Hasbara: Lights, camera, combat

A conference on the media as a player in war and diplomacy has underscored Israel's deficient arsenal.

pilot 88 (photo credit: )
pilot 88
(photo credit: )
Few complaints held against recent Israeli governments have so completely attained the lofty status of "conventional wisdom" as those directed at Israel's image-makers and -explainers. The many critics of hasbara claim that, while the importance of "getting the message out" has become paramount (in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and low-intensity combat generally), the IDF and state bureaucracies have failed miserably in conveying a coherent and convincing message to the world. A conference on the use of media as a factor in strategic decision-making and as a player in the theater of war and diplomacy, held this week outside Jerusalem, provided a glimpse into the chaos that pervades Israel's official hasbara. At the closed-door academic conference, in which former generals, government spokesmen, experts, officials and a few of the country's most senior past and current strategists could openly air their concerns, a recurring complaint among those in attendance centered on the lack of an agency that could coordinate the message being delivered by the state's various spokesmen. "But it's not just a problem of creating a coordinating institution," one senior adviser to the government told The Jerusalem Post. "We have to create working regulations, committees. Mere institutions don't necessarily solve the problem." What Israel needs, what Israel lacks today, he emphasized, is a coherent and comprehensive policy-making process, one that would develop a unified media strategy, and be capable of updating and altering that strategy as the need arises. While the conference focused on the media, it suggested that the overall problem was not limited to one aspect of government policy. Rather, the lack of a serious institutionalized strategy-forming process inside the government has created a situation in which there is no grand strategy guiding government actions. This is a grave predicament, particularly when Israel is faced with enemies who have a very definitive strategy. In a recent speech before the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, journalist Ehud Yaari discussed the efficacy of what he called Hizbullah's muqawama strategy. Muqawama, or "persistent combat," combines a military doctrine of ongoing warfare against enemy civilian populations with a social support infrastructure for the local population. According to Yaari, "The doctrine's long-term objective is to serve as an alternative to the nation-state by offering a more efficient vehicle for the fulfillment of social and military goals. The muqawama doctrine challenges the nation-state by adopting the concept of the Islamic community in a way that offers an alternative to dictatorship, monarchy and democracy." Described by Yaari as "not just a military system, but an alternative to many of the civil institutions of the state," the muqawama idea is Hizbullah's major challenge to the modern state-based world order. It is, in short, Hizbullah's broadest strategic paradigm. And it grants the group an organizational advantage denied to Israel - a cohesive over-arching policy that allows its planners to deal with individual tactical problems in the context of a broader set of goals. THE DISADVANTAGE inherent in lacking a broad political-military strategy is obvious, and could be rectified quickly. But governments don't work that way. Formulating grand strategy is as much an art as a profession. It demands that the state support a hierarchy capable of questioning assumptions and rethinking problems on an ongoing basis. As comments made at the conference clarified, Israel's government doesn't lack merely a unified coherent strategic narrative with which to conduct tactical decision-making, but also the very policy-making process that can create and update that strategy. According to one high-ranking government official, there is no process in which the various decision-making and policy-planning arms of the government operate with an understanding that cooperation on strategy-building is in the interest of the country as a whole. Rather, as another conference participant, a high-ranking official in a relevant ministry, put it, "The Israeli bureaucratic machine functions like the Roman latifundia," the great landed estates held by wealthy men of the senatorial class in a manner approximating private kingdoms. The media war demonstrates the problem. Much has been said about the dizzying speed of reporting during the conflict, with live footage of rockets falling on Haifa and smoke plumes rising high above Beirut. Some officials in the IDF Spokesman's Office and elsewhere in Israel's official hasbara system have called this a "new reality." Yet, as one speaker at the conference, a former IDF general and planner, pointed out, "there is nothing new here." The cell phone and live video feeds were already a battlefield reality in the First Gulf War, he said. "There are people paid to deal with these issues," he commented, leaving unstated the implication that they are not doing so. And they are not doing so because there is no centralized push to develop appropriate responses to future problems. Another disturbing example can be gleaned from recent comments by Uzi Dayan, the former senior army commander and aspiring politician, who told a convention of Israel's top business leaders in Tel Aviv that Israel's political leaders don't see policy consultation as an important part of governing the country. In his experience, he said, most cabinet members viewed the weekly Sunday meeting as an event they had to endure without making fools of themselves, rather than a forum for discussion and determination of state policy. The fact that many of Israel's senior professional strategists and government officials view the country's policy-making processes as a kind of headless chicken - generating a lot of media noise, but ultimately unable to bring the assets of the state to bear, even when faced with an existential threat - is disconcerting. Yet, a senior military analyst noted, the temptation to implement potential solutions too quickly, a known affliction of Israeli media and policy wonks, can itself produce questionable, and sometimes disastrous, results. IF THE conference can be said to have had one overarching conclusion, it is that Israel needs to properly identify the problem and to establish a policy-making process that can properly determine the country's message. Former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu didn't possess the political capital needed to instill in the National Security Council the kind of broad consultative and coordinative powers he wanted to give it. Ariel Sharon, for his part, jealously guarded in small forums the products of his strategic planning, regularly surprising even the most veteran and prescient of the country's strategists. For many top officials, those who can speak of such things only in closed forums with their colleagues, such bureaucratic difficulties and attitudes can no longer be tolerated. The pre-July 12 claims that Israel's new civilian leadership was a step forward for the country may have been premature, but even so, it is not unreasonable for a modern nation-state to be run by a lawyer rather than an aging general. What many view as unreasonable - indeed, dangerous - is that, in the wake of the election of a lawyer and a trade unionist to the top decision-making positions in the country, there is no policy-planning body or group that is charged with creating for the national leadership the kind of strategic planning their own experience has not equipped them to produce. The facts of modern warfare have been known for some time, and the need to deal properly with the new media and strategic reality has been discussed in government circles before. Yet, for many senior figures in the government, the lack of centralized planning, whether through institutions or new regulations, continues to prevent action and cross-fertilization of expertise and intelligence that could have meant the difference between the perception of victory and the perception of loss in the summer's war. As one expert told the Post, Israel found itself unable to define, and only partially able to influence, the strategic environment in which it was acting. Yet, for many of the experts at the conference, if Israel's long-term response to Hizbullah's challenge will include the development of a comprehensive pan-ministerial strategic planning process, the summer's limited war may have saved the country from a far greater future disaster.