A case study in why even good policy needs good PR

Israel didn’t "disappear" Ben Zygier, yet its bungling response lent credence to claims that it did.

Ben Zygier passport 370 (photo credit: ABC News)
Ben Zygier passport 370
(photo credit: ABC News)
One of the Left’s favorite tropes is that what Israel needs isn’t better public relations, but better policies. No amount of PR, it argues, can compensate for bad policy, whereas good policy needs no PR.
The “Prisoner X” affair is a case study in the fatuousness of this claim. In this case, Israel’s policy was unexceptionable – yet due to abysmal PR, it let itself be painted worldwide as a benighted regime that “disappears” its own citizens.
Here’s how the story was reported overseas when it broke last week: An unnamed prisoner, who “was not allowed visitors or a lawyer,” was found dead in a secret cell in 2010, “a suicide — or was it a murder? — never officially reported,” to quote The New York Times’ version. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr voiced outrage that Canberra was never notified of the Australian-Israeli’s arrest. Human Rights Watch accused Israel of “disappearing people,” a charge  in a Haaretz editorial. A Jerusalem Post columnist drew parallels to The Man in the Iron Mask.Yet rather than rebutting these allegations, Israel’s government responded with a gag order so sweeping that Israeli journalists couldn’t even quote the foreign media reports. I doubt I was the only horrified Israeli wondering that night if these terrible accusations could possibly be true: Otherwise, what conceivable reason could the government have for failing to deny them? And to the many people overseas who are always happy to believe the worst of Israel, it must have seemed a certainty.
But in reality, every one of these allegations was false. Ben Zygier’s family had been duly informed of his arrest and was in regular contact with him. So were lawyers of his own choosing, who saw him as recently as the day before his death. The Australian embassy was also informed, but neglected to pass the information on – a screw-up for which Israel obviously isn’t responsible (and which Canberra is now investigating). Zygier’s arrest and remand were approved by Israel’s ordinary civilian court system, where he was also subsequently indicted (though his trial was on hold at the time of his death while he considered signing a plea bargain). He was incarcerated in an ordinary civilian prison. And far from going “officially unreported,” his death was not only duly reported to his family, but also probed by an investigating judge, who concluded that he indeed committed suicide. The only people who actually were kept uninformed were the media – who had no legal right to be informed.  
Moreover, Israel apparently had good reason to keep the arrest under wraps. If it’s true, as foreign reports say, that Zygier was a Mossad agent operating in hostile countries like Iran and Syria, then the media blackout was essential to protect the lives of his contacts there. Now that his picture and the names on his various passports have been published, these countries’ intelligence services will surely be scouring their records to see who Zygier met with, endangering these people’s lives; that’s precisely what Israel sought to prevent by its two-year blackout.
The fact that neither his Israeli wife nor his Australian parents complained to either the press or the courts in the more than two years since his death further confirms that the government behaved properly. That’s what Israelis normally do when they think their government maltreated a loved one, especially once he’s dead and can’t be harmed by the complaint. And even if conspiracy theorists want to claim that his wife feared government reprisals, this certainly wouldn’t apply to his Australian parents.
Questions remain about whether official negligence contributed to Zygier’s suicide, and the government must answer them. But the idea that Israel “disappeared” him is demonstrable nonsense. Yet that’s the narrative Israel allowed to spread worldwide, unchallenged, during those first crucial 24 hours. And what people hear first is what they remember: Subsequent corrections often go unseen and unheard, and make less of an impression even when they don’t.
Moreover, even this belated correction might never have emerged if three MKs hadn’t used their parliamentary immunity to press the government on the issue. They’re being attacked for it now, but they actually deserve thanks for finally forcing the government to engage in damage control.
Israel’s PR problem clearly goes way beyond its sluggish response to particular incidents. As Martin Sherman correctly observed in Friday’s Jerusalem Post, what really matters is changing the prism through which events are seen, because the same incident will be interpreted differently depending on whether Israel is perceived “as a beleaguered democracy, a bastion of civil liberties and democratic governance, valiantly defending itself against a sea of tyranny and theocracy, or as an avaricious expansionist rogue state.”
Nevertheless, particular incidents can sometimes greatly affect people’s perceptions of Israel. That’s why even many adherents of the “beleaguered democracy” paradigm were initially horrified by Israel’s botched raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza – because opening fire on peaceful demonstrators is something democracies simply don’t do. Yet this was the version of events that Israel allowed to circulate worldwide, unchallenged, for those crucial first 12 hours, before belatedly releasing footage proving that its soldiers only opened fire after being brutally attacked by a mob “armed with iron bars, staves, chains, and slingshots” (as a  UN inquiry later found).
The same is true for this case – because another thing democracies simply don’t do is “disappear” people. Yet Israel allowed that narrative to circulate unchallenged for 24 crucial hours before finally releasing evidence that proved otherwise.
Much of what needs to be done to solve Israel’s PR problem is genuinely hard. For instance, leftists are correct in saying it will require replacing bad policies – though they fail to acknowledge that the one most in need of replacement (as I’ve explained before) is the very “peace process” they keep pushing.
But responding promptly and properly to an incident like Prisoner X ought to be simple. If our government can’t even handle that, Israel’s PR problem is even worse than we thought. And thus we contribute with our own hands to our enemies’ efforts to “disappear” the entire Jewish state. The writer is a journalist and commentator.