Strategic Affairs: After 11 years, Yarden Vatikay steps down

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August 16, 2019 15:43
Strategic Affairs: After 11 years, Yarden Vatikay steps down

YARDEN VATIKAY: The objective is not to eliminate condemnation, but you want to contain it. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

On Sunday, July 22, just hours before a farewell reception for Yarden Vatikay, who was stepping down as head of the National Information Directorate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Vatikay – along with members of his staff – into his office.

The reason was not to give Vatikay a pat on the back and a personal send-off.
“The prime minister said that in a couple of hours there will be an evacuation and demolition of buildings in Wadi Hummus, near the fence in [the Jerusalem neighborhood of] Sur Bahir, that it could cause a mess, and that we need a policy,” Vatikay recalled this week.

The type of policy Netanyahu was referring to, and which was needed, was a media policy, the type Vatikay had helped coordinate hundreds – if not thousands – of times since he took up this post in 2008.

Coordinating media policy means coming up with a message, determining timing regarding when to send it out, and deciding – among the country’s various security and diplomatic bodies – who does what: whether a uniformed officer or civilian is placed in front of the cameras, who remains in the background, what videos to release, what graphics to produce, and to what degree the prime minister himself should be involved in articulating the message.

“We came together and decided that COGAT [the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories] will put out the information about Wadi Hummus,” he said, “because it is an organization that is half civilian, half military. For television, we would take Emmanuel [former Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon]. We didn’t want a spokesman from the Prime Minister’s Office, because that would be too high a level. We wanted it to be more of a security issue, with civilians involved.”

A COGAT spokesman was selected, he explained, because its representatives project a different message even before they talk. “If you see the IDF Spokesman on the screen, the message – even before he opens his mouth – would be that the army is against the Palestinians.”

Yet after all that forethought, Israel still got blasted in the international media and by various governments around the world for the demolition of about a dozen buildings.

With a characteristic shrug of the shoulders, Vatikay said, “Of course we did; we knew what we were headed into.” But, he added, the goal was to contain the incident, keep it from turning into a huge image crisis around the world.

And that goal, to a large degree, was achieved: The story came and went without receiving that much attention, and Israel’s position – that the demolitions were the result of security considerations since the buildings abutted the security barrier – was heard.

“You are always going to receive condemnations for something like this, he said. “The objective is not to eliminate condemnation, but you want to contain it.”

VATIKAY HAS been dealing with Israeli hasbara (public diplomacy) in various capacities for some 25 years: first as a deputy spokesman to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin; then as a spokesman for the IDF; then for COGAT; then for former defense minister Binyamin “Fuad” Ben-Eliezer; then for the Jewish Agency. He has been head of the National Information Directorate since 2008.

As such, he is well aware of the criticism of Israel’s efforts to explain itself – its hasbara. And though he agrees that things could be better, he said that the criticism is often misplaced because the goals are not understood.

Vatikay said that those who believe the goal of hasbara is that the world will “stand up and clap” at whatever Israel does, understand neither public opinion nor the world.

The be-all and end-all of hasbara is not for an Israeli spokesman to win a debate with a Palestinian spokesman on BBC or CNN, though that is obviously not unimportant. The goal, he said, is to serve Israeli policy, and to provide as much legitimacy and support for Israeli policy as possible.

Sometimes, he said, that might mean not responding at all. For instance, when it comes to incidents on the Temple Mount, often a decision is taken not to react.

“You don’t always respond to what neighboring state are saying [about the Temple Mount],” he said, in reference to Jordan. “There are other considerations, such as whether it will inflame the situation or not. If your main objective is to lower tension on the Temple Mount, then everything has to be subordinated to that objective – including hasbara. So sometimes, even if you are boiling inside, it does not serve your strategic goal to respond.”

Which leads to another consideration that comes into play when dealing with various incidents: who is the audience? Is the central audience the domestic public, the regional states, or the wider international community? How the message is framed flows, to a large degree, from who is determined to be the primary audience.

For instance, after the Mossad smuggled out of Iran that country’s secret nuclear archives in 2018, a decision had to be made about how to display that to the world.

“We worked on this for two months in advance,” Vatikay said, noting that in general the preparation time for preparing a media strategy for a particular event is much, much shorter.

“It was totally secret, top secret, only a small number of people in the PMO knew about it. Here we had hundreds of thousands of documents in Farsi that the Mossad brought in an unbelievable, mind-blowing operation, so we had to think about what to choose, what is the right thing to put out, what do we want to show the world, what is the message, and how do you build a media event in total secrecy.”

Vatikay said that everything was done in close coordination with Netanyahu, whom he termed a “champion” at understanding the power of a simple, direct message.

In the end, Netanyahu presented the material to the world by – speaking in English – drawing a black curtain to display shelves filled with copies of the files in a room in the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.

“Iran lied big-time,” he said. “Iran is brazenly lying when it says it never had a nuclear weapons program. The files prove that.”

And that was the short, succinct message that Israel wanted to get across to the world: Iran lied.

Vatikay said he feels the message got across, and pointed out that US President Donald Trump referenced the intelligence coup when pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal a few months later.

During the event, sub-messages were also brought across to other audiences as well: To Iran and the Arab world, the message was one of deterrence – that Israel knows exactly what they are doing and can reach everywhere. And the message to the domestic audience was an ego booster: “Look what we can do.”

VATIKAY, WHO stepped down with the hopes of leveraging his experience to work in the private sector as a consultant to organizations and institutions on media and crisis management, was tabbed in 2008 to set up and head the National Information Directorate, a body established by one of the committees that looked at operational flaws during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

“Things change as a result of traumas, he said. “The Second Lebanon War was sort of a trauma, in the sense of a feeling that things didn’t work out well. One of the conclusions was that there was a big mess in the communications apparatus.”

Many organizations here deal with security and diplomatic issues, from the IDF to COGAT, the Mossad, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the police, Foreign Ministry, Strategic Affairs Ministry and numerous others, and the conclusion of one committee was that they are not sufficiently speaking to one another and coordinating on a single message. The National Information Directorate was born out of a desire to set up a body that would do just that.

For instance, Vatikay said, during the Second Lebanon War, journalists were taken north to film artillery fire into Lebanon, something the IDF Spokesman thought would boost local morale and show strength. The problem is that decision was taken without considering how that would look to international audiences, who viewed it not as a sign of strength but as indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets.

In general, Vatikay said, more media specialists need to be incorporated in the decision-making process across the board.

“Every strategic decision needs a communication plan, not only in the Prime Minister’s Office, but everywhere,” he said. “Sometimes this can prevent things that could be harmful.”

One such example, he said, took place in 2015 when the Defense Ministry, under then-defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, launched a pilot program to separate Israeli and Palestinian bus travel in the West Bank.

Though the idea was to ensure that Palestinian day laborers would have to travel into Israel on buses that would be checked carefully at security checkpoints, the headlines the next morning were that Israel had inaugurated “apartheid” buses.

“We went to the prime minister, and he canceled it,” Vatikay said. “If they had a public relations expert involved, who would have thought about the connotations, then this would not have happened. If you don’t understand the implications of an image, then that is a problem.”

Regarding the current brouhaha over the visit of Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, Vatikay – who stressed that he was speaking without having sat in on all the deliberations and seen all the relevant information – said that Jerusalem needs to be “smart” on this matter, and not only “right.”

Vatikay said it is clear that Israel would never accept a situation where other countries – particular America – would deny access to Knesset members. Therefore, he said, it should let them in. There are certain principles, he added, that are worth upholding “even if you pay a price.” Upholding principles, he said, sometimes becomes strategy itself.

Another principle always important to highlight is Israel as a democracy. For that reason, he said, he disagrees with those who say that Israel’s case abroad gets muffled because too many ministers talk about areas they are not responsible for – such as the sport and culture minister talking about diplomacy.

Vatikay said that on major issues, such as Iran, there is “message discipline,” and ministers do agree not to speak publicly, if asked not to do so. Things are different, however, when it comes to policy regarding the Palestinians, because that issue is seen vastly differently by various parties who make up the government.

“First of all, we are a democracy,” he said, when asked about the lack of message discipline on this issue. Reminded that the US is also a democracy, but the secretary of transportation does not sound off about Washington’s immigration policy, Vatikay said “Israel’s system is different, and our nature is also different.”

“I think this is understood in the world, and gives us more points than it detracts,” he said. “At a strategic level, it also strengthens the understanding of Israel as a vibrant democracy.”

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