Security and Defense: Combating delegitimization

Former IDF spokesman Avi Benayahu says Jewish communities overseas can play a bigger role in the ‘hasbara’ war.

Avi Benayahu speak with reporters as IDF spokesperson 370 (photo credit: Bamachane)
Avi Benayahu speak with reporters as IDF spokesperson 370
(photo credit: Bamachane)
A few months after Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip ended in 2009, Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, then the chief spokesman of the Israel Defense Forces, flew to London for a number of lectures and meetings.
It was at the height of the international community’s criticism of Israel and just weeks after the United Nations Human Rights Council had established the Goldstone Commission to probe alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
When Benayahu arrived at his hotel, he checked in under a different name – John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’s partner. He was accompanied by two security guards throughout the duration of his stay in the United Kingdom.
Almost three years later and now out of uniform, Benayahu recalls that trip as a major turning point in his understanding of the nature of the threat that Israel faces overseas.
“They explained to me that if word got out that I am staying in the hotel there would be 4,000 demonstrators out in front within an hour,” he said this week.
During his four-year term, Benayahu was one of the most powerful people in the IDF and served as a close advisor to his boss – former chief of staff Lt.- Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s office has accused Benayahu in the past of working with Ashkenazi to undermine Barak, an accusation that the former spokesman refuses to respond to. Instead, he urges patience and says that once the State Comptroller report on the so-called Harpaz Affair is released and he is officially discharged in another two months from the military, he will have a lot more to say.
IN THE meantime, Benayahu has a message for the Diaspora: There is a war raging around the world to delegitimize Israel and each and every Jew. no matter where he or she lives. can be a soldier in that battle.
On April 29, The Jerusalem Post will hold a conference entitled “Fighting for the Zionist Dream” in New York City. One of the panels will focus on the so-called delegitimization of Israel.
“This is a campaign that crosses the globe and is financed by Iran and the Palestinians,” Benayahu says while looking out at Tel Aviv from the offices of his new management consulting firm in the Azrieli Towers. “The objective is to isolate Israel and to try – with non-military means – to defeat us.”
Benayahu’s term as chief IDF spokesman from an international perspective is complicated. On the one hand, he established the IDF’s digital presence – on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
He also opened up the military to the international press, getting foreign journalists access to officers who in the past had refused to meet with them.
On the other hand, he will always be remembered for the closure that Israel imposed on Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, when journalists were not allowed into the Hamas-controlled territory.
Benayahu uses this interview to set the record straight. Firstly, he explains, journalists were allowed into Gaza if they were willing to be embedded with IDF troops. Secondly, he adds, he actually recommended that the government open up the Erez Crossing – which was not under IDF control – and allow journalists free access to Gaza.
“I thought it was the right move to open up the crossing and allow journalists into Gaza to diversify the coverage, which should not only be Palestinian, but the government did not agree,” he says.
Turning to the so-called hasbara (public diplomacy) war, Benayahu believes that Israel needs to rely more on Jewish communities overseas. Israel, he says, is currently focused on the traditional conventional media but not on bloggers or social media websites.
“All someone needs today is time and a computer and they can make a difference,” he says. “Jews around the world can be the ultimate weapon for Israel that it has been waiting for.”
He agrees that there are already a lot of pro-Israel NGOs in the United States, Europe and Australia that have been established to fill the vacuum but insists that individuals can do more on a personal level.
“Technology and the nature of the way information spreads online have created, for the first time, a real opportunity for the Jewish global community to be involved,” he explains. “The Iranians and the Palestinians don’t send delegations everywhere. Instead they rely on their nationals who live overseas.”
Benayahu also recommends that the government take a more aggressive approach and start fighting back against arrest orders, for example, that are issued against IDF officers and Israeli politicians in Europe.
He recalls how last February he was with Ashkenazi at a NATO conference in Brussels and they had to reschedule their flight back to Israel because of several meetings that took longer than expected.
The problem was that all of the flights had connections and there was concern in the IDF’s Military Advocate General’s Office about having the chief of staff fly into countries like Spain.
“This shouldn’t be the case,” he says. “The Jewish community should be working more trying to get resolutions passed at the UN Security Council, in filing complaints in courts in Europe and in getting arrest warrants issued for Hamas and Hezbollah terror leaders.”