A communicative spokesman

For a decade Raanan Gissin was the main Israeli link to the foreign press

For much of his professional life, Raanan Gissin served as Israel’s most formidable link to the foreign press. He was known as a shadowy figure, with no more precise a title than “adviser,” especially when serving as former prime minister Ariel Sharon’s highly articulate mouthpiece.
Today, at 64, long retired from the Israel Defense Forces (1993) and seven years after stepping down officially as senior adviser to the 85-year-old Sharon, who has been in a coma since 2006, Gissin concedes that it remains unthinkable that he and Sharon will ever chat again as they did each morning when Sharon was prime minister.
For foreign journalists who covered Israel over the past 30 years, Dr. Gissin was a breath of fresh air when compared to other IDF spokesmen, who almost never went beyond “talking points” dictated to them from above. Rather than adhere to the official IDF language that had been prepared for him by the senior brass, Gissin liked to come up with original similes and anecdotes that were catnip to the press. He also knew that media representatives wanted lively quotes from a communicative spokesman. But it was his ability to explain Israeli military and diplomatic strategy clearly and succinctly that appealed most to the foreign media, In his day, Foreign Minister Abba Eban was always regarded as Israel’s most eloquent spokesman; but his upper-class British accent and riffs on the exceptionalism of the Jews made him seem a trifle remote. None of that comes to mind with Gissin, who speaks into the TV camera with the simplicity and selfconfidence of the kibbutznik he once was.
When Gissin and I met at the Tel Aviv Hilton early this year, he was especially expansive on the health of Sharon – and for good reason. Recent tests conducted on the former prime minister revealed significant brain activity in response to external stimuli, suggesting that Sharon might be able to hear and understand. Nevertheless, neither Gissin nor anyone else close to Sharon dares to imagine that the findings of the brain scan are a sign that the former prime minister may regain consciousness.
Sipping a Diet Coke, Gissin sat opposite me dressed in a black jacket with his name emblazoned on the front and the insignia of the US Army’s Airborne Division on the back. The jacket was a gift from an Airborne Division jump master after Gissin arranged for him to jump with Israeli paratroopers.
At the time, Gissin recalls, Sharon, who had commanded an Israel Defense Forces paratroop unit in the 1950s and rose to the rank of major general during his military career, was green with envy, noting, “No one ever gave me a jacket like that.”
Born in Ra’anana in 1949, Gissin is a sixthgeneration Israeli whose great-grandfather, David Gissin, left Ukraine for Palestine in 1879. At six months old, Gissin moved with his parents to Kibbutz Hasolelim in northern Israel. “As a result,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “I grew up in a grownup environment. There was no father and mother. There was just Ora and Arky [his father Aryeh’s nickname].”
In 1955, at the age of six, Gissin spent three years with his parents in Brooklyn, where his father worked with the Young Judaea Zionist organization to recruit new members for their kibbutz. Gissin’s time in the United States was filled with “intense studying and intense street fighting,” he relates. They also fostered his mastery of English, a skill that made him one of the most sought-after Israeli spokesmen in later years. The Gissin family returned to the kibbutz for two years, after which they relocated again – this time to the northern town of Kiryat Shmona.
After graduating from high school, Gissin enlisted in the IDF in 1967, eventually serving as a Hawk anti-aircraft missile battery commander, using his English to translate manuals on how to operate the new weapons.
“I downed two Egyptian planes at Ras Sudar during the War of Attrition in 1970,” he proudly recalls, one of the first times that the Hawk missile proved itself.
In 1973, after completing three years of study in political science and sociology at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, during which time he moonlighted as a prop man for Israel Television, Gissin wanted to pursue a career in the media. But following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which claimed the life of Gissin’s brother, Eitan, jobs in television were hard to come by. Israel TV offered him the post of technical director, but he felt his academic credentials merited a better position. After all, he and a friend had produced a movie while in school. And so, Gissin remained in academia.
In the mid-1970s he went to the United Sates to study, with $1,000 in his pocket. Fortunately, he was awarded a scholarship.
In 1979, he acquired his doctorate from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and already then appeared destined for a career that intertwined with that of Ariel Sharon. The subject of his doctorate was leadership on the future battlefield, and Gissin chose Sharon as his model because, he says, “Sharon led by example.”
Some 14 years later, Gissin recalls, Sharon asked to read the paper. “It’s 400 pages,” Gissin told him. “So give me an executive summary,” Sharon commanded. After reading the summary, the former prime minister said tersely, “Yeah, that’s me.”
From 1979 to 1982, Gissin worked in the IDF’s newly-created Strategic Planning Directorate. Former defense minister Ehud Barak, then head of the directorate, once joked to a general who asked what Gissin did, “This major [Gissin] has a very special job here. He is the only person who sits most of the day in front of a blank piece of paper.”
With the outbreak of the 1982 Lebanon War, when the IDF spokesman complained to Barak, then deputy commander of Israeli forces in Lebanon, that he had no spokesman who spoke English, Barak told him, “I have this guy. He has a doctorate. He doesn’t have spectacles like a doctor but his English is perfect.”
Gissin became the IDF liaison to the foreign press, essentially launching the rest of his career as the main Israeli link to the foreign press. “I used to joke that it took me 12 months in all to get a Masters in broadcast journalism,” he says. “But it took me less than 12 days in Beirut working with the foreign journalists to forget everything I learned in my studies.”
During most of the 1980s and 1990s, Gissin served as deputy IDF spokesman, responsible for the foreign press. In that capacity, he served as special consultant to the Israeli delegation to the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, as well as to subsequent negotiations with Palestinian delegations in Washington.
He has been “sharing his life” with Anat Meir for the past 12 years. He also has two sons with his ex-wife Chava – Eitan, 36 and Jonathan, 32. Both work in high-tech. Meir is a physical fitness instructor; she tried but failed to get Prime Minister Sharon to lose weight through proper exercise. Sharon turned her over to Gissin, the “sports and health freak” (Gissin’s phrase) in the office and soon the two began jogging together, then seeing each other socially.
In 1993, Gissin left the IDF, knowing all too well that he would never become IDF Spokesman, a job he coveted. “I was not willing to lick some asses. You have to make friends. It’s not only what you know, it’s who you know,” he says. Barak, then IDF chief of staff, wanted a “technical” (Gissin’s word) spokesman, not someone like Gissin, who offered journalists the latest Israeli thinking on military and political strategy – which the journalists loved to hear.
Giss in’s 10-year stint working for Ariel Sharon began in 1996, when the latter, the newly appointed minister for National Infrastructure, took him on as adviser and spokesman – or, as Gissin puts it, to act like a “man for all seasons.” When Sharon became prime minister in February 2001, Gissin was the only adviser he retained for his new team.
Holding the title of aide to the prime minister for the foreign press, Gissin also read local and foreign newspapers to his boss most mornings. Gissin joined Sharon at the latter’s 750-acre Sycamore Ranch, opposite the Gaza Strip at 5:30 a.m. And together they made the two-hour drive to the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem. During Sharon’s years as prime minister, Gissin’s adulation of the man morphed into a sense of awe, and the former aide’s eyes twinkle and his smile widens when he speaks of him. No wonder then that Sharon’s health setback, beginning in late 2005, created a huge vacuum for Gissin.
On December 18, 2005, Sharon suffered a mild stroke on his way to his farm. He was rushed to Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, where tests revealed a small hole in his heart. Today, over seven years later, Gissin acknowledges that Sharon’s physicians may have caused their patient harm by being overwhelmed by the personage in their hands. “The doctors didn’t treat him like a regular patient, he says, citing the angioplasty that was performed and the blood thinner (Clexane) they gave him. Had he not been prime minister, Gissin says, “maybe the doctors would have waited with those treatments.”
Sharon suffered a second and far more severe stroke at his farm three weeks later and was again rushed to Hadassah. Following two surgeries, he was put into an induced coma in which he remains today.
For the following seven years, Gissin, although still considered Sharon’s spokesman, had almost nothing to say about his boss.
Once a year, he would issue a statement on the former prime minister’s condition; but, Gissin admits, it was only to keep his boss and his accomplishments in the public eye.
While he could have visited Sharon in the hospital, Gissin chose not to. “I always want to remember Sharon in my mind, and cherish the heritage, and not as he was at that time of his brain surgery and coma,” he says.
Gissin also served briefly as an adviser to former prime minister Ehud Olmert, but found the transition from Sharon difficult. “I could have asked to stay but when you have worked with Churchill you can’t work with Attlee,” he quips.
For Gissin today, the question of whether or not to allow Sharon to die is moot. “You can’t pull the plug on him,” he says. “You’d have to inject something into him. The family made the decision to keep him going because they said as far as we are concerned, we see signs that he is alive. He’s not brain dead.”
What would Sharon have wanted? “Knowing the person, how he was, vibrant and alive,” Gissin suggests, “if he were to wake for five seconds, and someone would give him a choice, stay like this or end it, he would say, ‘End it.’” If Sharon were to wake up, what would be his first words? Gissin thinks Sharon would ask his son, Gilad, “How many sheep were born at the farm while I was sleeping?” Today, Gissin continues to play the role – unofficially however – of spokesman for the foreign press. While we were meeting, someone from CNN phoned to ask for an interview. He also provides commentary on major Arab TV networks such as Al Jazeera, El Arabiya, BBC Arabic and Alhurra TV, and workshops for diplomats on how to improve their TV appearances. During US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel in late March, Gissin provided hours of commentary on Israeli TV.
He is pleased with the work. “Every time there’s a fast news-breaking event,” he notes proudly, “the phone rings.” There is a quid pro quo, he adds, a twinkle in his eye. “In return, the army lets me jump every once in a while.”