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Israel Fails to Counter Arab Propaganda

YOWUSA.COM, 08-December-02
Marshall Masters


Losing the "Al Aqsa" Brand War

"Al Aqsa" Brand WarNaming the current war the "Al Aqsa intifada" proved to be a stroke of Palestinian PR genius, as much of the Western news media adopted this Palestinian brand name that casts the conflict internationally in the image Arafat sought.16 For its part, Israel's failure to "rebrand" the conflict on its own terms to reflect the conflict's true nature -- a pre-planned war of terror against Israeli citizens -- placed the Jewish state on the defensive in the international court of public opinion from the first day of the conflict.

Israel's past wars, from their outset, were promptly named by the IDF, and the name gained currency in the international news media. The 1967 Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the 1982 "Peace for Galilee" Operation had all been named on Israel's terms.

This time, however, military and political assessments on the ground led to Israeli hesitations to "brand" the outbreak of violence in Israeli terms. This occurred, first of all, because few IDF and government officials anticipated that the initial weeks of the conflict would evolve into a full-blown war of terror.17 Second, political considerations prevented Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and senior Foreign Ministry officials from rushing to brand the conflict a war of terror. Branding the armed conflict at any stage would have been a clear admission of failure of Peres' own political vision, enshrined in the Oslo peace process, and a bedrock of the Labor party's platform. Therefore, Peres sought to push a fundamentally less aggressive message to the foreign media than both the Prime Minister's Office and the IDF.

The Case of Jenin: How Poor PR
Planning Led to False Charges of "Massacre"

Although some Israeli officials were aware of the possibility that Palestinians would fabricate charges of a massacre in the IDF's operation in Jenin, Israeli military spokesmen did not successfully intercept or counter these mendacious claims. Former Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer A major contributing factor was the fact that Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer unilaterally barred the international media from reporting on the IDF's anti-terror operations in the territories without first assessing possible negative media fallout with his senior PR advisors or the IDF Spokesman.18 Ben Eliezer even prohibited IDF officials from allowing a major network to receive "pooled" pictures, further feeding suspicions that the Israelis were hiding something. One week later, when TV crews were finally allowed to accompany IDF troops into the camp, correspondents worked overtime to verify rumors of a massacre by the IDF that had been claimed by Palestinian spokespeople on international television during the first six days of the Jenin operation. As a result, international organizations, UN officials, and even Western government leaders echoed the Palestinian claims that were trumpeted on most of the world's major TV networks.19 Even though senior IDF spokespeople took leading foreign TV news crews on aerial tours of the Jenin camp to point out the limited field of battle -- a 100-square-meter area comprising only nine percent of the camp -- Israeli officials monitoring foreign news coverage said they did not see any aerial shots or readily available maps used in foreign TV news broadcasts.20

While Israel was being accused of war atrocities and crimes against humanity by much of the international media, Israeli government spokesmen could not convince the foreign press to report on the widespread humanitarian assistance the IDF was providing to the Palestinian civilian population including, food, blood, generators, and ambulances.21 Not only were these efforts left largely unreported, but senior government spokesmen were themselves unaware of the extraordinary humanitarian efforts made by the IDF while still under fire.22Jenin Although three months later, an official UN investigation absolved Israel of all charges of massacre and war crimes in Jenin, the initial television reports broadcast throughout the world inflicted lasting damage to Israel's international image.23 A subsequent report by the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies sharply criticized the government's information breakdown in Jenin, noting that the army "has still not integrated public relations in its strategic assessments."24

Undermining Israel's PR:
A Fractured Unity Government

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Although Prime Minister Ariel Sharon defeated former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in the special elections of February 2001 in an unprecedented 63 percent landslide victory, Sharon inherited the Knesset originally elected with the Barak government in 1999. Thus, Sharon was forced to operate a "post-Oslo" government with an "Oslo" parliament.

In addition, Sharon offered the leaders of the defeated Labor party control of the foreign and defense ministries in order to entice them to join a national unity government that would present a united front in the fight against terror. The result was a government that frequently issued conflicting and even contradictory statements about Israeli policy to the international media.

Yet, going to battle with Peres over PR discipline was not a top priority for Sharon.25 A month after his election, the prime minister told this author that Israel's information efforts were "problematic" and that the complicated political reality of his main coalition partner prevented him from doing what he would like to do in public relations.26

Finally, the need for consensus in a national unity government made it difficult to appoint the most effective Israeli spokesmen to key diplomatic posts abroad. At one point, Foreign Minister Peres considered appointing Minister Dalia Itzik as Israel's Ambassador to Great Britain, despite the weakness of her spoken English. In another instance with more serious diplomatic ramifications, for months Sharon and Peres could not agree on a replacement for David Ivri, the outgoing Ambassador to the United States.

Wanted: Disciplined Messages
and Effective Messengers

Allon PinkasLeading U.S. media relations experts sent to Israel by private sponsors in May 2002 described Israel's PR efforts in the United States as "disastrous."27 Israel's Consul General in New York, Allon Pinkas, complained that Israel's image in the U.S. suffered from a lack of clear and "disciplined" messages.28 International media consultant Lillian Wilder, a media advisor to former U.S. President Richard Nixon, noted in an interview that Israelis are often unprofessional and "wordy" on television.29

Frequently, Israeli spokesmen fail to use language that rings true with American audience. According to Washington, D.C.-based media experts Dr. Frank Luntz and Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, many Israeli spokesmen spend too much time engaging in diatribes against Arafat and the Palestinian leadership's role in terror instead of focusing on words such as "peace, democracy, security, and freedom."30

Government spokesmen are also inconsistent in presenting Israel's case to the international media. According to official government policy, Israel has longstanding rights and claims in the disputed territories captured in 1967. However, some senior government spokesmen fail to refute the Palestinian charge that Israel is an illegal "occupier" of Palestinian lands. Instead, they emphasize the point that Palestinian violence preceded Israel's entry into the territories.31

Raanan GissinOn the other hand, the prime minister's foreign media adviser,  Raanan Gissin, has stressed the fact that Israel's central moral claim to the territories captured in the defensive 1967 war cannot be based strictly on security needs but also on the Jewish "birthright," which creates a moral parallel to Palestinian claims.32

The government also fields an unwieldy number of spokesmen for English-speaking international media, most of whom do not boast English as their mother tongue.33 Two of Israel's frequently called-upon spokesmen, Dr. Dore Gold, Israel's former Ambassador to the UN and current president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and Zalman Shoval, former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, volunteer their services to the government's information effort while maintaining full-time careers.

Since 1999, the Foreign Ministry has worked with the New York-based Howard Rubinstein public relations agency to assist in advancing Israel's positions in the United States. More thorough research into the leading government relations agencies in the United States would reveal several Washington-based agencies with worldwide reach and influence. For example, several Middle Eastern countries, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have substantially enhanced their relationships both on Capitol Hill and in European capitals via representation by the Washington-based Hill and Knowlton government relations agency.34

Managing an Unwieldy
Information Apparatus

Who's in Charge?

Responsibility for Israel's information effort is currently divided between several government offices. The Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the IDF Spokesman, and the Israel Police have all played central roles in disseminating information to the foreign media. However, each government office operates independently, and is physically located in a separate area of the nation's capital, making daily inter-office coordination difficult.35 Moreover, due to the lack of a central information authority empowered by the government to determine information strategy, policy, and crisis management communications, the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, and IDF Spokesman are forced to rely on mutual good will to coordinate their activities. Unfortunately, "good will" has not worked, as these offices have frequently ended up competing for PR authority, thereby forwarding uncoordinated positions and messages, and even carrying out redundant information activities.36

The Foreign Ministry

A 1999 ministerial committee under the Barak government appointed the Foreign Ministry to be responsible for coordinating Israel's PR and information efforts. However, the decision lacked Knesset legislative backing, which accounts in part for the ongoing competition for PR authority with the Prime Minister's Office.

M.F.A.On the face of it, the Foreign Ministry is the most appropriate address to carry out the task. With more than 100 embassies around the world, Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem receive constant feedback from the field as to what strategies and messages work best in different parts of the world. Moreover, the Foreign Ministry's $4 million annual budget for Israel-based media and PR activity, however small, is still much more substantial than that of any other government ministry. However, Foreign Ministry officials have little incentive to embrace PR as a career objective if the political echelon of the Foreign Ministry does not value PR as a primary task for its diplomats.

University of Colorado hate attackThere is an unprecedented need for Foreign Ministry officials in Israel and abroad to commit their attention to executing a comprehensive PR plan to battle the worrying upsurge of anti-Semitism in Europe and on college campuses throughout North America. The Jewish communities of the diaspora require full-time support in fending off PR attacks in the local media and by private and public institutions, and in galvanizing support for Israel. Yet, every Foreign Ministry PR professional working under Deputy Director General Gidon Meir since the outbreak of hostilities in September 2000 has been reassigned to a new diplomatic post in recent months. This constant rotation of public relations civil service professionals out of the Foreign Ministry's Public Affairs Division and the commensurate need to train new PR professionals is costly and inefficient. However, the Foreign Ministry has demonstrated that it has skilled PR manpower in Israel and abroad that can successfully present Israel's case to the international community when called upon to do so.

The Prime Minister's Office

Following sharp public criticism of the lack of coordination of Israel's information apparatus, Yossi Gal was appointed to fulfill a strategic information policy role similar to that of the White House communications director. Gal's responsibilities were apparently not clarified and he soon resigned, dissatisfied that he was not interacting directly with foreign journalists.37  Then in August 2001, former Regional Cooperation Minister Tzippi Livni was made responsible for Tzippi Livnicoordinating information policy in the Prime Minister's Office. The Prime Minister's Office includes a number of PR advisors and information resources including the Prime Minister's domestic media advisor, foreign media advisor, the National Security Council, and the Government Press Office. When it soon became clear to Livni that she would not have the authority to coordinate the effort because the PR bodies involved had not agreed to take instructions from one authority,38 she declined to continue in the post.

The Government Press Office

Under the direct control of the Prime Minister's Office, the GPO's mandate is to provide a one-stop solution for foreign journalists working in Israel, from providing press credentials to arranging briefings and interviews with Israeli officials. However, GPO activities have been reduced substantially over the past six years in line with the consolidation of PR control in the Prime Minister's Office. However, the GPO has always been an integral part of the government's communications efforts. Its staff is comprised of seasoned PR professionals, most of whom have decades of experience working with foreign journalists and film crews. The recent weakening of the GPO has sent a negative signal to members of the foreign press corps regarding the office's relevance and authority.

The IDF Spokesman

IDF SoliderSince so many of the reportable news stories coming out of Israel stem from the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the IDF plays a key function in influencing journalists' perceptions on the ground.39 However, since the IDF carries out the orders of the government, it frequently had to "tiptoe" between the differing political positions of the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office.40 Moreover, the IDF does not have the staff to accompany hundreds of journalists onto the field of battle. However, when journalists have accompanied IDF operations, there is often a marked improvement in the media coverage Israel receives.41 A senior news producer from Reuters television, responding to criticism of imbalanced reporting, said that she would be prepared to send news crews out into the field with IDF units at every opportunity. However, invitations from the IDF have not been forthcoming.42 

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