Nachman Shai: The IDF's most trusted voice during the Gulf War

HOMELAND AFFAIRS: The IDF spokesman during the Gulf War in 1991 recalls being the go-to authority for most Israelis during a period of uncertainty

NACHMAN SHAI during the war: I didn’t at first have an inkling of the weight of responsibility on my shoulders, but it soon dawned on me that every word I uttered was accepted, so untypically for Israel, and people followed my instructions. (photo credit: Courtesy)
NACHMAN SHAI during the war: I didn’t at first have an inkling of the weight of responsibility on my shoulders, but it soon dawned on me that every word I uttered was accepted, so untypically for Israel, and people followed my instructions.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Gulf War of 1991 was the first major international conflict to be covered live on television, and for Israelis, who became unwilling passive participants, media savvy Nachman Shai played a pivotal role.
Shai, now an academic, and a former Labor MK, was at the time of the war the IDF Spokesman. His appearances on the airwaves, which turned out to have a hugely calming effect on viewers and listeners, were among the most closely followed on Israeli radio and television, which 30 years ago comprised one-and-a-half TV channels and a single national radio news station, since Israel Radio’s Reshet Bet and Army Radio combined forces to broadcast together during the war.
“That war didn’t begin according to our plans; it wasn’t of our making. We were prepared, but the moment of its start came as a surprise, and we didn’t have exact warning that rockets would be fired at us,” Shai told The Jerusalem Post in an interview this week.
He recalled that, unlike today, when Israel has excellent early-warning capabilities through long-range radar, aerial surveillance and satellites, 30 years ago those assets weren’t available.
“We didn’t have such good early warning at the start of the war because the Americans refused to share their information with us, although it got better as the conflict progressed,” he said.
When Saddam Hussein launched the first of at least 38 Scud missiles at civilian population centers on January 17, 1991, two days after the American deadline for the start of Operation Desert Storm, Israel’s military machine moved into action and Shai was its charismatic front man.
He recalled being woken at his home hear Jerusalem when news began to filter through that something had happened, and a call from the Army Radio studio asked for guidance what they should broadcast.
“It was a critical moment in the war. I understood that there was disarray on the radio and that the commander of Haga [Civil Defense] was answering listeners’ questions instead of being out in the field commanding his forces. I got on air, and confirmed that there had been an attack and that people should take refuge in their sealed rooms and make sure to take everybody with them,” said Shai, who recalled being one of very few people who at the time had a cellular phone.
Once the top IDF brass had gathered at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, things began to fall into place. Shai’s own role took on a more orderly routine, and he faced unrelenting media appearances.
“The military leadership were in conference, making important plans, when I was forced to interrupt them and say to the generals: ‘There are six million people out there waiting for instructions from us. What should I tell them?’
“Dan Shomron, the IDF chief of staff, looked at me and just said: ‘Deal with it, Nachman, we don’t have time for this. It’s in your hands; take care of it.’ At that moment, I realized that I had a job to do.”
Shai, speaking to the Post from Duke University in North Carolina, where he is the Israel Institute visiting professor, teaching a course on public diplomacy, looks back on his time as the IDF Spokesman with astonishment at how the public so willingly accepted his messages almost without question.
“I didn’t, at first, have an inkling of the weight of responsibility on my shoulders, but it soon dawned on me that every word I uttered was accepted, so untypically for Israel, and people followed my instructions. I received 100% compliance from the public, and that’s crazy, when you think about it. All the more so, when considering that those following the instructions are Israelis,” Shai said.
Preparations for a possible conflict that might involve Israel began already in 1990, when Saddam’s Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, and although it was a conflict that was playing out more than a thousand kilometers away, the fear that Iraq possessed chemical weapons was not lost on Israel’s leaders, or on the military.
“After Saddam invaded Kuwait in August 1990, I took it upon myself to begin preparing notices to the public, and we began an orderly distribution of gas mask kits. We had to ensure that there would be enough, and when the war began, everybody had a kit, and I was there to tell people what to do,” Shai recalled.
“I soon understood that the more information I delivered to the public, the more it could have a calming effect, and as I was strategically positioned so close to the source of firsthand information, the easier it was to be able to disseminate it directly and coherently to those who were yearning for instructions,” Shai added.
Shai’s experience as the military reporter for Israel TV in the early 1970s and his confident appearances in front of the camera stood him in good stead for the role he took on in uniform with the rank of brigadier-general. His assured, yet low-key delivery relaxed viewers and gave them a sense of calm in a situation that few Israelis had ever encountered before.
“For years later, I tried to analyze what it was that gave me such a following. It was certainly because we prepared as professionally as possible, and, crucially, we didn’t involve any politics in our message. I was just passing on the most basic information, but I delivered it straight and without ‘bullshit’.”
Shai said that the IDF Spokesman’s Unit had some excellent officers in its ranks and great external advisers, too. All the government departments’ civilian representatives were also enlisted, and they worked together to deliver a unified message.
In 1991, it was more fear of the unexpected and the targeting of the civilian heartland that was the focus for Israel. The number of casualties were few and the damage caused by the Soviet-built Scuds was relatively minor compared to Israel’s previous wars. Two people were killed directly by the strikes, and about 200 were physically hurt, mostly because they didn’t use their chemical warfare kits correctly.
But in hindsight, that war changed everything in this on-again, off-again conflict zone, as it was the first time an enemy of Israel went after the civilian population, as opposed to the previous wars that were almost exclusively military-on-military. Saddam realized that the best way to hurt Israel and rattle its main backer, the United States, was to hit at Israel’s soft core, because its military might had always been more than a match for regional foes.
Israel, under then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, came under attack but was unable to respond, because of very heavy pressure from United States, which led a coalition that included the forces of Arab countries seeking to oust Saddam and push Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. It was crystal clear to all that any Israeli interaction could have severely hampered those efforts, and US president George H. W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker, certainly did everything they could to ensure that their best-laid plans would not be ruined by Israeli involvement.
A NEW protagonist in the theater of conflict was also the live news coverage, and specifically CNN, then the world leader in 24-hour television news, that delivered images live from the front directly into people’s living rooms all over the world.
Many, including Shai, have argued that the network’s headquarters in Atlanta were as important, if not more so, than the forward command post of the top commander on the battlefield in Iraq, US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Opening up to the media was a real challenge for armies, whose need to maintain the element of surprise was diminished, but Shai said the IDF soon adapted to cope with the demand for more exposure in Israel and slightly relaxed the usual shroud of tight secrecy.
“We learned very quickly in the Gulf War to give real-time information. Many of our appearances were live on television.
“CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta almost conducted the war. They would say where they were broadcasting from and when, and many of my press conferences were live on CNN, also with Benjamin Netanyahu,” Shai recalled.
Netanyahu, at the time a deputy minister in Shamir’s government, was Israel’s most eloquent international spokesman and once famously appeared live on TV speaking through his gas mask.
“We realized that we had to compromise on security in order to be in the game as well as a war; it was a big television show. We also understood that we needed to allow more coverage, and we let television broadcast live as the incoming missiles hit targets in Israel. Our only demand was that the location of the hit not be revealed,” Shai said.
The different nature of that war presented new challenges for Israel’s military strategists, and the need for interceptor missiles and for a wing of the military that could deal with issues facing the civilian population became new foci of attention.
Shai underlined the important role and wisdom of Moshe Arens, the defense minister at the time of the war, who initiated the formation of the IDF Home Front Command and a plan to devise Israel’s missile-defense strategy, which now includes the state-of-the-art Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow III systems.
When observing the way in which the current pandemic crisis is being media managed compared to his role in 1991, Shai’s view is clear: “There must be a singular, coherent and unequivocal message that leaves little room for doubt or misinterpretation.”
But in the current world of multiple channels, with so many officials voicing their varying opinions, it appears unlikely that a lone figure of authority will ever be trusted as singularly as was Nachman Shai 30 years ago.