Diplomacy: Speech patterns

When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert strayed from a strict script this week, he got himself into trouble.

olmert 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
olmert 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For the first three weeks of this war, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - in his public statements and speeches - pretty much kept to a script. Literally. He didn't make any off-the-cuff comments or give interviews to the Israeli press. It was not as if his voice weren't heard, however. It was. And, as at the Knesset on July 17, it was often forceful, impassioned and dramatic. But it was all scripted. His words were broadcast from a short press conference with the Japanese prime minister the day the crisis first started; were reported from statements his office put out after he held meetings with visiting foreign dignitaries like the German foreign minister; or were broadcast briefly on the radio before the Sunday cabinet meetings. They were all set pieces, carefully crafted with common themes: Israel was provoked by a terrorist organization doing the bidding of others; Israel would remain steadfast and determined to strike Hizbullah a blow it would long remember, and which would resonate throughout the region and improve Israel's overall strategic position. There were certain common components in these speeches. He praised the home front for remaining strong, dedicated and united; he mentioned by name fallen soldiers and victims of Katyusha attacks, trying to make everything personal and real; and he reiterated over and over that Israel has no quarrel with Lebanon. There were also the transparent Churchillean touches. "There are still many days of fighting ahead of us," he said in a speech to a conference of mayors on Monday. "Missiles and rockets will continue to land, and hours of fear, uncertainty and yes - even pain, tears and blood - are still expected." His speeches have been sparse in Biblical allusions and in references to the Holocaust, a theme that infused the oratory of Menachem Begin. Olmert, in his addresses, speaks in simple Hebrew and uses short sentences. He has framed the war in terms that could be understood both abroad - fighting the axis of evil - and also in a way that would appeal to an Israeli common denominator: leading normal lives. "We are not willing to give up our right to a normal life - like any other nation, like any other society, anywhere," he said Monday night. "We believe in the justice of our cause, because there is no battle more just or moral than ours - a battle for the right to a peaceful and normal life, like any other human being, any other nation and any other state," he told the Knesset on July 17, eschewing any "old-school," higher-calling "chosen people" or "light unto the nation" flourishes. THIS WEEK started off the same way, with Olmert delivering a written war speech to the council of mayors. Again it was scripted. Except for about two minutes in the beginning, he read from a text. On Tuesday, however, things started to change. He gave another major speech, this time to the graduates of the National Security College, but this speech was largely extemporaneous. The next day, in advance of the critical debate that was to start in the United Nations Security Council, he gave interviews to the foreign press. And in both cases, where he spoke without a text, he got into trouble. At his Tuesday night speech, Olmert for the most part declared victory, something that sounded rather hollow as the Katyushas continued to fall by the hundreds. "The State of Israel is succeeding in the campaign and making impressive gains, which may be unprecedented," he said. "I could say, but have no intention of saying, that if the military campaign were to end today, even today we could say with certainty that the face of the Middle East has changed following the great achievement of the State of Israel, the Israeli army and the people of Israel." That led one commentator in the Hebrew press to ask which war Olmert was watching and talking about. In his interviews on Wednesday, Olmert slipped up when talking about realignment, saying that the result of this war would provide momentum for the plan and further West Bank pullouts. While these words may have been meant to curry favor abroad, and provide proof of what he said in his speech to the National Security College a day earlier - that Israelis are "ready to be unendingly generous" in their diplomatic moves - they were jarring to many an Israeli ear, especially to those who live in areas slated for "realignment," and whose sons, fathers and husbands are currently fighting in Lebanon. Indeed, one of most dramatic moments of the three major addresses Olmert has given on the war was his description to the mayors this week of how Roi Klein, deputy commander of the Golani Brigade's 51st Battalion, hurled himself on a grenade to save other soldiers, and then said Shema Yisrael before dying. Klein lived in Eli, one of the communities believed to be slated for realignment. Olmert realized he slipped, and tried to fix it later in the day by putting out an announcement of a conversation he held with MK Effi Eitam, clarifying that this war was not meant to push any diplomatic plan, only to defeat Hizbullah. The question Olmert was obviously addressing was why soldiers from the settlements should fight, if the prime minister's hope was that the war would provide momentum for a plan that would ultimately dislodge them from their homes. This wasn't the first time during the war that Olmert mentioned realignment. At a meeting in the south with Gush Katif evacuees last week, he said more settlements would be evacuated. That comment, however, was pretty much lost in the flood of news coming out of Lebanon. Olmert's comments about realignment are especially glaring now, because they are completely at odds with the message of unity he has carefully cultivated throughout the days of fighting. "I pray that the same spirit of solidarity and brotherhood, of volunteering and mutual aid, which sweeps our nation at this time, will not fade away and disappear when the battles subside, when we return to our routine and to dealing with the day-to-day challenges," he said Monday. This message was even stronger during his Knesset speech. "In the life of a nation, there are moments of transcendence, of purification, when political and sectarian disputes which separate us are replaced by a sense of mutual responsibility," he said. "This is such a moment!" Some argue, however, that these words are empty slogans, and that what is lacking from Olmert's wartime oratory is any real content. Shoshana Blum-Kulka, a professor emeritus of communications at the Hebrew University, said Olmert's speech to the mayors Monday was rife with clich s, and failed to be convincing. She said that this week, when questions were raised about the IDF's operation, he needed to explain what Israel was doing and why, and that he did not rise to the challenge. According to Blum-Kulka, Olmert's words did not add anything to the country's logical understanding of the war, and were meant primarily to strengthen the spirit of the home front. "You can't only say to the nation, 'We will win; we will continue; we won't stop.' You also need to give people logical arguments, and this was lacking," she said, adding that it shouldn't be difficult for Olmert to convince people during this war. But Sam Lehman-Wilzig, chairman of Bar-Ilan University's political science department who has studied political communication, had a different take. According to Lehman-Wilzig, this was not the time for speeches with multi-layered messages. "There is an expression in advertising called 'KISS' - keep it simple, stupid," he said. "When dealing with messages with the public, you want them on key, focused, simple and straightforward. You want to hammer on the same point - and his point was that during the war we are going to stay strong, stay firm." Lehman-Wilzig said that Olmert seemed to have his finger on the country's pulse, and realized there was no need at this point to convince the people of the justification of the war. This could change, he said, but added that in his view Olmert wisely didn't want to open up that debate himself. Olmert was never known as one of the country's great orators, someone who could enthuse a crowd. He was never put in the same league, for instance, with Begin, Shimon Peres or Binyamin Netanyahu. Rather, he was known as an expert at repartee, able to hurl oratorical daggers in the Knesset - speak off the cuff - with the best of them. It is ironic, therefore, that during this war he has had his best rhetorical moments when speaking from texts, and has hurt himself the most when speaking freely.