Between the Lines: Comptroller to gov't: 'What we have here is a failure to communicate'

There are basic problems in Israel's political system that work against making sure messages come out clearly and appear unified from all official sources.

Lindenstrauss 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Lindenstrauss 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Let's start with the end - the conclusion of the section of the State Comptroller's Report released this week dealing with the performance of those offices charged with handling the government's communications strategy (hasbara) during the Second Lebanon War. The report concluded that: "The absence of an official overall government communications strategy, and the lack of appropriate coordination between the offices responsible for those communications - stemming from an absence of official direction by means of a supervising body to direct and coordinate [those offices] - is responsible for the failings of the government's communications strategy. This failure was most strongly obvious during the Second Lebanon War. "Therefore, it is the responsibility of the Prime Minister's Office to conclude without delay - in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Defense Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces, the Ministry of Internal Security, the Israel Police and all other related bodies - the setting of a basic conception for a communications strategy; the establishing of the lines of authority and responsibility needed to coordinate communications activities at the national level, for both internal and external needs; and the principles for implementing these steps, anchored in official government policy, with consideration given as to whether [undertaking these measures] might require the need to ground them in an act of law." In other words, during the Second Lebanon War, the government never sat down and figured out quite what it wanted to say, either to the Israeli people or to the outside world - and even if it did, it probably couldn't have gotten the message out effectively, because it wasn't clear then, and still isn't, whose job it ultimately was to make sure this happened. Or, as Strother Martin put it so succinctly in Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate!" NOW LET'S backtrack. The inadequate performance of the government's hasbara efforts during the war, both in keeping the Israeli public and the media informed of what they needed to know in the summer of 2006, and in making Israel's case to the outside world via the international media, is not headline-making news. This failure has been criticized in print both during and after the summer of 2006, including by this writer. So there are no real revelations in this week's comptroller's report on the subject. In fact, as the report itself notes, many of the same problems, and suggestions for fixing them, were first put forward by the comptroller's office in its 2002 edition, which focused on the performance of the same hasbara offices and officials during Operation Defensive Shield. Rather than rehashing the specifics of both reports, it might be worth examining just why it is that the above-mentioned recommendations haven't yet been implemented, especially when it comes to external (international) hasbara. In order to carry out a basic communications strategy on any level - government, corporate, grass-roots - you have to first figure out what your message is, and then make sure that everyone charged with delivering it "stays on message." The Olmert government certainly has had major difficulties with the former. During the war, it did have good spokespeople in the form of the PMO's Miri Eisin and the MFA's Mark Regev, plus some effective English-speaking ministers, like Isaac Herzog, to put in front of the cameras. But those efforts aside, what was lacking was a clear, simple, coherent message about Israel's goals during the war, and how individual military actions taken were part of achieving them. Obviously, one reason for this was the basic confusion at the top about what those goals were, and no amount of effective media spinning could have completely solved that problem. Still, even under those circumstances, the government should have done better, and didn't. Not surprisingly, Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss places primary blame on Olmert's office - and, in this case, it's thoroughly justified. Because the PMO was in the middle of an over-long personnel transition on its communications team, the lines of responsibility for hasbara were unclear during this period. Olmert, himself an effective communicator in both Hebrew and English, was barely used to good effect during the war, and muddled messages were emerging from the top in both languages. And even if the strategy had been clearer, there are basic problems in Israel's political system that work against making sure those messages come out clearly and appear unified from all official sources. A coalition government in which cabinet members, and the people who work for them, belong to different parties and have different personal priorities, is surely not conducive to effective hasbara. The spokespeople and communications teams of different ministries and government offices often seem to act solely on behalf of their own immediate superiors, rather than for the good of the state as defined by its policies at that time. The most glaring examples cited by the comptroller in the report during the war are the Defense Ministry and the IDF Spokesman's Office. The relationship between the two when it comes to communications is itself extremely ambiguous and problematic, and this was surely compounded at the time by the performance (or lack thereof) on this front by then-defense minister Amir Peretz. The latter also applies to then-chief IDF spokesperson Miri Regev, who failed both in her home-front communications mission, and in making sure the international media division of her unit had the access and resources it needed to carry out its duties as effectively as possible. As the comptroller notes, it was only after the war that an attempt was even made to organize a well-defined coordinating body of hasbara officials who met regularly, under the direction of the cabinet secretary, in order to craft and carry out a unified communications strategy. But Lindenstrauss might be right that it will take an act of Knesset to codify this in a way so that private, party and partisan concerns don't end up taking precedent over national interest. AS THE State Comptroller's Report made clear, the government fell short in many areas when it came to the conventional military aspects of the Second Lebanon War, and undoubtedly this was a more serious problem. Yet, the information war, fought on the battleground of the international media and elsewhere in the global arena of public opinion, is also one this country cannot afford to lose. [email protected]