Of sound bites and disinformation

Yigal Palmor steps down after six years as Foreign Ministry spokesman. Media overexposure, he says, ‘is not good for anyone.’

September 12, 2014 23:38
Yigal Palmor

Yigal Palmor: ‘Everything needs interpretation. Everything needs to be explained.’. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It was the sound bite heard ’round the world, said Yigal Palmor, without exaggerating.

Palmor, the Foreign Ministry’s longest-serving spokesman who stepped down on September 1 after six years in that demanding position, was referring to a response he gave The Jerusalem Post in July to Brazil’s decision to recall its ambassador in protest of the Gaza operation.

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“This is an unfortunate demonstration of why Brazil, an economic and cultural giant, remains a diplomatic dwarf,” he said. “The moral relativism behind this move makes Brazil an irrelevant diplomatic partner, one which creates problems rather than contributes to solutions.”

Boom. Two sentences, indeed really only two words – “diplomatic dwarf” – and this short, pithy reaction took on a life of its own, with far-reaching diplomatic and even economic ramifications.

More than two weeks after the comment, it continued to reverberate, with President Reuven Rivlin, apparently motivated by economic interests – Israel Aerospace Industries was in negotiations with Brazil over a huge contract – apologizing for the words in a conversation with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The Foreign Ministry objected to the apology.

The first ears piqued by Palmor’s comments were – obviously – Brazilian ones.

A Brazilian television crew requested a follow-up interview, asking about what Brasília had characterized as Israel’s disproportionate response in Gaza.

Putting a complicated issue into terms able to be grasped by those in other countries and cultures, a quality that characterizes any good spokesman, Palmor – referring to Brazil’s drubbing by Germany in the World Cup semifinals – said, “This is not football. In football, when a game ends in a draw, you think it is proportional, but when it finishes 7-1, it’s disproportionate. Sorry to say, but not so in real life and under international law.”

If the “diplomatic dwarf” comment was a single shot, the World Cup reference was a cannon blast, with dozens of news outlets around the world picking up on the story. Some of them even confused the chicken and the egg: Reporting not that Palmor was responding to the recall of the ambassador, but rather that the ambassador was recalled because of Palmor’s statements.

All of this, said Palmor this week – over a cup of coffee and a glass of carrot and ginger juice in a Jerusalem cafe – is very instructive of today’s media landscape.

“This shows many things,” he noted.

“The power of words, the ability to ignite various processes through words, the shallowness of the media and the global interconnectedness of the media.”

Palmor – a devoted diplomat who is leaving the ministry after 28 years to take up a job at the Jewish Agency, as a public affairs, strategy and media adviser to chairman Natan Sharansky – pointed out that the international media picked up only on his two words, “diplomatic dwarf,” and even ignored the other sentence about moral relativism.

Today’s media works so fast, he said, that speed is the main imperative.

Because of the need to put everything on the Web right away, there is neither the time nor the necessary desire for even a minimum of context.

“What is important is the sound bite, and just moving it forward,” he said.

The unflappable Palmor, 53, is not a complainer, and his observations about the media were not meant as a grievance – just an assertion of fact. It is the way things are; like it or not, it is the reality – and it is a reality that those presenting Israel’s message need to be aware of.

The Web-driven media landscape, he added, is not necessarily to Israel’s benefit.

Israel’s argument, its story, is long, complicated and nuanced. It needs time, and space.

As as far as space is concerned, though one might think that the Web’s limitless space would be to Israel’s advantage, with room to present lengthy, learned, nuanced arguments – in practice, it simply doesn’t work that way.

“Who reads very long articles on the Internet?” he asked.

The Web-driven news also does not allow for the time necessary to cover the Jewish state’s complicated stories – since the stories need to go online right away, with no time to verify, look up facts or check others.

“There is much less respect for accuracy,” he said. “Today, journalists will say if there is a mistake in the story, ‘What’s the big deal, I’ll change it online.’” One major error that Palmor fought – as part of what he said was his policy of “no tolerance for disinformation” – was a story that made the rounds in 2011, about haredi children in Mea She’arim who stoned a dog on the instructions of a rabbinical court judge, ostensibly because they believed the dog was the incarnation of a secular lawyer who was the nemesis of the ultra-Orthodox community 20 years earlier.

Great story, colorful, different, and it went around the world – with even the BBC picking it up and putting it on their website. One problem: it never happened. The story began on a haredi website, and just evolved – unchecked and unverified – through the Israeli press until it was picked up overseas. There, the story confirmed for anti-Semites and Israel-bashers their worst prejudices: Jews are primitive, Jews are violent, Israel is just bad.

One talkback to the story that appeared on Yahoo read, “The more I see of Israelis, the more I like my dog.”

To the BBC’s credit, Palmor said, once they were made aware that the story was not real, they corrected it.

Palmor – who can conduct lucid interviews in Hebrew, English, French and Spanish, and who enjoys spicing up said interviews with cultural references from various sources in each of these languages – added a caveat to his “no tolerance for disinformation” policy, this one attributed to French politician Pierre Mendès France: To govern is to chose.

In other words, Israel’s expansive diplomatic needs and ambitions – more suited to a country many times its size – are not matched by sufficient resources.

“What people don’t understand,” said Palmor – himself the son of a former career diplomat – is that the Foreign Ministry is small, employing just over 1,000 people both in Israel and abroad.

In other words, Israel’s expansive diplomatic needs and ambitions – more suited to a country many times its size – are not matched by sufficient means.

In Israel today, just as in the 1950s-era battles between David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett over military vs diplomatic activism, the priority is always security.

“Though everybody in the country wants to be an ambassador – a young ambassador, a goodwill ambassador – defense comes before everything, and diplomacy is seen as a luxury,” he said.

“People understand what a plane is, a tank, submarine or gun. They go into the army and touch those things. Diplomacy is more abstract. Not many have been exposed to it; it is happening far away.”

So, in the competition for budgets, there is in fact no real competition.

“People always say there is not enough hasbara [public diplomacy],” Palmor said, repeating a common complaint.

“But the real problem is that there is not enough diplomacy.” And the reason for this, to a large extent, is due to lack of means.

“The best hasbara is action, and then talk,” he said. What does not work, he added – careful to not bring in live examples – is talk not followed by concrete action.

Palmor clarified that one thing he does not agree with is the maxim made famous by former deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin: that good policy needs no hasbara.

“Everything needs interpretation,” he said. “Everything needs to be explained – from the weather report to government policy. Nothing is a given. You need to tell the story, and why it is important to you.”

Policy does not speak for itself, he said. “Nothing is self-explanatory.”

Asked whether he feels Israel gets a fair shake from the international media, Palmor refrained from giving grades, saying it depends on the media.

It is not the media, it is the journalist, he added, underlining that building personal relationships with journalists is “decisive, very important.”

The Foreign Ministry’s problem in dealing with journalists, is that at any given time some 1,000 are stationed here; developing personal ties with each one is simply impossible.

“You have to prioritize,” he said.

“The relationship between you and the reporter determines to a large degree the coverage. It is very important to build relationships.”

Fair or unfair coverage, Palmor said, one thing that is clear is that Israel gets “oversized treatment.”

“Overexposure does not do anyone any favors,” he said. “No one benefits from being overexposed, because things will then always get blown out of proportion, and a sense of perspective is lost. It’s the same thing in photography: Overexposure makes a picture black and white, without shades.”

Though careful not to name names, Palmor made two exceptions, saying that the Spanish and Irish media were the most hostile to Israel.

The Irish journalists, he said, generally come with a prejudice and a preconception that blinds them to being able to see anything different. And the Spanish journalists generally don’t believe anything an Israeli spokesman says, and are always searching for conspiracies.

Palmor knows from Spanish journalists, having served in Spain as a spokesman in the early ’90s, his first posting abroad. He also served as the information and public affairs counselor at the embassy in Paris, for five years beginning in 1997.

But his first turn at explaining Israel, he said, happened when he was 10 years old in Belgium, where his father was posted. There, on a television show about kids, he explained in the French he had picked up after two years what it was like to be a child in Israel.

After Brussels his father was posted in Oslo, then came back to Israel in time for Palmor to enter high school in Jerusalem.

Following the army and a degree in linguistics at the Hebrew University, Palmor applied to the Foreign Ministry on a whim more than anything else, to see how he would do on the tests, not necessarily because of a hankering for the Foreign Service. His father, who was posted to South America at the time, did not encourage or discourage him from this career choice.

Palmor, by contrast, said he would not recommend to his twin sons, now in their early 20s, to go into the Foreign Service.

“First of all, I don’t think jobs should be hereditary,” he said. Secondly, progressive governments have made “a diplomatic career unbearable for young diplomats, in terms of material reward and general family support.”

At a going-away reception for Palmor at the ministry two weeks ago, one speaker after the next praised Palmor as a quintessential diplomat, the kind Israel desperately needed to retain.

“An organization that desires life cannot let someone like Palmor leave,” said Arthur Koll, deputy director-general for media and public affairs. That it did let him leave, therefore, speaks volumes.

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