140,000 activists who work with us, so yes. A lot of them have similar names, because they're related."
Polls and Advertisements
TIP's other core activities include funding public opinion polls on U.S. views of Israel and its neighbors and producing TV commercials promoting an Israel-centric view of the Middle East. In early 2004, for example, the group began running 30-second TV ads across the United States, which according to UPI featured "mothers of victims killed in suicide bombings" in an effort to build support for building the so-called security barrier between Israel and the West Bank.
The polling methods used by the Israel Project have on many occasions received criticism from polling experts. In one such case in 2014, TIP claimed that a poll it had carried out found "broad, bipartisan support for increased sanctions" on Iran. However, pollster Dina Smeltz of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said the poll was not neutral and that its results should not be considered credible. Smeltz noted that when asked directly and clearly about whether the United States should increase sanctions on Iran, a majority of Americans (52 percent) were against it. Only when TIP framed survey questions with language that was biased and clearly attempting to persuade respondents to "change their views one way or another" does support emerge for TIP's hawkish agenda on Iran.
A December 2013 poll conducted by GOP pollster Frank Luntz on behalf of the Israel Project was also criticized. According to ThinkProgress, which surveyed American opinion on Iran, the poll offered "an unrealistic menu of choices" and failed "to inform respondents that more sanctions now would likely end negotiations with Iran."
Political Influence and Connections
Soon after it was founded, TIP quickly generated attention. In August 2004, for example, when Ambassador Arye Mekel, Israel's then newly appointed consul general in New York, made his first public appearance in the United States, it was at an event organized by TIP and held on a yacht at New York's Chelsea Piers. Reported the New York Sun: "The Israel Project, founded in 2002, is a newcomer to the already crowded field of American pro-Israel organizations. But it seems to be welcomed by the established groups: also in attendance at the event yesterday were the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, and the executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, Michael Miller."
More impressive was TIP's July 19, 2007 press conference held on Capitol Hill to publicize the "Iranian threat," at which a number of current and former congressional members and well-known neoconservative pundits spoke, including Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy. According to TIP's website, among those speaking at the event were Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA), Rep. (now Sen.) Mark Kirk (R-IL), Rep. Jon Porter (R-NV), and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY). Engel, who serves on TIP's board of advisers, told the audience: "This is our Munich. We need to stand up to Iran and tell them they cannot thumb their noses at world opinion."
Many 2008 presidential candidates contributed statements to the press conference, including Sen. Joe Biden, (D-DE), Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), former Sen. John Edwards, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). In his statement, Obama said: "Allowing Iran, a radical theocracy that supports terrorism and openly threatens its neighbors, to acquire nuclear weapons is a risk we cannot take. All nations need to understand that, while Iran's most explicit and intolerable threats are aimed at Israel, its conduct threatens all of us."
Although the organization is not represented by many of the usual neoconservative suspects who populate the boards of other like-minded organizations, TIP's website prominently promotes many hardline groups and personalities. Its website has promoted the work of the Meyrav Wurmser-founded Middle East Media Research Institute; Clifford May and Walid Phares of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies; Gaffney and CSP; David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Ilan Berman; and Ken Timmerman of the Middle East Data Project.
According to TIP's 2012 Form 990, the group collected around $6 million in revenues – up from around $2.8 million the preceding year.
Klarman, owner of the Times of Israel, has been both a major funder of TIP and a member of its board of advisors. Between 2008 and 2011, he gave the group nearly $4 million. His Klarman Family Foundation has also supported a number of controversial Islamic groups, including the American Islamic Forum for Democracy founded by Zuhdi Jasser, a controversial promoter of surveillance of Muslim communities. Klarman is also a prominent funder of the American Islamic Congress, an organization that the George W. Bush administration helped start.
Billionaire investor Paul Singer gave TIP $500,000 in 2007 and $1 million in 2012, the year Josh Block took the helm of organization. LobeLog has reported that since Block became the CEO and president of TIP, Singer has become one of TIP's "two largest donors."
Singer's funding of TIP garnered attention in early 2015 after Argentina President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner highlighted how groups in the United States who have received donations from Singer have been among the more vocal proponents of the idea that Argentina has tried to cover up alleged Iranian terrorist attacks. Singer—whose practice of purchasing the debt of developing nations has earned him the moniker "vulture Singer"—has had a long-running dispute with Argentina over of its debt, which his hedge fund bought up after Argentina defaulted in 2001.
Several Singer-backed organizations, including TIP as well as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the American Enterprise Institute, have heavily promoted the idea that Argentina has attempted cover up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires. Kirchner's comments highlighting the link between these organizations and Singer spurred the Washington Post to write an editorial accusing her of resorting to "anti-Semitic conspiracy theories."
Opined the Post: "What do lobbyists at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the director of a Washington think tank have to do with hedge-fund manager Paul Singer and the Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who died mysteriously in January? … Well, according to Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, they are all part of a 'global modus operandi' that 'generates international political operations of any type, shape and color.'"
Alberto Nisman was the chief investigator of the 1994 Buenos Aires bombing who was found dead in January 2015 on the night before he was scheduled to provide testimony about his charges against Argentina President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In 2006, Nisman accused Iran of being behind the 1994 bombing, a claim that many observers have argued is based on flimsy evidence. Shortly before his death, Nisman made the charge that the Kirchner government was trying conceal Iran's role in the attack in order to secure favorable trade agreements with Iran.
Many observers derided the Post's coverage of the story. "If the Post had 'followed the money,' it perhaps would not have been so 'confused' by the connections Kirchner highlighted between Singer and those who have attacked her government over its allegedly nefarious relations with Iran," wrote Jim Lobe and Charles David on LobeLog. "Kirchner may indeed have a political interest in claiming that an international conspiracy is defaming her government, but the evidence for such a conspiracy in this case is much stronger than the Post suggests," Lobe and Davis added. "Millions of dollars have flowed from Singer's pockets to the various neoconservative groups whose advocacy of confrontation with Iran has extended to attacking Argentina, in particular over its ties to the Islamic Republic." Lobe and Davis then highlighted how Singer and his Elliot Management Corporation stand to "make as much as $2 billion if they can collect full value on the debt they bought for pennies on the dollar after the country's 2001 default."
According to writer Eli Clifton, since Block took over TIP and funding from Singer increased, there "has since provided a steady stream of content critical of Kirchner's government" from TIP.