Analysis: Israel's belated PR response

With all that expertise, nobody could be found at the moment of crisis.

Danny Ayalon JPost interview 311 (photo credit: Benjamin Spier)
Danny Ayalon JPost interview 311
(photo credit: Benjamin Spier)
Israeli gunboats made contact with the Gaza-bound flotilla shortly before midnight late Sunday. The boarding of the six ships began some time around four in the morning and was completed by 4:30 a.m.
During that time, at least nine activists were killed and seven Israeli naval commandos were evacuated to surgical units on shore for wounds sustained during the fighting on one of the ships.
Meanwhile, international news crews, most prominently that of Al Jazeera, broadcast live footage of the boarding and delivered to the world the incredible information that IDF troops had killed anywhere from four to 19 activists.
Over the next six hours, the world’s media, from Dubai to Toronto, focused on the dramatic mid-sea events and their deadly consequences. But try as they might – and they tried hard – they could not obtain an official Israeli response to the events.
By 9 a.m., Israeli media outlets, too, were growing frustrated at the lack of a formal Israeli response to the hours-old knowledge that Israeli soldiers had killed peace activists on the high seas. The country’s most popular radio host, Razi Barkai, repeatedly asked Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy for the government’s response, but Levy could not supply one – because there wasn’t one.
A 10 a.m. press conference by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon claimed links between the organizers of the flotilla and al-Qaida; the claims were promptly ignored by world media, though they constituted the only official Israeli response thus far.
The only widely-circulated Israeli response by mid-morning: a minute-long video showing an IDF officer on a naval ship’s bridge informing the incoming boats that Gaza was under blockade.
By early afternoon Monday, Greece had canceled its aerial training exercises with the IAF, Germany’s friendly chancellor Angela Merkel was demanding an investigation, the UN Security Council had decided to meet at Turkey’s behest, and Israel’s prime minister had had to cancel a Tuesday summit with US President Barack Obama and rush home.
Indeed, it was only at 3:45 p.m., fully 12 hours after the end of the operation, after the diplomatic damage had been done and demonstrations worldwide had managed to go through the process of planning, implementation and dispersal, that the state of Israel delivered a real response to the crisis.
The IDF had filmed the fighting, it turned out. And the footage of the brawl on the deck of the Mavi Marmara showed activists throwing an Israeli soldier over a third-story railing, throwing a stun grenade with a visible, dramatic explosion, and lobbing a Molotov cocktail at the soldiers.
Also at approximately the same time mid-Monday afternoon, we finallylearned that among the seven wounded soldiers, five had requiredsurgery for stab wounds, bullet wounds and blunt force trauma, and thatsome of the activists had tried to tie the ropes dangling from the IDFhelicopters to the Mavi Marmara’s antenna in hopesof bringing them down.
The ship that supplied the dead and wounded was hardly a collection ofpacifist protesters. The video, of course, was released only in Hebrewand could not be found even by late evening Monday on any majorinternational news outlet.
Israel had a month to prepare for the operation, to consider thepossibility of violent protest, to develop ways of responding not onlyin the field, but in the media arena.
The footage of militant protester violence sat in the hands of thetroops on the Mavi Marmara for almost 12 hoursbefore it reached the IDF Spokesman’s Unit. Government spokespeople,meanwhile, were at a loss to explain that Israel’s blockade of the GazaStrip was not intended to harm civilians – indeed, that as much as15,000 tons of humanitarian supplies go through the land border eachday.
In fact, the first images that contradicted the reports ofindiscriminate IDF fire came from the footage of the activiststhemselves broadcast on Al Jazeera and in the Turkish media as early as7:30 a.m., showing the activists beating and stabbing Israeli soldierson the Mavi Marmara. But nobody in Israel noticed.
Dozens of people are paid excellent salaries in government to handleIsrael’s media presence. A Foreign Ministry exists for that purpose, asdoes a Public Diplomacy Ministry. A completely separate publicdiplomacy headquarters was established in the Prime Minister’s Officein the wake of past failures, and several strategic planning bodies invarious branches of government are formally charged with developing amedia strategy as part of their strategic planning.
Israel’s political class, too, is allegedly experienced in matters ofmedia strategy. The Knesset enjoys the presence of many experts on thesubject, from former IDF Spokespeople Nachman Shai and Ruth Yaron toseveral journalists, experienced generals and wily old spymasters.
In all that bureaucracy, with all that expertise, nobody could be found on the job at a moment of profound crisis.