Guest Columnist: A classic dilemma

Israel has taken a number of steps to face the new media challenge, some organizational and some in substance, but it still reacts slowly, sluggishly, in a way that serves our adversary.

Shalom Eisner strikes protester (photo credit: Reuters)
Shalom Eisner strikes protester
(photo credit: Reuters)
Toward the end of the week, it appeared as though the military career of Deputy Division Commander Lt.-Col. Shalom Eisner was close to an end. Anyone who thought that the blow to the face of the Danish left-wing activist last Monday was a one-time blunder has since heard Eisner repeatedly explain to his “close associates” that his action was appropriate. “If the camera hadn’t been there, nothing would have happened. It was just a slap – cold use of hot arms. If it doesn’t look good on TV, too bad.”
Statements such as this, which appeared in the media, reinforce the view that Eisner acted with intention and forethought. This will not help his superiors, to whom his words were directed, among others, to be lenient with him. All of Israel’s political and military leadership have had their say. From the prime minister to comments by the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff and the head of the Central Command. Eisner’s semi-public announcement only added fuel to the fire.
When I saw the incident on television, my heart skipped a beat – not only because it was a harsh, intolerable picture, but because I saw 25 years of work with the media go down the drain before my eyes. In 1988, I was asked by Lt.-Gen. Dan Shomron, then chief of staff, to serve as IDF spokesman.
Shomron and his deputy at the time, Gen. Ehud Barak, explained to me that the IDF had gotten into serious trouble in the media arena since the beginning of the intifada in 1987. The army was well-versed in its military duties, but the interface with the media was inundated with clashes and blunders.
The credibility of the IDF and its spokesman faced a serious test, and was deteriorating.
The state comptroller, who examined the IDF spokesman’s level of preparation for the outbreak of the “events of the uprising,” as they were called at the time, said similar things in a harsh report. He confirmed that the IDF was not sufficiently prepared for the outbreak of the events and, as a result, made significant errors in its handling of the media in general and the foreign media in particular.
Yitzhak Rabin, then defense minister, and commanders Shomron and Barak focused my activities on the new media challenge that the IDF was facing. The IDF was trying to use traditional methods, declaring “closed military zones” and preventing journalists from entering them. The foreign media frequently showed IDF officers waving written military orders in their faces or, worse, rebutting the cameras with a rude gesture. However, these methods became obsolete. It soon became apparent that small video cameras, the first of their kind, had been distributed to intifada activists and were used to document IDF actions in villages and cities, even ones that had been declared off-limits to the media. Immediately after the pictures had been taken, the activists would send the footage by taxi or some other means to foreign TV networks, and from there they found their way to TV screens throughout the world.
We immediately understood that the age of closed military zones was over, but moreover, the IDF’s news management ability had suffered critical damage. We were faced with a new adversary, which challenged not only the IDF’s ability to put down the civil uprising but also the IDF’s exclusive control over the flow of information.
THE CLASSIC dilemma of reliability versus speed now raised its fierce head. On one hand, there was the impressive Palestinian speed in transferring visual documentation of IDF actions and their activities, while on the other hand there was the cumbrousness of a large military institution trying to maintain correct work methods and sticking to the values of truth and accuracy. While the media respects the IDF, it is in its nature to flow with the information it receives, and thus immediacy has an advantage. This fact played into the hands of the Palestinians, who, time after time, put the IDF on the spot, forcing it to release unfounded information.
In the face of these challenges, working together with my team and with the full backing of the defense minister and the chief of staff, I led an extensive reform in the operation of the IDF spokesman’s office in the new media environment and in its handling of the Palestinian media initiatives. Among other things, we addressed the issue of the efficiency of the flow of information within the IDF in order to present it to the media as quickly as possible; the briefing of junior and senior officers regarding the rules of the game; and the inclusion of technological methods, such as documenting events in order to present them to the media.
We reaped the first fruits of this reform in the first Gulf War, a year and a half later. We knew then that we had to accompany the events with maximum openness, while giving fast diverse services to the foreign media. As a result, Israel had a positive public image that helped it benefit from, among other things, political and financial support after the war.
All the IDF spokespeople that followed me faced similar basic dilemmas and added to the sophistication of the IDF spokesman’s operations and its methods when faced with Palestinian terror. Thus, for example, this week, one newspaper published that the IDF briefs combat soldiers in Judea in Samaria in writing, and stressed that: “The media, and particularly the world media, is looking for strong, even provocative images and it is therefore necessary to avoid creating these images unnecessarily.”
The last 25 years did not go to waste. Today, the IDF spokesman is a partner in the planning of operations and his professional opinion as to how to position these activities from a media point of view is seriously taken into consideration. The present generation of commanders are not just consumers of the media, but have been trained how to act in a media-saturated environment. They all know that the technological possibilities have changed and grown significantly since the first and second intifadas and that the enemy they are facing makes good use of them.
And indeed, in the second intifada, the Palestinians failed in their attempts to prevail over Israel through terror and understood that they must direct their efforts from the physical encounter with the IDF and even with the civilian population, to public diplomacy aimed at turning public opinion against Israel. The goal of the Palestinians was, and remains, to establish their own state – some say at Israel’s expense; but the means and the methods have changed. Terrorism has declined and has almost disappeared, to be replaced by a broad diplomatic, economic, public relations and cultural network that has extended beyond the Middle East. This is the campaign to delegitimize Israel, which is now taking place around the world, sometimes organized and sometimes in local initiatives.
The climax was the Palestinian attempt to be unilaterally accepted into the UN while bypassing negotiations and dialogue with Israel. This effort failed, but international Palestinian activity continues and has had some achievements, including acceptance into UNESCO and resolutions in the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and on other national and international platforms.
In the last two months alone, the international coalition of the Left and the Palestinians initiated a march, a flotilla and a flytilla, all of which were aimed at challenging Israel’s sovereignty. Israel has taken a number of steps to face the new media challenge, some organizational and some in substance, but it still reacts slowly, sluggishly, in a way that serves our adversary.
Israel is having a hard time getting used to the flexibility of the new Palestinian “David” and of the use it makes of the values of peace, non-violence and economic development, and faces them like “Goliath,” with military strength and economic force. Thus Israel may win the actual confrontation, if there is one, but it loses the media and public opinion battle, especially in the liberal-democratic Western democracies among which we take pride in belonging. Thus, for example, the hysteria of the government, particularly of the police and the Interior Ministry, over the “invasion” of a few hundred pro-Palestinian activists, was totally disproportionate.
It created a media event, which is exactly what the organizers wanted, and all this in a situation that did not pose any threat to Israel.
Twenty-five years after the first intifada, Lt.-Col. Shalom Eisner should have known what many others have managed to learn and internalize: the circumstances surrounding the incident are of no interest; its history is irrelevant. In the end, what remains is the memory, in the “war of awareness,” of that blow to the face of an unarmed civilian by an IDF officer. In such a confrontation, we cannot win.
The author, who is a former IDF spokesman, has a PhD dealing with Israel’s public diplomacy in the second intifada.