Middle Israel: The IDF's PR: What went wrong?

When a chance that she fought for arrived, Miri Regev wouldn't display her English in public.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Here is an issue that cannot top new Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi's agenda, and yet must be treated urgently: the IDF Spokesman's Office. The problem is simple: In last summer's war, what began with Israel's portrayal as a just victor ended with its depiction as an unjust loser. It is even more perplexing considering that the IDF Spokesman's unit was reasonably budgeted, staffed and trained. In fact, the IDF's media operation had been revolutionized since the days when it saw the press as an intrusion on the battlefield. Since 1991, when Maj.-Gen. Eitan Ben-Eliahu wrote in the IDF quarterly Ma'arachot that the media constituted an arena in their own right alongside the land, air and sea arenas, the IDF has overhauled its media attitude. Junior officers were educated to treat the press professionally, senior officers were provided specially trained press liaisons to shadow them on the battlefield, and press-response chains were shortened as regional commands were given their own press representatives. And yet, when all this structure came to its ultimate test - war - it failed. By the war's last weeks, the IDF watched helplessly as the foreign press gravitated from Galilee's devastation to Beirut's carnage, where it willingly abandoned itself to the devices of Hizbullah minders. What went wrong? THE IDF Spokesman's Office was usually led by an intelligence officer, until the appointment of Nachman Shai in 1989. A veteran defense reporter for Israel TV, Shai brought an acquaintance with the military, a thorough understanding of journalism and experience with the foreign media earned as a press attache in Washington. This profile proved itself during the first Gulf War as ideal for the position of IDF spokesman, so much so that people wondered why the army had always understood that its OC Medical Corps had to be a doctor and that the air force commander had to be a pilot, but could not understand that its spokesman had to be a journalist. The repercussions of the failure to make the Shai profile a standard emerged during Ron Kitri's time as head of the office, when the IDF stammered while the Muhammad al-Dura death in fall 2000 and the Jenin battle of spring '02 were grossly misreported. Experience as commander of the IDF Intelligence School, which Kitri had previously been, proved irrelevant at best, and catastrophic at worst, as demonstrated by the widely quoted Palestinian lies that followed his decision to keep the media out of Jenin. Kitri's successor, Ruth Yaron, was an improvement. A woman, a diplomat and a former press attache in Washington, she made some inventive moves, like the introduction of battlefield video crews, and was effective with the foreign press. Then again, she lacked clout within the military, and in one case was fooled by then OC Air Force Dan Halutz, who lied through her to the whole world about the type of missile he used in a targeted killing that Palestinians claimed took innocent lives. When Halutz took over as chief of General Staff he replaced Yaron with her bitter rival, Miri Regev. It was an appointment as mistaken as Halutz's. LIKE THE IDF itself, Regev's performance in the war's first days looked good. Press centers were set up, briefings were offered and some correspondents were embedded within combat units. But then came Kafr Kana. The Kana attack, in which more than 20 Lebanese civilians lost their lives, would have been difficult to handle for any spokesman, but Regev never even got to the boxing ring. When the appointment for which she had fought like a lioness arrived at its supreme test, it emerged that Regev would not display her English in public. She must have known why. Regev's career as a press officer focused on dealing with the Hebrew press and with logistics. To her, the foreign press - the alpha and omega of that fourth arena where Israel was taking a beating, and which she was assigned to conquer - was but a sideshow. And so, rather than spend the war personally briefing the world's major media figures, she spent it behind Dan Halutz's shoulder, evidently thinking her job was to push her boss into Israeli papers, rather than get her own face on foreign TV. At the same time, when the IDF began its frantic search for a "victory photo," Regev failed to supply it. True, this task would have been simpler had there been a victory to photograph, but the fact is that some things could have been done. For instance, after the war I learned from combatants that when surrounded, Hizbullah troops would often commit suicide, in some cases shooting themselves in the temple with pistols in the very presence of approaching Israeli troops. I doubt this could have been photographed. Yet had this been made known immediately, it would have proven valuable to the press as a story, and to the IDF as a reminder to the foreign press that Israel's enemy was not the freedom fighter it tried to portray, but the fanatic suicide attackers who have been haunting the West from Bali to Madrid. Why was this lost on Regev? Because she has poor English and has never been a journalist. How can she know where to lead the foreign press if she can't read an issue of The Economist or hold a serious conversation with a New York Times editor? Regev was as clueless about the foreign press as Halutz was about the ground forces. Just as the chief of General Staff had to be replaced by an infantry commander, the head of the IDF Spokesman's Office must be replaced by someone who knows, understands and can effectively address the challenges that await the IDF in its fourth arena: the international media.