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(photo credit: Yaakov Katz)
Evidence suggests that Israel's public diplomacy efforts during Operation Cast Lead were planned as professionally and precisely as the IDF's military operation.
Clearly, both in terms of media relations and information security, lessons have been learned from past experience. Israel put in place what seems to be a well-oiled, focused, disciplined and well-navigated public diplomacy bureaucracy that disseminates messages and supporting materials in a timely and organized way.
It appears that those charged with Israel's information security and public diplomacy in this conflict learned and internalized the lessons of the 2006 war.
The Winograd Committee of Inquiry into the Second Lebanon War was highly critical of how information security and public diplomacy were handled, and devoted a major chapter to the subject. In 2006, leaks of the most sensitive material from highly sensitive government and security forums that were reported in almost real time gave Hizbullah, according to then-chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, intelligence worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Uncontrolled cellphone use by troops to parents, relatives, friends and ultimately the media portrayed confusion and a lack of proper leadership, supplies and medical care for the troops in action. Undisciplined and nonregulated interchanges between officers in uniform and reporters painted a blurred picture of where the army was headed. Commentators and even those formally charged with trying to project Israel's case internally and externally were not briefed and often gave contradictory assessments on the progress of the war and its goals, leading to public bewilderment and demoralization.
In addition, in the Second Lebanon War as well as in the second intifada, there was a critical lack of coordination between the military, the Foreign Ministry, and the Prime Minister's Office, each of which was seen to be working at cross purposes.
In Operation Cast Lead, the situation seemed to be quite different. Unlike in the Second Lebanon War, where the IDF Spokesman's policy was one of openness, the current policy was one of tight control. Media access was severely limited. Entire areas around mobilization points were declared off-limits to the press. In the second week of the war very limited and controlled access was granted to "trusted" journalists who had a long history of relations with the IDF and agreed to abide by strict censorship rules. In this war, no officers spoke to the media without authorization, and those who were authorized to do so were carefully briefed. Private cellphones were confiscated.
The military's message was conveyed in person by the IDF Spokesman's Office in nightly, live, prime-time interviews. Those who did appear were clearly pre-briefed on what to say, as well as on information security requirements. And in a major, highly effective and fundamental change, the military provided those responsible for defending Israel's case with speedy intelligence to give credibility and credence to their message, specifically when it came to attacks on mosques and other sensitive targets like ambulances and schools.
Gideon Meir, now ambassador to Italy, said in a January 13 interview with Army Radio that he was "highly impressed" with the briefing materials he had received, including those provided by the IDF. Prior to his current appointment, Meir served for eight years as the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for public affairs, responsible for the country's public diplomacy, and was at the time a vocal critic of the army's policy of withholding information and the general lack of cooperation from other government and security agencies.
From the very start of the war, there was a unanimity of message from official sources about the goals of the operation. Scenarios developed ahead of the outbreak of hostilities were tailored to meet the need of the hour, bolstered by whatever evidence could be produced, and disseminated efficiently to spokesmen, embassies, government ministers charged with speaking to the public, and other relevant bodies.
Coordination was handled by the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister's Office, a body set up as a result of the State Comptroller's report into Israel's public diplomacy failures, particularly regarding the Jenin refugee camp incident in 2002, when many in the world were led to believe a massacre had occurred though no such thing had happened. A lack of information sharing between the IDF, the Foreign Ministry, and the Prime Minister's Office was found to be at the core of the problem. This, it seems, the directorate has now successfully resolved.
To those planning Operation Cast Lead and its public diplomacy, it was clear that the most problematic pictures for Israel and its international relations would be those of urban areas in Gaza subject to intense military action. It was in this context that a decision was made to keep the foreign press out of Gaza.
The border was closed to them two months in advance of the operation and remained closed until the second week of the war, when a BBC cameraman and a Reuters pool reporter were allowed to enter Gaza embedded with IDF troops and under tight field security control. Though in a response to an appeal from the Foreign Press Association the Supreme Court had ordered the border opened several weeks before the operation, the IDF kept it closed, citing "security considerations," much to the ire of the foreign press.
Ethan Bronner of The New York Times complained that "unlike any war in Israel's history, in this one the government is seeking to entirely control the message and the narrative for reasons of both politics and military strategy."
The Foreign Press Association itself issued a statement saying that "the unprecedented denial of access to Gaza for the world's media amounts to a severe violation of press freedom and puts Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs."
Lorenzo Cremonesi, a journalist for Italy's Corriere della Sera, argued in an article in Haaretz that if Israel denied the international press access to Gaza to see the picture with their own eyes, Israel could not expect objective, balanced reportage, because they would be forced to rely on reports from victims and witnesses in the Strip.
"If we aren't allowed access to the battle scene, we'll end up reporting someone else's exaggerations," he wrote.
Cremonesi, who during his career spent 20 years in Israel, reminds readers that had Israel allowed the international media into Jenin with IDF units, there would never have been reports of a massacre there, and the same logic now applies to Gaza.
Those planning Israel's media strategy for this war obviously did not agree. The protests of the foreign press were predicted in advance and thought less harmful than the consequences of uncontrolled reportage from the battlefield, possibly in part under Hamas dictate, with a very high chance of some journalists being caught in the cross fire and killed.
While the full results of Israel's public diplomacy efforts in this war will take months to assess, it seems that lessons of the past have been learned and acted on; that a structure for efficient crafting and dissemination of message exists; and that inter-agency cooperation has been deepened.
The basic conditions posed by massive force being deployed in densely populated areas would pose a challenge to any public diplomacy establishment. Those responsible seem to be doing a solid job under difficult circumstance and against very heavy odds.
The author is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.