A perfect storm: Media failures, surrealism and imperfect public diplomacy

It is high time the IDF learns from these experiences.

Ivanka Trump at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem (L), and a wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip (R). May 14, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS + MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ivanka Trump at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem (L), and a wounded Palestinian is evacuated during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip (R). May 14, 2018
It was surreal, as if there were two Israels. There was the Israel of Jerusalem, where celebrations abounded to mark the moving of the US Embassy to our capital. And then there was the Gaza Strip, where the death toll didn’t stop climbing on Monday, leading the world to decry what it viewed as a bloodbath, disregarding reason and cause.
There are two ways of looking at this seemingly dichotomic reality. There are those who will claim the celebrations in Jerusalem, as well as the festive rally in Tel Aviv that night to honor Eurovision winner Netta Barzilai, show how Israelis are apathetic to the loss of life, how Israelis live in a bubble and ignore the reality of the conflict that surrounds them.
The opposite is true. Israelis care but they simply don’t let conflict stop them from celebrating life. Israel has faced non-stop conflict since the state’s inception 70 years ago, but it hasn’t brought the people down.
While there was war in the North in 2006, for example, coffee shops in Tel Aviv were full. Should the people have stayed home out of solidarity with the people of the North? Maybe. But, let’s also keep in mind the message we send our enemies by living life: They can try, but they won’t defeat our spirit.
What added to the sense of surrealism on Monday were some of the speeches at the embassy ceremony. The violence raging at the same time in Gaza didn’t stop the speakers from talking about peace. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “This is a good day for peace too.” Jared Kushner said: “Peace is within reach if we dare to believe that the future can be different from the past.”
What peace are they talking about? Hamas is busy sending thousands of its people to be killed in a futile attempt to violently and illegally breach the border with Israel. And Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas only a few weeks ago spread vile antisemitic theories about the Holocaust. Before that, he called US Ambassador David Friedman the “son of a dog.”
They could, however, talk about peace because none of the above mattered on Monday. Neither Netanyahu nor Kushner were going to let Gaza or Abbas rain on their celebration in Jerusalem. For Netanyahu, the moving of the US Embassy was a new jewel on his crown, if not a whole new crown. Finally, after years of clashing with US presidents, he showed the world that he not only knows how to work with one, but he can also win significant and strategic achievements for Israel.
For Trump, it was about showing the American people that he is a president who keeps his promises. That was exactly the tone of the White House’s press release on Monday’s ceremony: “President Donald J. Trump Keeps His Promise To Open US Embassy In Jerusalem, Israel.”
What could have been different was the way Israel, and specifically the IDF, handled the public relations of the Gaza violence. It was an unfortunate failure with barely even a single mainstream news organization adopting the Israeli narrative of what happened in Gaza.
It’s true that, to begin with, expectations were low. What happened on Monday was the perfect storm for negative news coverage. It was a combination of anti-Trump bias with anti-Israel bias and there is nothing – but the combination of these two – to bring out the worst in the foreign press.
It is also true that most of the media and the world fail to understand a simple fact: If Israel had not used force to stop the Palestinians trying to storm the border fence, the casualty toll would have been far worse than it was. If even 1,000 Palestinians succeeded in crossing the border, they could have ended up – after a short run – inside one of the nearby Israeli communities where the IDF would have been forced to use even greater force to stop them.
NO MILITARY in the world has come up with an effective way to peacefully stop 50,000 people from trying to infiltrate and cross a sovereign and internationally- recognized border. No matter how much tear gas and water cannons you deploy, people will be able to get through, and in big numbers. There is also no military that would simply let a violent mob – incited and directed by a ruthless terrorist regime – cross into its territory without using force to stop it. Claims to the contrary are false and absurd.
Nevertheless, that is no excuse for the way the IDF Spokesman’s Office – led by Brig.-Gen. Ronen Manelis – handled the events.
His office was not prepared for what happened and Manelis showed that he has failed to learn from the mistakes of his predecessors. The IDF, for example, refused to let the foreign press get close to the fence to see the riots on its own and instead kept all of the journalists – Israeli and foreign – at a distance of about 2 kilometers.
In addition, the IDF again failed to appreciate the significance of the images it was collecting along the border and fell into the same trap it always does, by failing to recognize the importance of the foreign press on international relations. Here is just one example: On Monday, IDF troops from the elite Maglan Unit foiled an attempt by armed Hamas terrorists to cross into Israel along the northern Gaza Strip. The Hamas cell opened fire from just 30 meters away from the border fence.
When do you think the IDF released the video footage of that exchange of fire? On Monday, as Israel was getting clobbered by the world? Or on Tuesday, a day after Israel was accused on the front page of almost every single newspaper of massacring innocent and unarmed Palestinians in Gaza? That’s right, on Tuesday.
If this inexcusable mistake hadn’t happened before, one could be forgiven for not believing it could happen. The problem is that it repeats itself. The same delay in releasing video footage took place in May 2010 when the Israel Navy raided the MV Mavi Marmara. The IDF had footage of the Israeli commandos boarding the Turkish ship and being violently attacked but, like this week, it waited almost a day to put it out, allowing one single narrative to prevail.
It is high time the IDF learns from these experiences. First, it needs to stop being provincial and thinking solely about the local press. It is important to explain to Israelis what is happening, but Israelis are the IDF’s greatest and most instinctive supporters. What is more important during events like this is to make sure the images get out to the world.
It is also important to try and control the narrative and not to be led by the adversary. While the IDF knew for weeks that Monday would be a day full of violence, for most of the day it seemed to be scrambling to respond to Hamas instead of being proactive by, for example, embedding reporters with the IDF troops, letting them see up close what was really happening along the border, even if it meant putting them in harm’s way. As one IDF officer admitted, it was a knockout win for Hamas.
I know that a lot of people will simply write this off and claim that no matter what Israel does, it will never succeed in getting fair media coverage. There is unfortunately some truth to that claim. But that does not absolve the government or the IDF of doing their utmost to get Israel’s version out quickly, accurately and responsibly.
There are three battlefields in any war today: the place where the soldiers are fighting (Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or elsewhere); the home front where the enemy rockets will land; and the diplomatic/media front.
All are important and it is time that the IDF gets it.