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The art of spin is usually a hidden one. Media manipulation is best done behind the scenes. A message is carefully crafted and then discreetly inserted into circulation - through unattributable leaks to sympathetic or opportunistic journalists, in hints and veiled references in speeches and interviews or through slick slogans and presentation - until a certain notion has taken root in the public consciousness, seemingly from nowhere.
But sometimes an idea's timing is so accurate, pressing all the correct buttons, that even if it's broadcast in the crudest and most blatant manner, the normally sophisticated and cynical press just swallows it hook, line and sinker. It doesn't matter that it's totally transparent and that everyone understands exactly what's going on; it still does the trick. The perfect PR coup.
And that's exactly what Hamas achieved on Monday when it sent out the 72-second recording of Gilad Schalit's voice, one year to the day he was captured.
One didn't have to be an expert in psychological warfare to realize immediately that someone else had written Schalit's text for him and that he was reading it under duress. It was, nonetheless, devastatingly effective. From the awkward grammar of the short sentences, it was clear that it had been originally composed in Arabic and then translated into Hebrew, but that didn't alter the fact that the composers were totally tapped in to the public mood in Israel, and every detail in the message was aimed at its raw nerves.
In the short message, Schalit was made to accuse the government - twice - of not being very interested in his plight. This was said the day after the various radio channels and Web sites had spent hours pillorying the government for not sending any representative to a rally for Schalit held next to the Knesset. The Hamas PR guys implicitly understand the current atmosphere in Israel of blaming the government for everything, even though there is no real proof that Schalit's case isn't being dealt with as a matter of the first priority.
They understand just as well that every Israeli parent feels the same thing upon seeing Schalit's picture: that Gilad could have been his or her own son in a Gaza dungeon. That's why Schalit's parents were mentioned twice, as were his brother, his sister and the parents of the Palestinian prisoners.
Hamas also tuned in to the local political and media debate by having Schalit say, "I was on a military mission under military orders, and not a drug dealer" - in other words, how can the government justify having given in to all Hizbullah's demands three years ago to liberate a lowlife like Elhanan Tennenbaum, and then quibble with Hamas over the freedom of a blameless young soldier?
The Hamas authors had only one bad call. When they dictated to Schalit the sentence, "My health is deteriorating and I am in need of prolonged hospitalization," they obviously thought this would cause even deeper consternation; however, it ran counter to the claims issued in the past that Schalit was in good health. In a matter of minutes, Hamas realized it had made a mistake here, and official spokesmen rushed to assure Israeli television and radio that the corporal was receiving the best medical attention available in Gaza. The underlying message was clear: Hamas is taking better care of Schalit than the Israeli government.
None of this, of course, was very sophisticated. The Schalit recording was a clear appeal to the listeners' hearts, rather than their brains; it was totally clear to everyone what they were trying to achieve. The fact that no one thought for one moment that this was anything other than a Hamas propaganda broadcast didn't change the fact that it was made in Schalit's voice and therefore heard again and again throughout the day on the electronic media. This is, of course, perfectly natural in a nation that has been following his fate for the last year. After all, this is the first real sign of life the public has seen. (One letter from Schalit was also passed on to his family a few months ago, but its precise contents have not been revealed.)
No amount of analysis of Hamas's motives can overcome the spine-chilling sound of his voice. It was a psychological slam-dunk for the captors, and they milked it to the fullest.
THE NEXT morning's newspapers proved just how successful it had been. Schalit's words, quoted in full and in super-sized fonts, dominated the front pages of Ha'aretz and Ma'ariv and occupied the whole of Page 3 in Yediot Aharonot. The necessary caveat - that these weren't really his own words, but a message he was forced to read - appeared only in small print on inside pages.
The layout of Yediot that day was particularly instructive. Unprecedentedly, almost the entire front page was dedicated to an op-ed piece, titled in huge black letters: "BRING HIM BACK."
The column, written by political commentator Sima Kadmon, acknowledged that "if the recording is part of psychological warfare, then it succeeded," and even admitted that there is an argument for not giving in to Hamas's demands - but that is exactly what Kadmon was calling for. She had no doubt that, for the sake of his parents and for all of us, everything possible should be done to bring him home. Kadmon was not writing as a professional analyst; this was the call of an Israeli mother relating to the anguish of Schalit's parents, to whom she continuously referred throughout the column.
"Stop a moment and think about your own child," Kadmon demanded of her readers, "who is complaining that he doesn't feel well., and how much disquiet and concern that causes you. What are you prepared to do to improve his situation, to comfort him, to strengthen his heart? And what despair, pain and helplessness do Aviva and Noam Schalit feel, unable to help their child?"
Similarly, the other tabloid, Ma'ariv, led with a column by female journalist Yael Paz-Melamed, titled "Patience is Finished."
The piece castigated the government's inaction and called for everything possible to be done to uphold the ethos that "no soldier must be left behind â€¦ without this, the IDF is not the army we know and to which we send our children."
This tone was echoed in the red-lettered headline accompanying Schalit's message: "THE VOICE OF A CHILD."
Ma'ariv's editors obviously were unaware of the irony that the photograph of Schalit next to the headline showed him in uniform, a rifle strap over his shoulder and the full insignias of his armored unit, including a little shining tank on his breast-pocket.
In two months, he will be 21. His country handed him a rifle, put him inside a Merkava Mk 3 main battle tank and sent him into a war zone, but he's still a child.
Unlike Kadmon and Paz-Melamed, the editors of Yediot and Ma'ariv are both men, devoid of excess sentiment and with keen journalistic instincts. Their personal opinions on the best way to deal with Schalit's capture are not important; they each just stuck a finger out the window and immediately felt where the wind was blowing. Yediot didn't hide its motives for a moment. On the front page, it highlighted a single opinion poll finding that 61 percent of the public favors giving in to Hamas's demands. In other words, the nation has spoken, and Yediot is not arguing.
Under normal circumstances, the paper's senior commentator and recent Israel Prize laureate Nahum Barnea would be presenting his case up front. But not this Tuesday, the day of the mother's voice. Barnea's column, titled: "Yes, but not at all costs," detailed the real price demanded by Hamas - the release of the movement's entire military hierarchy and the implications of such a move. But this is referred to obliquely at the bottom of the front page and relegated to Page 2.
This is the first major editorial decision made by the paper's new editor-in-chief, Shilo de-Ber. He is a skillful behind-the-scenes operator who refuses to give any interviews. His paper on Tuesday proved right those who said upon his appointment that he was a total populist.
IT WASN'T only journalists who succumbed to the Hamas message. Many politicians reacted in a similar fashion, and they weren't only left-wingers. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Eli Yishai, normally one of the most hard-line voices in the cabinet, urged direct negotiations with Hamas.
But politicians are expected to act like weather vanes. The media, on the other hand, is usually accused of telling us all what we should be thinking.
It's not that there is a lack of rational arguments for giving in to Hamas's demands. Past experience shows that in almost all previous prisoner deals, Israel has failed to bring the price down, paying more than was demanded by the captors at first. The fate of navigator Ron Arad, still unknown over 20 years after his plane went down in Lebanon, remains a warning sign. Israel could have reached a deal in the first year after his capture, but the government tried to haggle, and he was spirited away in October 1987, never to be heard from again. Since then, Israel has used up untold resources and given up intelligence assets, and according to various reports, at least one operative lost his life in the effort to find Arad.
A military operation to spring Schalit free in one piece is not feasible. Neither is there much chance of buying his freedom at a bargain-basement price. But there is a legitimate debate to be had over just how heavy that price has to be and what kind of concessions Israel will have to make in return for the freedom of a single soldier. If this week's media is anything to go by, Hamas has already won that debate.
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