Behind the Lines: Iran's manipulation of the Israeli media

Why does Ahmadinejad's every utterance go to our front pages? Where is Israel's counter-propoganda?

Ahmadinejad 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press [file])
Ahmadinejad 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
On the eve of Pessah we were served with a stark reminder that, as the Haggada says, "In every generation we are threatened with destruction" - when the Iranian leadership officially announced it had begun enriching uranium. The veracity of the announcement and the reasons for its timing are still murky, but the Israeli media has been "Persian engulfed" ever since. Has anything changed? Are we in more danger now than we were two weeks ago? Do we know anything we didn't know before? I've tried to read everything our local "experts" had to offer, and I'm only more confused. It's not even clear if there's a real danger or whether the Iranians are merely bluffing - at least, not according to the country's most widely-read paper. Yediot Aharonot decided to put us in a festive mood with a special Pessah edition that included an apocalyptic prophecy, entitled "Day of the Bomb," of what life will look like when the Iranians finally have nuclear capability. Last Tuesday, IDF Intelligence chief Major-General Amos Yadlin was sent on a round of interviews to the local press in response to the Iranian claims. He succeeded in muddying the waters even further. What were readers supposed to understand when Ha'aretz's headline from Yadlin was "Israel and the West don't know everything that's happening in Iran," and Ma'ariv's was that it's "A False Show"? We can only hope that Yadlin knows more than he's letting on. Former intelligence officials have assured me that everything printed or broadcast here on the subject is immediately picked up, translated and passed on to Teheran. It now seems that the Iranians have become just as adept at manipulating the Israeli media. We don't know what lurks, if anything, beneath the ground in Bushehr and all the other "secret" sites bearing strange names. But it's definitely got hold of the public's imagination. Every utterance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - such as, "We are now a nuclear power" - goes straight to the front pages. Ahmadinejad himself is fast gaining status of the latest Pharaoh, intent on exterminating the Children of Israel. Ma'ariv described him in a profile last Friday as "The Satan from Teheran." As if that weren't enough, on Sunday there were new satellite photos that apparently showed further advances in the Iranian nuclear program - or, as Ha'aretz's intelligence analyst, Yossi Melman, termed it, "proof of what we already know." WHAT ARE we supposed to be making of all this? Why are the Iranians running circles around us? Where is the Israeli counter-propaganda? The government and defense establishment are fighting the media war against the Iranians with two hands tied behind their backs. Israel has constrained itself for decades by insisting on a policy of "amimut," nuclear ambiguity or opacity, never admitting to our real capabilities, necessitating local journalists to add the line "according to foreign sources" every time they report on Israel's alleged nuclear weapons. This policy proved successful in preventing the kind of international pressure to disarm that might have been caused by an open admission to having the bomb, but it's not very useful when confronted with an enemy freely using nuclear information and disinformation to suit its interest of the moment. The second restriction is more recent. Successive governments have opted for a low-key attitude toward the Iranian threat, in the hope that a US-led international coalition would defuse the bomb for us. For that reason, Israeli leaders and generals have been extremely reluctant to issue counter-threats to the Iranians. Air force commander Major-General Eliezer Shkedi's interview with Yediot this week was a case in point. Despite all the events of the past few days, he refused to be drawn out on the response to the Iranian threat and made do with the cryptic reference, "It would be wrong for them to put us in a spot where we have no choice." The interview was replete with oblique references to Israel's "strategic arm," though whether this meant the long-range capabilities of Shkedi's pilots - or something else that can be found in underground silos and submarines (according to foreign sources. of course) - was left unclear. What is clear is that the rapidly evolving Iranian challenge demands not only intelligence and diplomacy efforts, but also a major rethinking of Israel's nuclear PR strategy. If the government continues to keep the public in the dark, people will begin to rely more and more not only on foreign sources but also on Ahmadinejad. He, at least, is willing the utter the A-word. But the responsibility lies not only with the government. Instead of following the Iranian leader and making do with official double-think, journalists should begin demanding clearer answers from our elected representatives, and yes, even begin to start testing the limits of official censorship and "national responsibility." After the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli media took a collective vow never again to take at face value the politicians' and generals' assurances that everything was being taken care of and that the less said, the better. But, whenever it comes to the nuclear issue, we're still hearing echoes of October 1973.