'Coordination is putting Israel ahead in the media war'

Efforts have established dramatic Israeli presence on major networks.

survey gaza (photo credit: )
survey gaza
(photo credit: )
As the anti-Hamas operation in Gaza entered its third day Monday and IDF commanders laid the groundwork for a possible ground assault on the Strip, Israeli officials responsible for the parallel media offensive sounded decidedly optimistic. Reporting on the conflict is a crucial arena of the battle itself, say analysts. The success or failure of the media effort can affect the window of opportunity which the IDF has to fulfill its operational objectives: weakening Hamas and imposing a calm that could not be reached through negotiations. "I don't know how long it will last, but at this moment Israel has no small measure of understanding and support, and even approval, from many countries," says former UN ambassador Dan Gillerman, who was brought into the media effort by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni shortly before the aerial attack against Hamas began on Saturday. "We haven't seen dramatic condemnations [from world leaders], only the expected and generic calls for calm and cease-fire," said Gillerman. "Even in the UN I didn't see anyone happy to condemn us," he added. "Unless something very dramatic happens, such as a blundered hit that kills large numbers of civilians, then we will have enough time to do what we need to do." In large part, this welcome window to act against the Hamas infrastructure in Gaza is due to a new culture of coordination among the agencies responsible for managing Israel's media message in times of crisis. These include the Foreign Ministry, the IDF Spokesman's Unit, the military coordinator in the territories and Prime Minister's Office representatives. Unlike in previous military crises, "we have close coordination and unified messages between agencies," says Yarden Vatikai, the director of the National Information Directorate, which is seeing its first trial by fire. Established in the wake of the Winograd Report's criticism of insufficient coordination in the media effort during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the NID's purpose is to synchronize the content and tone of Israel's message across the many organizations that carry it to the world, whether official or unofficial. On the media front, preparation for the Gaza operation included training exercises among spokespeople for handling worst-case scenarios, daily conference calls between all the agencies and a daily review of Israel's media "footprint," or the amount and type of coverage Israel receives around the world. This kind of preparation, learned the hard way from previous mistakes, is paying off, says Gillerman. "You can't take for granted that the entire system will be coordinated properly," he says, "but this time it's being done to an impressive extent." "We're not seeing the grandiose military press conferences or the nonstop video footage from air force strikes" so familiar to Israelis and foreign journalists from the Lebanon conflict, says Vatikai. Instead, the IDF Spokesperson's Unit is one of the agencies using a more nuanced and prepared approach, investing its efforts in getting multilingual officers on the air on as many foreign outlets as possible. According to Aviv Shir-On, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for media and public affairs, these efforts are successfully creating a dramatic Israeli presence on major international television networks. Using figures taken from a Foreign Ministry media tracking operation run out of the television studios in Neveh Ilan, Shir-On cites an eight-hour period between 4 p.m. and midnight Sunday during which tracking of CNN, the BBC, Sky News, Fox, Al-Jazeera English and France 24 yielded 335 combined minutes of Gaza coverage. Of these, 58 minutes were given to Israeli representatives, while only 19 were given to Palestinian ones. Elsewhere, a survey published by French newspaper Le Figaro on Sunday showed that 55 percent of French respondents were understanding toward the Israeli operation, while 45% were critical of it. "When you have a 10% lead in France, that's better than we could have expected," notes Shir-On. From such figures, and other reports from Israel's 97 representative offices worldwide, Shir-On says he can confidently report that "Israeli hasbara is fulfilling its missions. Our media presence internationally is good." Even so, caution Israeli officials, the worst is not yet past for the media struggle. Some of the initial success on the media front is due to external factors, such as division among the Palestinians - Fatah and the Palestinian Authority have publicly blamed Hamas for the fighting - and the holiday season. "Israel was given a window of opportunity by the calendar," notes Channel 2 foreign news editor Arad Nir. The conflict "caught the world on the weekend between Christmas and New Year, when its attention is elsewhere." But that window may be closing, he warns. "By Monday morning, the French newspapers started talking about 'proportionality' and 'cruelty.' Yesterday we heard the Turks, for whom Sunday is a work day, come out against [the operation]. "I assume it will get worse as we leave the holiday season behind and television screens are flooded with ugly pictures out of Gaza. Even if world leaders understand Israel's logic in the rational part of their brains, the emotional part will take hold because of such images, and as more and more people take to the streets." Indeed, many foreign outlets, particularly Arab and British newspapers, have not expressed a great deal of understanding for Operation Cast Lead. Instead they have excoriated Israel and predicted Cast Lead's imminent failure. One example is Britain's Guardian newspaper, which on Sunday published two opinion articles on its Web site's front page explaining to readers that the operation was akin to "Deir Yassin and the Sabra and Shatila massacres," and suggesting that "the near certainty that Israeli aggression will fail is surely a compelling reason for negotiation." The relative success in conveying Israel's message "won't last for long," predicts Shir-On, if only because "the pictures are not good. We're finding the problem that whenever a television station puts on an Israeli spokesperson, they put alongside him in split-screen pictures of carnage in Gaza." "It's hard to wield words against terrible pictures," agrees Gillerman, but insists "our hasbara is working correctly" in the face of difficult odds. "Television is inherently a medium that likes drama, blood and tears," says Government Press Office Director Danny Seaman. "This means we're behind before we've even started. To understand us, you have to speak to people suffering quietly over many years. The pictures [from Gaza] are much more dramatic." At the end of the day, says Seaman, "the day-to-day work with the foreign reporters, giving them access to the Israeli civilians hurt by the conflict, is a message they have to grapple with and don't have an answer for. What would you do if your city was under the stress of rocket barrages for one day, not to mention many years?" Yet while Israel tries to get the foreign press interested in the eight-year-old suffering of its own citizens, it faces the complex question of foreign media access to the Gaza Strip, deemed by Israeli authorities to be unsafe not only for the journalists but also for Israeli officials who would have to man the border crossings. The Foreign Press Association, representing some 400 foreign reporters working in Israel, has filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against the Defense Ministry's ban on entry into the strip. The petition will be heard Wednesday. "Never before have journalists been prevented from doing their work in this way," the FPA said in a statement Monday, adding, "We believe it is vital that journalists be allowed to find out for themselves what is going on in Gaza." Some Israeli officials are skeptical of allowing such access over the Israel-Gaza border. According to Seaman, "Hamas won't let them report honestly." In Israel's experience, he said, "the foreign journalists don't have the backbone and courage to speak against Hamas in Hamas-controlled territory. So they become the fig leaf placed over Hamas propaganda. Now that only Hamas is reporting from Gaza, people understand the report is biased." Not so, says Tim Butcher, Middle East correspondent for the London-based Daily Telegraph. "Israel's barring of foreign journalists is counterproductive. It allows a vacuum of information to build up in the Gaza Strip into which propaganda, bias and bigotry is poured. "The only way for Israel's narrative to be credible is for objective assessors, among them foreign journalists, to have access to the area," Butcher said.