Who will speak for Israel?

The new Information and Diaspora Ministry carves out a purpose.

Yuli Edelstein 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
Yuli Edelstein 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozlimski [file])
The most important advice a communications and PR consultant can give a client is: Choose a message that works for you, and stick to that message. So what would a communications consultant advise the Israeli government now? Would it be that on Iran, Israeli spokespeople should stick to the message formulated under Ariel Sharon, that "Iran is not only Israel's problem, but rather a challenge for the entire world"? Or should the message be "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons to perpetrate a second Holocaust on the Jewish people"? While the IDF Spokesman's Unit and Foreign Ministry are sticking to the former message, both Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have recently been pushing the latter. In an even more recent example, Netanyahu told his Likud faction on Monday that Iran was more important than outposts and that therefore the illegal outposts would have to go to convince America to help stop the Iranian nuclear march. In response, new Information and Diaspora Minister Yuli Edelstein, who has been placed in charge of getting the country's message out to the world, rejected Netanyahu's linkage of the issue, saying the outposts should not be sacrificed for movement on Iran and that he was ashamed to show his face in his Gush Etzion synagogue, where talk of outpost removal is shunned. However, while the politicians may disagree on the message, the government officials who deal with representing the country in international media have expressed optimism that the means of getting that message out are becoming more robust and better coordinated. Many of these officials have been worried about the confusing multiplicity of government agencies and offices that manage public diplomacy. Yet the confusing milieu of official hasbara is slowly coalescing into two distinct roles conducted by two bodies: The Prime Minister's Office "coordinates the message," and the new Information and Diaspora Ministry "develops the means to express that message," in the words of one senior Prime Minister's Office official. The confusion is understandable. There is a veritable hydra of distinct organizations through which official Israel speaks to the world. The Foreign Ministry has a Hasbara Department headed by deputy director-general Aviv Shir-On; the Prime Minister's Office has a National Information Directorate, managed by former Jewish Agency spokesman Yarden Vatikai, who reports to Netanyahu appointee Ron Dermer, and prominent spokesmen Yossi Levy (Hebrew) and Mark Regev (English); the IDF has the Spokesman's Unit, within which is TEVEL, the international media unit; and the Israel Police has spokespeople who comment to media outlets on security affairs. Apart from these bodies, the prime minister and the defense and foreign ministers employ their own internal and external communications advisers and spokespeople. Meanwhile, almost all cabinet ministers keep private PR consultant firms on retainer to help them formulate personal, national and international messages. Add to that the often disconnected public diplomacy work carried out by Jewish communities abroad, Israel's Christian allies, the Jewish Agency and private groups such as the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, World Jewish Congress, European Jewish Congress, Honestreporting.com and NGO Monitor. And then there is a whole salad of groups that make Israel's case without necessarily coordinating with Israel itself. It is because of this confusion that the question, "What does the Israeli government believe?" is often followed by, "It depends on whom you ask." This redundancy is not new, but only recently came to be seen as a serious problem. During the Second Lebanon War, the fractured nature of official messaging created confusion and delays in the government's responses to the war's "media events." This led to the formation of the National Information Directorate (NID) in the Prime Minister's Office. By general consensus of the spokespeople themselves, the new body was a success two years later, during Operation Cast Lead. Whether Israel won the "image war" or not, at least official spokespeople were on the same page because of daily NID-run coordination meetings. But then Edelstein became the new information and Diaspora minister, throwing the system into some confusion. Was this another unnecessary consolation prize created by the demands of coalition-building, a claim that has stuck to titles such as "minister for government services" or "minister without portfolio for minorities"? Some officials say yes. "There have been hasbara ministries in the past," a senior Foreign Ministry official told The Jerusalem Post this week, "and they always disappeared after a short while." "Nobody knows what the new ministry is supposed to do," complained another official. "Who is in charge of creating Israel's media message? Who do government representatives take their orders from?" But according to a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office, the new ministry comes to fill a real gap: the "tools and infrastructure" it takes to speak to the world. According to this view, while messages are coordinated in the PMO, Edelstein's ministry is in charge of creating new channels of communication to the outside world. This includes creating and expanding the country's woefully inadequate radio and television broadcasts in foreign languages. "There's no meaningful Israeli media outlet that speaks Arabic. The IBA Arabic channel isn't received anywhere, and the radio station doesn't go very far, because it lacks transmitters," said the Prime Minister's Office official. For this reason, Edelstein was given charge of the lackluster Israel Broadcasting Authority. Within a month of taking on the new position, he has already received at least five written proposals - and many more verbal ones - for establishing a glittering, CNN-style international television network. "Everyone thinks we need an Israeli 'Al-Jazeera,' a broadcast network to the world, and especially to the Middle East. But it hasn't happened yet. Could Edelstein's ministry be the catalyst for this?" wondered a senior official in the Foreign Ministry. Right now, with the IBA mired in financial troubles and on the verge of being closed down, the answer seems to be "no." Meanwhile, Edelstein holds responsibility for the government's daily contact with the roughly 350 foreign media bureaus and individual journalists currently residing in Israel. The Government Press Office (GPO), the body that licenses and communicates with the foreign reporters assigned here, is slated to be moved to Edelstein's ministry in the coming weeks, though this, too, has been called into question because of resistance from the Prime Minister's Office labor union. So while the hasbara message will still be coordinated in the NID, Edelstein seems to be in charge of all the means to take that message to the world. Speaking to the Post on Monday, Edelstein described his ministry's function as "creating new initiatives and new means of explaining our messages to audiences inside and outside Israel. It's about creating new projects and mobilizing volunteer organizations." As such, it is no accident his ministry also holds the Diaspora portfolio. A major part of his function, he said, is fashioning Israel's message to the Diaspora, which he sees as both audience and partner. In an age of growing anti-Israel rhetoric around the world, "Israel is particularly interested in getting its message to the Jewish people and bringing the Diaspora into the hasbara effort," he said. Success is not guaranteed, and some officials - all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to critique the political echelons - are skeptical. They point to general confusion among government agencies. For example, the GPO was supposed to become part of the NID, according to the July 2007 cabinet decision that established the directorate. "If the first cabinet decision went unimplemented, why would the newest cabinet decision be any different?" asked one official. Similarly, they note, talk of an Israeli Al-Jazeera is hardly new. State comptrollers have already noted that even Israel's poorer Arab neighbors have sophisticated media networks intended for foreign consumption. "We have trouble getting our message out because we lack basic tools," said one senior hasbara official. "If the ministry reorganizes and expands the GPO so it has the resources to maintain consistent contact with foreign reporters and establishes Israeli networks and channels with generous budgets, it could become a blessing for hasbara."