Public diplomacy a central front of ongoing military operation

Experts say efforts to spread Israel’s message around the world have markedly improved since previous skirmishes in Gaza.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, July 13, 2014. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv, July 13, 2014.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
The Prime Minister’s Office and Foreign Ministry have been hard at work spreading Israel’s message in Operation Protective Edge for the last week in an effort that is mostly paying off, experts on public diplomacy in and out of the government said Sunday.
“We see [public diplomacy] as a war front like any other,” Foreign Ministry Deputy Director-General for Communications and Public Diplomacy Arthur Koll explained. “It’s a different kind of warfare, not one where missiles are flying or gunshots, but there is great importance to words, feelings and the sympathies people develop. It’s important to our national security. In this operation, it’s a central arena.”
National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, together with the IDF Spokesman, work together to explain Israel’s side of the story, coordinating messages and talking points.
Director of the National Information Directorate Yarden Vatikai explained he has representatives in meetings at the highest levels so public diplomacy goals match the decisions made in the security cabinet.
On traditional media, Prime Minister’s Office spokesman Mark Regev, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor and the IDF Spokesman gave television, radio and print interviews.
At the same time, Israel’s 102 ambassadors and consuls gave interviews to the media in the countries in which they are stationed. Cabinet ministers are also briefed so they can relay Israel’s message in a manner consistent to how it is being given around the world.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also appeared on traditional media in the US, talking to Face the Nation on CBS, Fox News Sunday, and State of the Union on CNN.
“The prime minister invests in public diplomacy and deals with it all the time,” Vatikai said. “Netanyahu and the Security Cabinet are currently dealing with four fronts: Military, diplomatic, the home front and public diplomacy.”
The Foreign Ministry has websites in five languages and websites for each of Israel’s missions abroad has a website in its local language, plus the ministry reaches millions of followers on social media. The Israeli mission in China alone has more than a million online followers in its various social media outlets, Koll said.
The Prime Minister’s Office has a volunteer “war room” of university students using social media to promote Israel’s cause, and Bar-Ilan University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya students are taking part in similar online activities.
After Operation Pillar of Defense, the Foreign Ministry produced You- Tube videos showing children and elderly people in everyday situations, when suddenly an air-raid siren goes off. The videos were only posted online once Operation Protective Edge began.
The IDF constantly posted videos online of how it warns Gazans of upcoming attacks and tells them to leave the vicinity before a building is blown up. Some show the IDF calling off bombings when civilians are spotted near the target.
Government offices are working in close cooperation with NGOs, making information available for them to disseminate to their contacts. Several NGO representatives were briefed by Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi on Sunday.
“Governmental bodies have been more assertive of their case and quicker to respond and have had the facts at their fingertips while making Israel’s case to the world,” Public diplomacy NGO StandWithUs Israel office director Michael Dickson said.
“For me there’s another forum – social media and public opinion. The public can play a greater role on a different playing field than government officials.”
According to Dickson, Israelis under fire are reaching out on social media more than ever before, using information from the government as well as relaying their own experiences to show what Israel is facing.
All of these efforts, however, are not enough, Prof. Eitan Gilboa of Bar- Ilan University, an expert on public diplomacy, said.
“There’s not enough manpower, resources or activities dedicated to public diplomacy,” he added.
According to Gilboa, the government should have prepared in advance by discrediting Hamas in the international arena. In addition, he said, the prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister should be making statements to the foreign press daily and repeat that Hamas targets civilian towns and Israel is using measured force.
“We use a policy of early warning while Hamas tells people to go to the roof and become human shields. Our policymakers should say that every day. People have short memories… These things have to be repeated,” Gilboa posited.
The government is familiar with complaints about public diplomacy, but Koll said this time there have been few.
“Every Israeli citizen wants 100 percent of the world to understand and sympathize with us and we aim for as big an influence as possible, but what’s important is that we send the right message and effectively reach the maximal target audience,” Koll stated.
One major problem that everyone The Jerusalem Post spoke to Sunday pointed out is that there are many more casualties in Gaza than in Israel, and photos from Gaza trigger an emotional response.
“We’re lucky to have the Iron Dome, but it’s a challenge to public diplomacy,” Gilboa explained. “The death and destruction equation works against Israel. The more you hurt civilian populations, the more you cause suffering, the more the media and public opinion, especially in the West, will turn against you.”
Photos of destroyed houses and dead women and children are attractive to the mass media, Gilboa said.
“You feel for these people, but [foreign press] fails to mention missiles were being stored under the house and fired from around it,” Gilboa stated. “According to international law, if you fire from a place, the other side has the right to respond there.
The fact that Hamas is using human shields should not be forgotten, but is not mentioned. I don’t see context in print or video media.”
According to Gilboa, Palestinian violations of international law by firing from civilian areas in Gaza to civilian areas in Israel are “a tremendous public diplomacy weapon” that Israel is not properly utilizing.
“Our main challenge is the story of civilian casualties and explaining the cynical way Hamas is using innocent people,” Koll admitted.
Dickson pointed out that “people in Gaza are living under oppression and can give out one particular message in line with people ruling them.
We’re a democracy, so we have multiple voices coming out.”
Still, Koll and Vatikai both said the international media is more understanding of the context in their coverage of Operation Protective Edge than in previous rounds of fighting, and present Israel as defending itself from Hamas attacks on civilian populations.
Vatikai credited Netanyahu’s waiting several days to start the operation, despite facing criticism from the Right, with bringing the friendlier- than-usual media environment.
In addition, Koll pointed out that many media sources are reporting the fact that Hamas uses human shields, shoots rockets from areas full of civilians and hides weaponry in mosques and homes.
“I don’t think we’ll ever have a fully balanced media picture, but I think right now, on day six, [government public diplomacy] is doing everything right so far,” Dickson commented.
Dickson commended the government, saying there is a vast improvement in flow of information from Israel since the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
“Israel slowly but steadily improved in that regard and this is the best I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Still, Dickson called for the public to use whatever tools it has to relay Israel’s message: “As much as the government is doing a better job than before, we have a role we can play as well and it’s no less important.