Israel calls up media 'reserves'

Despite personnel transitions, Israel is delivering its message.

Israel is succeeding in delivering its messages to the world on the security situation in the North and South despite the transition of key officials in the Prime Minister's Office, Foreign Ministry and IDF Spokesman's unit, officials in the three offices said Sunday. Ra'anan Gissin's last day as the Prime Minister's Office's foreign press spokesman was last week, and The Jerusalem Post has learned that due to a legal loophole, no one can be hired to replace him for 30 days while he is receiving a month's severance pay. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's media adviser Assaf Shariv said that Gissin would be replaced on August 10, the first day that a replacement could legally be hired, and that meanwhile the void would be filled by Shariv himself, veteran foreign press coordinator David Baker and other officials. The Foreign Ministry's deputy-director general for media and public affairs Gideon Meir was appointed ambassador to Italy 10 days ago, but he is not leaving until November. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the cabinet that her ministry had co-opted 15 ministry officials to beef up the spokesman's unit to be available to the foreign press. In addition, IDF colonel Miri Eisen has been brought in, as she was during Operation Defensive Shield, and was sent with Baker to Haifa to talk to the foreign press. The head of the IDF Spokesman's unit's foreign press division, Maj. Sharon Feingold, left and her replacement Avital Leibovitz is on maternity leave, so Capt. Noa Meir and Capt. (res.) Jacob Dallal are in charge. Air force Brig.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan and other senior officers are giving regular briefings. Several veterans of the unit have been called to emergency reserve duty but not nearly as much as during the Gaza Strip withdrawal. Shariv, Gideon Meir, IDF spokeswoman Miri Regev and spokespeople for Livni and Defense Minister Amir Peretz participate in conference calls twice daily to coordinate strategy. They said that unlike in previous security situations, the coordination is running smoothly and there have not been turf battles. Some foreign journalists covering the conflict have complained that they have had an easier time reaching Lebanese and Palestinian speakers than getting comments from official government spokespeople. Many Israeli viewers have complained that reports in the foreign press have focused too much on claims of disproportionate force on the part of the IDF and that the reports have neglected to put the current fighting within the context of how it started. But Shariv and Meir said that Israel was winning the international battle for public opinion. "We take the job of explaining our position to the world very seriously and we are doing exactly what we need to do," Shariv said. "The foreign press can't complain that they don't have anyone to speak to." Shariv said that Israelis have been interviewed by the foreign press four times as much as spokespeople for the Palestinians and Lebanese. As proof of Israel's success, he also cited a poll of Sky News viewers that found that 80 percent believe that Israel's attacks on Lebanon were justified. "We have never had it so good," Meir said. "The hasbara effort is a well-oiled machine." The three ministers who have been sent the most to talk to the foreign press during the conflict are Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, Vice Premier Shimon Peres and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter. All three men fluent English, Peres speaks French and Dichter has given interviews to Al-Jazeera in Arabic. Herzog has been the most prolific minister, giving dozens of interviews over the past week, following in the footsteps of his father, former president Chaim Herzog and his uncle, former foreign minister Abba Eban, who both gained fame defending Israel abroad. Over the past week, former prime ministers Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have reemerged as frequent defenders of Israel on CNN, BBC and Sky News. Barak received a private briefing from Olmert last week. Asked whether it was odd that Netanyahu, the opposition leader, was defending the Israeli government in the foreign press, Shariv said that "Netanyahu was speaking on behalf of the state of Israel, not the government." Sky Bureau chief Emma Hurd said that she has had "no problem at all getting perspectives from the Israeli government and the Foreign Ministry." She said that despite Gissin's departure, "We don't feel the absence of official spokespeople from the Prime Minister's Office."