Public Diplomacy: At war without an army

Israel isn't equipped to fight the media war.

By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
June 4, 2010 21:40
An Israeli armed naval boat, right, escorts a ship

Gaza boat escort 311. (photo credit: AP)

It may be too early to provide a real retrospective on Monday’s flotilla operation.   The diplomatic aftershocks have not yet settled. The future of Turkish-Israeli relations is still a guessing game, with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemingly bent on an Iran-like push for regional influence at Israel’s expense. Israel’s own investigation of the strategic and tactical planning of the operation has yet to begin in earnest.

But one thing is already clear. The operation was a political disaster.

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The initial news of dead activists on board the Mavi Marmara stunned Israelis as much as anyone else. The day before, on Army Radio’s Sunday morning talk show, MK and former IDF spokesman Nachman Shai said, “We shouldn’t even talk about what happens if people die in that flotilla. It would be disastrous.” But die they did. And beside the human cost, they left Israel staggering to explain.

With the world focused on participants such as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire, Israel had the difficult task of showing a different side to the disparate groups on board the ship, such as the presence of 50 or so activists with ties to Hamas who had publicly praised the terror group on Turkish television and had vowed to become martyrs if the IDF attempted to enforce the blockade of Gaza.

There were indeed pacifists on that boat, driven by the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza, but there were also fighters out to help Hamas in its unending war against Israel.

We know this because we have seen the footage – ranked the No. 2 video worldwide on YouTube by Wednesday afternoon – of the activists energetically beating and stabbing the troops sent to board their ship.

It is a testament to the training and resourcefulness of those two-dozen soldiers that, undermanned, armed primarily with paint-ball guns and caught by complete surprise, they managed to take control of the situation away from the crowbar-wielding mobs without losing even one of their own, even if five required surgery.

For Israelis, the incident was one more misunderstood clash between the Jewish state and the Hamas fighters who would destroy it. Even in those dark first hours of Monday morning, when Israel’s spokesmen were unable to offer real answers or evidence, Israelis seemed willing to withhold judgment while the government pieced together its case.

It wasn’t that the government’s case sounded plausible; it didn’t.

“The soldiers” – Israel’s ultra-elite naval commandos – “were defending themselves from attack,” was the only message government spokesmen had, and without evidence it rang hollow even for us. Peace activists vs. naval commandos – who would you bet on?

But we waited. “We know our boys,” said one woman on the radio. We all have sons or brothers in the army. And they don’t shoot indiscriminately. They don’t “massacre.” Our patience was richly rewarded by the end of Monday, when the IDF at long last released the video footage of the battle that clearly showed organized life-threatening violence aboard the Mavi Marmara that would have excused deadly force even in a domestic police situation.

Many questions remained. Why were the soldiers placed in that situation? Why didn’t we know there would be violence? But the largest question of all, the one tugging worryingly on our consciences – why did they shoot “peace protesters” – was resolved.

That’s all well and good for Israelis. But Turks, Swedes, Britons and even Americans are not Israeli. They don’t have sons in the IDF. They are not living with the daily knowledge that Hamas is an enemy seeking their eradication. When it comes to our region, their memory is short and their moral calculus simple.

Peace activists are dead. Israel claims its famed commandos opened fire because they, not the activists, were in danger. If the situation concerned a place you didn’t know much about – say, the Koreas or Ireland – would you have believed it?

The media narrative, lacking a believable Israeli response during that crucial first day, told the story in its simplest version. And Israel suffered.

By the time of the release of the army’s video – around 4 p.m. Monday – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had had to cancel a summit meeting with US President Barack Obama, friendly world leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel had demanded an investigation of the incident and Turkey’s less-than-friendly prime minister was able to speak of Israel as a violent pariah state.

While the Foreign Ministry sent diplomats to knock on doors in the world’s capitals, the world’s governments were responding in a completely different environment. Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and even Obama were not as troubled by the events themselves as by the media narrative that quickly stripped them of the option of supporting Israel’s version of events.

THERE ARE two kinds of defenses offered by Israeli public diplomacy officials over the past three days. The first posits that the whirlwind of international excoriation was unavoidable, that the deck is stacked against them. The second, that Israel’s public diplomacy had performed well, despite the criticism being leveled at it after the fact.

Those who say it was unavoidable offer two reasons. One is internal: “We had to wait for the army to tell us what happened,” said a senior diplomatic official. “One part of the bureaucracy has to wait for the other part to confirm the facts. You can’t avoid that reality.” Thus, though Al Jazeera was broadcasting live from the fighting at 4 a.m., the first official response came only at 11 a.m. in a press conference arranged by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon in which he (apparently correctly but, again, unconvincingly) claimed links between the violent activists on the Mavi Marmara (whose violence nobody had yet seen) and international Islamist terror groups.

And Ayalon’s press conference was done in spite of urgent phone calls from the Defense Ministry demanding that it be delayed for several hours.

The second reason officials claim the results of the incident were unavoidable is an external one: “You can’t fight biased journalism,” according to an official who deals with the media. “We gave them facts, we told them what had happened, and they chose not to use it in their coverage.”

Then there are those arguing that, actually, the system worked well.

According to Maj. Avital Leibovich, head of the Foreign Press Division of the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, the army had gone farther than ever before in the effort to get its message to the media. A specially-commissioned navy helicopter flew the raw footage to shore, where IDF spokespeople immediately began preparing it for release, she said.

“We also ran a special UAV above the fighting to film the events. That film was broadcast all over the world media. For example, it aired on CNN alongside a military analyst hired by the station who confirmed what we were saying about its significance,” Leibovich said.

The IDF’s media activities marked “a revolution,” she insisted. “I doubt if the media arms of other armies have ever done this.”

Indeed, the IDF appears to understand that there is a media dimension to the fighting. Its YouTube channel, started 18 months ago as part of Operation Cast Lead, gets 10 million hits each year, while its Twitter feed offers updates on military operations almost in real time.

Diplomats, too, insisted this week that they had performed admirably. Within hours of the operation, ambassadors had spoken to their host governments and conveyed Israel’s view that the commandos were attacked first, a Foreign Ministry source said on Wednesday.

“We also had legal papers out before the interception that explained the conflict situation that is the context for the blockade,” the high-ranking source explained.

So well had the diplomats performed that they plan on doing the same in the future, they said.

“We will not speak to the world until we have carefully checked all the facts and know what we want to say,” one diplomatic official said Wednesday.

“We’re going to take our time and we’re going to study the situation carefully before making [public statements],” insisted another.

If ever one needed evidence of the ineffectiveness of the Foreign Ministry, the haplessness of the “public diplomacy headquarters” in the Prime Minister’s Office or the crossed signals and miscommunication that seem to characterize the IDF’s interactions with those institutions, one need only look to these responses.

Even as diplomatic blows continue to come – widespread calls for international investigation, the breaking of diplomatic ties by Nicaragua – officials do not seem to understand that these reactions are driven not by prejudice against the Jewish state, but by these countries’ own responses to the media’s narrative, a narrative forged while Israel was still trying to get its army, diplomats and politicians to speak to one another.

No competitive media strategy can be organized in this way. Would an election campaign, for example, wait hours and days before responding to a crisis? Would its message be delivered by tedious old diplomats?

Israel spent around NIS 41 billion, or just over 7 percent of GDP, on its military last year. Its air force is among the best in the world, its commandos the most elite. It is alleged to have nuclear weapons, and there is little doubt that it possesses the technical and scientific talent to support that claim.

But these capabilities do not help it in the current war, a war which its enemies are scoring one success after another in a domain in which Israel seems culturally ill-equipped to comprehend – the largely ignorant but usually well-meaning international media.

Israel’s positions are defensible. If the blockade of Hamas is illegal, so is the blockade of North Korea. If the world insists on a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank without negotiated security arrangements, it is offering up the Palestinians to the tyrants of Hamas.

Yet while Israel’s spokespeople continue to trust in diplomacy, bureaucracy and methodical fact-finding, the country’s enemies set the agenda and drive the political winds by getting their views into the media faster and delivering the more interesting story.

To deliver its own messages to a skeptical world, Israel must develop the same capabilities displayed by election campaigns. Tell the story simply, directly, believably. Tell it fast, and don’t make us beg for the proof.


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