What the Collapse of This Leading pro-Israel Group Means for the Future of Hasbara in the U.S.

For over a decade, TIP was a prominent pro-Israel advocacy group that drew support from Democrats and Republicans alike. Then came the Iran deal, an increasingly right-wing Netanyahu government and Donald Trump

Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama in Washington, January 2017, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking against the Iran deal in Congress, March 2015.
Rob Carr, AP / AP

WASHINGTON — The Jerusalem office of leading pro-Israel advocacy organization The Israel Project shuttered on Wednesday, with its local head citing polarization among America’s pro-Israel community as a key cause for its demise.

As previously reported by Haaretz, the U.S. nongovernmental organization has encountered a severe budget crisis and is in the process of shutting down completely. Wednesday’s development, with the office being cleared and all staff laid off, was the clearest indication yet that the organization will cease to exist in the near future.

Some of TIP’s supporters and partners were hoping to maintain the Jerusalem office — which specialized in working with foreign journalists stationed in Israel and had developed an extensive list of contacts among the world’s most prominent media outlets. However, as of now, the office seems unlikely to ever reopen.

“They just have no money left, absolutely nothing,” said one person who has worked closely with TIP over the years. Work at its U.S. office, in Washington, has also come to a halt, with TIP’s board of directors debating how exactly to end operations.

Lior Weintraub, the NGO’s vice president and head of its Israel office, wrote on Facebook Thursday morning (in Hebrew): “After almost 15 years, yesterday was the last day of the Israeli office of The Israel Project.” Weintraub wrote that the organization’s core mission — improving Israel’s image in the international media by working directly with journalists, editors and opinion makers — remains “more important than ever,” despite TIP’s current crisis.

Weintraub, a former Israeli diplomat who previously served as the chief of staff and spokesperson at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, provided the following explanation for TIP’s collapse: “So what happened? A lot. We were the Israeli branch of a U.S. organization that based its work mostly on the commitment and support of Americans, most of them Jewish, from both sides of the political divide — Democrats and Republicans.

“During the fight over the Iran nuclear deal [in 2015], we fought with everything we had, without any compromises. In the following two and a half years, when the polarization in America reached new heights, we maintained — forcefully and without compromise — a nonpartisan middle ground, because we knew it was the right way to serve Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Weintraub described how, in recent years, certain Democratic supporters left TIP “because we attacked the Iran deal; because Israel became part of the internal American political debate; because we didn’t choose sides; and because support for Israel became too complicated for some of them in these times.”

He added that some Republican supporters also left TIP at the same time: “They chose to support initiatives that fully expressed their personal worldviews. There were very few buyers for a centrist approach in 2019.”

According to Weintraub, “TIP became the first casualty of the polarization in the pro-Israel community in America — and in some ways that’s alright. Certain causes are worth paying a price for.”

In recent weeks, Haaretz spoke with former employees, donors and board members who witnessed TIP’s crisis from the inside. They described how the organization, which for years was considered a leading enterprise in the field of pro-Israel advocacy, went from being “the future of the pro-Israel community” to being on the verge of shuttering.

Other Israel advocacy organizations are following TIP’s collapse closely, trying to learn practical lessons from it in order to avoid a similar fate. “The entire combination of things that happened to us over the past years was unique,” said a former TIP employee, “but some of the problems we faced can definitely happen tomorrow at another organization — and maybe they are already happening and people just don’t know it yet.”

‘Doing something different’

The Israel Project was founded in March 2002, at the height of the second intifada — a time when many Israel supporters were frustrated at how the violent events in Israel and the occupied territories were being covered by media outlets worldwide. The organization’s founder was political and media consultant Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who led TIP for a decade.

The NGO experienced fast growth in its early years, moving from a core mission of working mostly with U.S. journalists to a wider effort to influence how Israel was being covered in multiple countries and languages. TIP expanded its efforts to Latin America and, through digital projects such as the Arabic website Al Masdar, into the Arab world.

One of TIP’s signature activities was inviting hundreds of influential international journalists to partake in helicopter tours over Israel, in order to highlight the country’s security challenges and its narrow borders. Before TIP began doing that, this kind of view over Israel was almost exclusively available to heads of state or visiting religious leaders. TIP used it to educate journalists about Israel’s geography. 

In 2012, Mizrahi left TIP and was replaced as CEO by Josh Block, a former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Block once compared AIPAC and TIP to a heavy aircraft carrier and a small, vibrant commando force. He took over the organization at a time when it was already closing some of its international activity and refocusing exclusively on the debate within the United States.

In this photo provided by the White House,  President Bush greets Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon upon Sharon's arrival to the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas, Monday, April 11, 2005.
AP

Under Block’s leadership, TIP began focusing more and more on social media and creating and publishing its own original content. “The original mission of the organization was to work with journalists and influence their content,” said a person who held a senior position in the organization. “Over time, the organization diverted from that mission and began focusing much more on creating its own independent content. The thing is, creating your own content costs a lot of money.”

One project that required heavy investment was an internet magazine called The Tower, which offered original articles on the Middle East. The former senior employee told Haaretz that The Tower “published excellent articles, and some of them also reached a wide audience. But the money that went into the project didn’t make sense. The organization spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its own media platform, which most of the time had very limited exposure. This wasn’t what the donors of the organization originally signed up for. They wanted to change how Israel was being covered in the Washington Post and CNN.”

Nuclear option

Another former employee, who worked in the Washington office, offered a different take, saying that TIP’s work in D.C. in recent years “definitely had influence, and put a spotlight on issues that are now part of the mainstream conversation in the Jewish and pro-Israel community — such as anti-Semitism on college campuses and the fight against BDS in state legislatures,” referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. “TIP was ahead of the curve on these issues and others, and at the same time it managed to remain nonpartisan and work with people on both sides of the aisle.”

Not everyone agrees with that assessment. Some critics believe that during the fight over the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, TIP became too closely aligned with the Netanyahu government in Israel and Republican critics of President Barack Obama in Washington.

Block and TIP’s D.C. office assumed a prominent role in advocating against the Obama administration’s deal. That fight led to discomfort and disappointment among several large Democratic donors to TIP, who wanted the NGO to work with the media to improve Israel’s image, not brief journalists against the signature foreign policy initiative of the Obama presidency.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking at the joint Congress Session in Washington, March 3, 2015.
Amos Ben Gershom / GPO

Even so, the organization succeeded in raising almost $9 million in donations in 2015, and was expanding its operations in both Washington and Jerusalem. By 2016, however, donations dropped by almost half, to $4.9 million. Block’s salary during that year was close to $440,000 — a large sum for an executive in a Jewish nonprofit.

From 2016 onward, donations continued to drop as major donors either left the organization or significantly downgraded their level of support. “People who used to give them $1 million every year at some point either stopped giving them anything, or gave much less than previously,” said one source with knowledge of the NGO’s fundraising operation.

TIP historically had a small group of donors who gave large sums of money — from hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, to $1 million or more in certain years. This allowed the NGO to grow and expand, but also meant that if even a single donor cut back their commitment, that could cause substantial damage to the organization.

From 2015 to 2018, TIP lost not just one but several major donors who had previously given large sums of money but were no longer interested in supporting it. Donors affiliated with the Democratic Party cut their support for reasons such as the organization’s tough criticism of Obama and the Israeli government’s sharp turn to the right following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 election victory. Meanwhile, at least one major Republican donor stopped supporting the organization because it wasn’t sufficiently supportive of Donald Trump.

“Their fundraising just fell through the floor,” said one person who used to support TIP but left during this time period. “It was obvious by 2017 that there was a crisis, but they didn’t address the core reasons behind it. They thought they could just cut some money here and there, and by the next year something would happen and they would be able to raise more donations. But that just never happened.”

The organization’s board was aware TIP was losing money, but only in recent months came the realization that TIP wasn’t simply in trouble — it was on the verge of collapse. At this point, the board began holding phone discussions every other week in an attempt to see if the organization could be saved. “They soon realized we just couldn’t pay our debts because we were simply running out of money,” said a former employee.

In early July, Block resigned from the organization. He sent an email to staff and supporters citing “the polarized political climate in the United States, both in the wider body politic and inside the Jewish community,” as the reason for TIP’s troubles. He did not state, however, that the organization was going to shut down completely.

By this point, most of the organization’s workers had already been informed they would be losing their jobs. During the same time period, Block flew to Israel to attend the annual Herzliya Conference.

“People there didn’t understand what was going on at TIP,” said a person from the organization. “They were asking him who was going to replace him, how the organization will move forward, when in reality by then everyone knew inside that he wasn’t just leaving — we were all being shut down.” 

A person closely familiar with TIP's work over the years told Haaretz that the organization found itself in the eye of a "perfect storm that doesn’t lend itself to a simple headline. The organization was built on the generosity of 10-15 major philanthropists and foundations. It’s what allowed for such incredible growth but it was also risky, especially as the political environment became toxic."

The same source praised the organization for its work, calling its demise "a tragedy" for the Jewish and pro-Israel community. "They were a cutting-edge organization and an invaluable resource to journalists and television reporters, helping them to produce far more balanced and nuanced pieces on the complex issues facing Israel. Their use of helicopter tours to educate the media about Israel’s security challenges was modeled on Ariel Sharon’s strategy for educating George Bush. It was game changing.”

Yet according to this person, the organization's board of directors could have saved TIP - if it had intervened in time, when the financial troubles began to appear.

"Block was given way too much authority and independence," the source explained. "Even as there were numerous executive and board meetings, his reassurances were never challenged and he was left to manage the crisis. TIP could have been saved if only there had been a strategic restructuring a year ago."

For other Jewish organizations, the source added, a main lesson from TIP's collapse is that "we must reexamine our commitment to governance and leadership. Ultimately, we need strong boards to set policies, to share their expertise, and to hold their talented CEOs accountable. If we don’t learn this lesson, there will be other crises like TIP and we simply can't afford that.”

The board met in mid-July to discuss the best way to shut down the organization — and whether it was still possible to somehow save the Israel office, which was still successfully carrying out the group’s original mission: outreach to the foreign media in Israel. On Wednesday, it turned out the answer to that particular question was a negative one.