Editor's Notes: Miri Eisin takes on the world

By DAVID HOROVITZ
September 14, 2006 21:50

A fascinating, sometimes disconcerting, first interview with Ehud Olmert's sole soldier on the global English-media battlefield.




I keep thinking that it must be here somewhere - at the end of a distant corridor, or hidden in some overlooked wing: The Communications Department of the Prime Minister's Office. In one room, facing banks of television screens, the PM's expert news monitors are doubtless taping and taking notes on live broadcasts from the Arab world and beyond. In another, the rapid-response information unit is bound to be collating the material Israel wants conveyed to the world in urgent response to current events, commissioning the necessary film clips and interviews. In a third, the strategic team, a carefully chosen mix of academics and ex-intelligence wizards and media veterans, is obviously formulating the wider, longer-term messages Israel seeks to impress upon the rest of the global village, gearing up for its routine daily liaison session with the communications departments of the Foreign Ministry and the IDF, and for its crucial weekly meeting with the prime minister. But alas, as Col. (res.) Miri Eisin, the transparently decent, earnest new English-speaking face of the Prime Minister's Office, knows all too well, there are no news monitors here, no instant-response team, no strategic planning unit. On the so-called "second battlefield," the media arena where official Israel tries to impact the world's perception of what is happening on the real front line, Eisin is Ehud Olmert's lone English-language soldier. "We're a small staff," she acknowledges with heart-breaking understatement at one point in this lengthy interview. How small? Well there's Eisin herself, a "producer" colleague, and, er, that's it. That's the sum total of the PM's spokesperson's unit in the embattled Israel of 2006. Eisin, whose freshly printed business card reads "Foreign Press & Public Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister," is the new Ra'anan Gissin, the Olmert-appointed successor to Ariel Sharon's bushy-browed mouthpiece. A passionate and knowledgeable defender of Israel but one who alienated many viewers with his high-volume intensity, Gissin had a unique personal relationship with Sharon built up over years of work together. Eisin is an outsider, who must now establish her own lines of communication and access within the Prime Minister's Office, her own influence and credibility. Having impressed as an articulate and compassionate voice of reason when she first began making TV appearances four years ago, the part-American-raised Eisin, a former colonel in the intelligence corps, was called back into spokesperson's service during the last war, and has now been prevailed upon by the prime minister to do the job permanently in its aftermath. A slight figure seated before an immense, empty bookshelf, Eisin is a candid interviewee - stingingly critical of inept official responses (including her own) to changing developments in the war against Hizbullah, and strikingly non-critical at times of international media coverage. (She appears to reconsider in the course of the conversation, saying first that she does not believe the foreign networks were unfair to Israel in their balance and coverage, but later that the world story was "five minutes Israel, and 55 minutes Lebanon.") She readily admits how limited are her resources, how much she still has to figure out, and how compelling is the challenge. So she's trying to set attainable goals, to do what she can. She wouldn't say it, of course, but the fact is that almost anything would be an improvement… When did you start this job? Three weeks ago - August 20. During the war I was asked by the Foreign Ministry to be the Israeli government spokeswoman, and I coordinated with the Prime Minister's Office and the Foreign Ministry. I had a couple of meetings here both with the prime minister and the staff and along the way they asked me if I would join the Prime Minister's Office and I agreed to do so. Are you the only English language spokesperson in the Prime Minister's Office? We're a small staff. We have David Baker, who is the media liaison person. Essentially, I call him my producer. He's very conversant with the foreign media in Israel and he knows how to produce, promote and push us out there. We try to be proactive. We try to think of the issues on the agenda which are our, Israeli issues. We try to go out to the different news agencies and tell them our side before we are reacting to what's happening in the world. There's a pretty wide sense that Israel has been spectacularly inept in articulating its issues and persuading the world of the legitimacy of some of its actions - and the recent conflict with Hizbullah is a case in point. Do you see a problem? And if so, how do you hope to solve it? Israel's public image, its media image, is an immense challenge. I've been involved in it for four years now - which is nothing. But as opposed to a lot of different people in Israel and people who support Israel around the world, I actually don't think that we're necessarily given a hard time. In Israel, we find it very difficult to see a balanced picture. We don't want to see the other side at all. In the last war, in Israel, on [the] three [domestic] TV channels we saw a very one-sided war. It was our war. It was what was happening up North, what was happening with the soldiers, the reservists and their families. The rockets, the rocket firing. How it affected Israel. What the government was doing. And item 17 on the news was what was happening in Lebanon. The other war, one that I participated in as a spokesperson, was a war in which, after around four days, the international agenda was about what was happening in Lebanon. The humanitarian issues inside Lebanon. The "death and destruction in Lebanon." Two parallel wars. It's not that the one shown abroad wasn't true. It's not that the one shown here wasn't true. It's just two different ways of showing it. I don't think that all of the different [foreign] news agencies here were unbalanced, that they showed the Lebanese much more than they showed us or that they showed the death and destruction [there] more. They actually gave us a lot of time in this war compared to the ones that I was in or watched before. Israeli spokespeople and officials were given a lot of time to explain the way that we thought that things should go. Does that mean that I think that things are good? Not really. When I try to put my finger on why we don't manage to get our message across, I think that [we need] hard work and consistent work, and that we don't put in all the resources we need to. We are not focused. Israel's parliamentary system adds [to the problem]. You can have very diverse opinions among ministers. The ministers are some of the main spokespeople for Israel and they don't put out a single message. There's no coordination. And they can say something to the Hebrew press which is picked up by the international media and is almost counterproductive. We saw that two weeks ago when, asked a question in the Israeli media, a minister [Avi Dichter] answered about negotiations with Syria. The other ministers started talking about negotiations with Syria. It was picked up around the world. Israel? Negotiations with Syria? That's not on our international agenda. Syria is a safe haven for terrorism.... These are things that are difficult to control. [But] we can do much better on "delivery," on making sure that [we have, speaking on our behalf,] people who are representative, who speak decent grammatical English and can get the message across. We don't have to just let anybody on all the time. Will you have the authority? Will you have any remote possibility of controlling who goes on and or at least trying to coordinate some kind of message? Politicians all have their leeway to go out and say whatever they want. But everybody is willing to hear what you have to say if you come with a coordinated message. What I've started to do - and it is part of the mandate, part of the things that Prime Minister Olmert is interested in having happen - is to meet with the people who talk to the foreign media, to talk about the messaging. Not to [have them] come out with the exact same message, but to at least talk [with them] about the problems and issues, about things that are counterproductive when you talk abroad. I hope to talk to ministers about the positive and maybe the less positive aspects [of their media appearances]. Some speak in English. Others can talk in other languages. There are lots of audiences we don't reach out to. Latin America is a huge audience. Don't we have people who are well-spoken in Spanish who can reach out? Or Portuguese, French, let alone Arabic? [Still,] over the last two or three years there's been a big change: The ministers [do now] talk in Arabic on Arab TV stations. This has a huge impact - showing Israel, showing the democracy, allowing these very capable people who are in government to talk on behalf of the country. Who should coordinate all of that? Certainly [someone] from the Prime Minister's Office. I don't know that it is specifically my job. Speaking of coordination, is there any between the spokespeople's hierarchies in the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry, the IDF and now you, here? Do you meet every day? The cabinet secretary, Yisrael Maimon, holds a weekly meeting with the different spokespeople. He initiated this during the war or a bit before it. Everybody wants to continue with that. During the war there was a daily conference call between the spokespeople who talk mainly to the international media, mainly about the messaging. We discussed what works and what doesn't, and tried to give each other the hard questions that are coming up and discuss how we answer them. It's not a question of PR. There's policy here. Without wishing to sound impolite, don't you find it astounding that you are having to invent, or hope one day to be able to invent, procedures and hierarchies that would seem to be basic? I'm thinking of the absence of a hierarchy via which the prime minister sets out the message he wants conveyed, the absence of a forum for preparing strategic positions in public diplomacy, etc. It sounds like very little of this exists, which is, quite frankly, unbelievable. I'm just at the stage where I'm learning it myself - learning what does exist and what doesn't exist. There are a lot of private initiatives, but it has always been a question of where the responsibility and, even more important, where the authority lies. Over the years, it has become something that was led a lot by the Foreign Ministry and they have a very strong department there that does overwhelmingly important things. I hope that one of the things that we can change in the priorities - in the end it also has to do with budget - is how much time, money and manpower is put into the issue of public image. The Jews worldwide are willing to put in time, effort and money [on this]. I say Jews, because it comes mainly from them. But it's also from people who are concerned about Israel's image and what it does not only to Israelis but to Jews worldwide. They always come and say, "Would you like us to hire a PR firm to help you out?" We've gotten past that stage. We have to sit and talk with ourselves about public diplomacy and the strategic implications of how we deliver our message to the outside world and how it comes back to us. I can't say that I have answers right now, but at least I'm asking the questions. What might have made a difference, if there had been proper strategic planning, in the recent war? I don't think we understood how quickly the context of the story changed, and that the international media was not talking anymore about the Hizbullah attack and the abduction of the soldiers and Israel's response to the Katyusha rockets. Rather, it was talking entirely about "Israel's attack against Lebanon" and the whole issue of "proportionality." But our answers were tactical answers. When it comes to terrorism, and Israel's response to terrorism, for some reason we never manage to get our point across. And we have to look in the mirror and understand why. What are we showing which is making the response so harsh? I'm sort of sick of "they're the underdog" and it's because of that. And yes, when we use our "immense force," they have these pictures of our force, and we can't show the pictures of the [elusive gunmen on the] other side. I'm aware of all this, but I still think we can do much better. In this war, the pictures that we offered [the foreign media] were counterproductive. For days upon days we showed pictures of our artillery, because it was there and it was photogenic. All [the foreign media] showed was our artillery, which looks very harsh, and the death and destruction in Lebanon. We didn't get out the pictures of destruction on our side. Not that the [foreign media] would necessarily have run them. But people were free to film in Haifa and so on. Are you saying that there wasn't enough of a picture of the impact of the rockets on Israel? The specific incidents were shown. But the North as an area - the North that came to a halt, basically - wasn't shown. An aerial view. No cars, no people, nobody outside - that overview [was lacking]. Standing from Haifa, you saw the city behind but you couldn't tell that there were no cars in the streets. The fact that, for over a month, people's lives were put on hold - that story was not really shown. Was there a budget to take network crews in a helicopter over northern Israel for that aerial view? There is a budget to take buses up north. We tried. The death and destruction in Lebanon was shown in a way that I say, "OK, they did it better." It's not like it was easy to wander around in Lebanon during that same time. Yet [the foreign media] got to those stories. They were brought to those stories. You can't bring people to everything. They won't always screen it. But the effective stories that we had - the ones inside the hospitals, the ones inside the schools, what happened to people - they were few. And for most of the three weeks from the beginning of the exodus of the international people from inside Lebanon, the story that was seen on the international news was a little bit of Israel, five minutes Israel, and 55 minutes Lebanon. That's not the balance that I want to see. We could have done more. The other issue is that certainly for the first week, we were so sure that at long last we had a war in which everyone agreed our response was justified. We didn't realize that (a) you have to repeat that all the time and (b) that you can [afford to] consider yourself right and them wrong for only a very short period in the media. We ignored what was going on in Lebanon. And that was the story in the international media. We weren't offering a counter-narrative, a counter-story. We didn't explain effectively enough at all why we were doing what we were doing. The world came away with the impression that Israel was pulverizing Lebanon? I agree with you. That, to me, is the biggest failure. If we'd asked, rhetorically [on air], "What would you have done if you had had 4,500 Katyusha rockets fired on you?" people [watching] would think about that and go, "You know, I don't know what I would have done." We didn't do that all during the war. We only thought about it afterwards and now of course it's too late. This was a war against an enemy that had established itself within a civilian population. Amid all the berating of ourselves about our inability to articulate, maybe the international media has done a disservice to itself and the free world, in failing to draw a distinction between victims and aggressors, in not making that distinction plain? It's not that I disagree. [But] Hizbullah has built up over many years, not just over the last six, an amazing system which takes into account what you can and cannot do with the media. Just today I was interviewed by somebody from Greek TV and she wanted to know about Hizbullah. She was telling me that her counterpart in Lebanon was telling her how Hizbullah is doing this and doing that in south Lebanon. And I said to her "OK, I am giving you a challenge. Have your counterpart in Lebanon request to interview a Hizbullah fighter. He won't be able to." Because not a single Hizbullah fighter has been interviewed. [Sheikh] Nasrallah has been interviewed. The top echelon has been interviewed. But where are the Hizbullah fighters? Where are they all? Where are these shadowy people? They won't show them. That's the type of control that a guerrilla organization has over its people, over the way that they're exposed to the media. Just look at the pictures that we have now from the last two weeks - of these endless amounts of [Hizbullah] bunkers and [underground] mazes. We knew about them, but between knowing about something and physically seeing it… Even we're looking at the footage and going "Wow!" We can't equate what we can do in an open democratic society with all the warts and pimples that Israel has, and what a guerrilla organization can do hiding inside a sovereign country... We were outsmarted by Hizbullah in the way that they're always good at, at their hide-and-seek game. You can't see them. If you can't see them, they're not there. And if they're not there, then what Israel did was atrocious. But they are there, and we're showing it now... But nobody else is watching now. We're watching. Nobody else cares anymore? It does make a little bit of difference, but not enough. It'll make a difference on some of the opinion makers... Are you aware that Al-Jazeera is starting its English-language network in a month or so? Should official Israel be putting resources into TV programming? English Al-Jazeera has been asking me to be on their pilots. It is going to have an impact, because it is going to be a world news agency which is based in the Arab world. The Arab narrative, the Arab context and framing of a story, is not the same as that of the Western international media, and certainly not of Israel. Arabic Al-Jazeera has had an immense impact, not all negative. We always talk about the negative side. But in the end there is a very critical Arab network which is talking in the Arab world. It's critical of Israel. But as somebody who is interviewed there periodically, I'm always surprised that they actually bring in a lot of things which are not just anti-Israeli rhetoric. And you know what? We're on the air there. Israeli ministers are on the air. Israeli spokespeople are on the air, shown all over the Arab world. We have to look at Israel's resources and ask: How do we use those resources? In private conversations before I came in, I asked some people here, what are we showing on Israeli Channel 33, which I watched on a brief summer vacation with my kids in Turkey? I'm telling you honestly, I couldn't figure out who it was meant for. You couldn't tell who it was meant to appeal to? David, I have absolutely no idea. Wasn't it English news from Israel? No, that's just the IBA News at 5 p.m. Channel 33 is an international channel, a satellite channel. It goes all over the world. It has sort of these pieces that I have no idea where they buy them from. Do you favor boycotting news channels that you think are not fair to Israel, as others in yours and similar positions have done? No. Maybe it's my American upbringing. Israel is a democracy. People can say what they like about us. There are other ways of showing our unhappiness. You can get on and say what you want. If you're not on the air then you're cutting off your nose to spite your face. Al-Jazeera usually shows things that we really don't like. But because it's in Arabic it doesn't disturb us as much. The BBC (boycotted by Israeli officials in the past) has international impact. The BBC has professional integrity. Basically they think that everything we say are lies. That's their basic assumption. I have to prove to them otherwise. I'll say to their benefit: They pretty much think the same of everybody. The fact that they have what I call an overview which is influenced maybe more by the Arab viewers than by us is something that we have to take into account. That doesn't mean that I will boycott them. I also don't think it is specifically BBC. Monday it's BBC. Tuesday it's somebody else. Every once in a while there are touchy issues. But I do not know the benefits of boycotting news in today's world. We have the most media coverage in the world. Is that justified? It doesn't matter. They're here. What I want to do is give our side of the story and have the [foreign media] bring it out. I don't expect them to not show the other side. For me a good week is when Israel is not the main story in the world. To me that's a much more normal week. It doesn't happen very often.


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