ISRAEL'S PUBLIC RELATIONS QUANDARY
By Avi Davis
History seems to have selected the first seven days of June as a week in which to regularly test the mettle of Israelis. In that week in 1967, the country's most dramatic war exploded on three fronts after Egypt and Syria had massed their troops on Israel's borders, had dismissed U.N. peacekeepers and blockaded Israeli ports. In the same week in 1982, the Lebanon War, Israel's longest and most controversial, began when the IDF crossed the Lebanese/ Israeli frontier to destroy PLO terrorist bases in southern Lebanon.
The two wars could not have been more different in consequence. The first was a defensive war, a response to a clear provocation by enemies who had vowed to destroy the State and annihilate its population. In the wake of those euphoric June days, there were few nations, outside the Arab world, who were prepared to condemn Israel's pre-emptive air strikes when they were so clearly defensive and had resulted in the destruction of both the Egyptian and Syrians air-forces in the war's first few hours. Resolutions authored by the Soviet Union in both the U.N Security Council and the General Assembly to condemn Israeli aggression failed and the war acquired its legendary status of the David who defeated Goliath.
The second war, while also defensive in character, was a different matter altogether. It quickly turned into a quagmire when the Israelis, after a enjoying a period of relative acceptance, became known to the world as occupiers. As the vacuum left by the routed PLO was rapidly filled by the new Iranian-backed guerilla force of Hizbullah, Israel understood that it was entering a new phase of its 35-year-old war with its Arab neighbors this one fought as much in the newspapers and television stations of the world as on the ground.
The battle for international public opinion has been joined as a bitter struggle for which Israel can barely claim any substantial victories. Arab propagandists, utlizing extensive commercial contacts with Western power-holders and media executives have for years plied Western airwaves with disinformation, employing eloquent retired statesmen and commentators to canvass their positions. The Israelis, through either lack of awareness, talent or resources are constantly playing catch-up, forced to react to bad press, rather than initiating aggressive positive spin of their own.
A classic example of this occurred last December when the Iranian registered ship Karin A was apprehended in the Red Sea, on a mission to deliver more than 50 tons of armaments to the Palestinian Authority. Here was a public relations bonanza unlike any other. Yasser Arafat had been caught red-handed, his fingerprints all over the operation and the signatures of his chief executives on the invoices. If Yasser Arafat was to be finally delegitimized and made irrelevant in the eyes of the Western media, this was the opportunity to do it.
It was flubbed. The press conference, held in the port of Eilat, carefully placed on display the entire captured arsenal, but it was conducted in Hebrew, accompanied by only a rudimentary English translation. It was also conducted in bright sunshine, without a protective covering offered to the members of the foreign press. Many had to move away to shadier spots for fear of sunstroke. The result was that the Karin A incident and its subsequent investigation was relegated to the inner pages of newspapers and quickly faded from view.
This lack of awareness and attention to detail permeates the Israeli government. Neither Israel's Government Press Office, nor its foreign ministry has a media training center that purposefully maps out media strategy and rigorously trains its spokesmen for verbal combat. Nor does it always choose its ambassadors with an eye on how they will play in Peoria. Israel's most recent ambassador to the United States , David Ivry, the senior representative to Israel's most significant ally, could barely enunciate a coherent English sentence on camera. His duties as a spokesman were eventually delegated to more articulate junior representatives.
There is only one real saving grace in this self-impelled bungy jump into fiasco and his name is Benjamin Netanyahu. For all his shortcomings as a political leader, Netanyahu is the most capable spokesman Israel has ever produced. His supple command of the English language and his ability to reduce sophisticated arguments to easily digested sound bites, gives him a credibility with the media that far exceeds anything in his counterparts. He certainly rivals for sheer class Israel's golden tongued former foreign minister and U.N. representative, Abba Eban.
But Netanyahu's skills are employed in a way that makes Eban look much like a piped-voiced adolescent in a high school debate. He does not wait for attacks but makes pre-emptive strikes, savaging the arguments of his Palestinian interlocutors, aggressively challenging lies and fabrications and leaving his audience with ringing phrases that hang in the air long after he has left the screen. He has learned, as many Arab representatives had before him, that offense is the best form of defense.
Whether Netanyahu is the precursor of a new line-up of Israeli spokesmen remains to be seen. While other fine men, such as Alon Pincus and Mark Regev have adopted some of his techniques, the Government Press Office still shows little sign of altering its lugubrious culture. There are still very few who talk about the media war in terms of strategy and long term planning. Sadly, without such foresight, Israel's second front looks destined to ape the military quagmire of 1982 rather than the brilliantly conceived pre-emptive strike of 1967.
Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and the senior editorial columnist for the online magazine Jewsweek.com.