Israel's image matters

The systemic lack of a foreign media strategy is a form of gross negligence with profound implications for our national security and interests.

israel flag 88 (photo credit: )
israel flag 88
(photo credit: )
Almost everyone who follows Israel's situation from abroad knows that the Jewish state does an abysmal job of making its case in the world. And every Israeli government, while claiming that it is not doing such a bad job and is trying to improve the situation, knows that Israel has a serious "image" problem. True to this pattern, the government recently created a new office to coordinate official spokesmen from the different ministries. This office was created following the Winograd Committee report, which slammed the lack of coordination between agencies regarding public diplomacy, but otherwise spent little effort highlighting or dissecting Israel's failure to make its case. Unfortunately, the new coordinating office will likely have almost no impact, because adding more bureaucratic layers is no substitute for dealing with a serious problem on the appropriate structural level. If there were any doubt that the government is just going through the motions, rather than seriously addressing the problem, government-backed Israel Radio is next week actually canceling its venerable foreign language shortwave broadcasting, with the exception of Farsi broadcasts to Iran. It should be remembered that Israel Radio began broadcasting in English in 1948, and that current broadcasting is already down to a fraction of what it was about 20 years ago. Back then, English radio comprised 15-minute news broadcasts in the morning and evening, a half-hour midday news and features segment, and a 25-minute news and features roundup tailored to an overseas audience. This was a very modest offering to begin with, but has since been whittled down to three 15-minute news bulletins daily. Obviously, Israel is already far behind the BBC, Voice of America, and even Iran, which has just launched a 24-hour television news station. Obviously, too, government or quasi-government broadcasting cannot be seen as a panacea to Israel's public diplomacy woes. But it is a basic part of the puzzle that cannot be summarily gutted. Given that the cost of maintaining the current broadcasts is negligible - they are already grossly underfunded - the true explanation for their cancellation cannot be financial, but rather just another symptom of neglect of the entire public diplomacy field. The main obstacle to addressing the problem is, indeed, not financial but one of priorities. It is obvious, for example, that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, like most of his predecessors, spends a considerable amount of his time and strategic energies on attempting to shape local media coverage, particularly that of the largest newspapers and most popular television news broadcasts. When it comes to domestic coverage, one can be confident that Olmert thinks and works strategically - successfully or not - to ensure that certain messages get out and that events are covered in ways that serve his agenda. Media strategy is a natural and inevitable, even if not always constructive, component of how every government operates. Yet for all the talk about the need to do something about Israel's image, Olmert, like most of his predecessors, dedicates almost no effort to shaping foreign coverage of Israel. While domestic policy initiatives are automatically shaped with a media strategy in mind, military operations and policies with foreign policy implications are routinely launched with little or no thought regarding how they should be explained to an international audience. The systemic lack of a foreign media strategy is a form of gross negligence with profound implications for our national security and interests. It is a scandal of the highest order, for example, that Israel could barely compete on this second battlefield with Hamas - an openly terrorist organization that deliberately rockets Israeli citizens while using its own people as human shields - during the recent escalation of fighting in Gaza. This failure cannot be explained away as foreign media bias. Our military and government does not approach the media battle strategically, and often fails to provide basic information that even unsympathetic media outlets would utilize if provided in a timely manner. The result of such failures can literally cost lives, since they embolden Israel's enemies, reduce Israel's military options, and shape the diplomatic climate within which Israel operates. Foreign broadcasting should be increased, not cut. Israel should have its own television channel. And, most importantly, our prime minister needs to break with his own and his predecessors' failure to date, and devote at least as much focus to Israel's image worldwide as to his own image at home.