Boats, blunders and backbone

Public diplomacy must be modeled after military, considering every situation threatening Israel's image as a conventional attack.

Activists pose on Mavi Marmara 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Activists pose on Mavi Marmara 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Micha Lindenstrauss is saving the best for last. With his tenure as State Comptroller ending in just a few weeks, he released the long-awaited report as to the government’s performance in the Turkish flotilla debacle in May 2010. The report was less than flattering toward Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, his ministers and the IDF.
The report really takes to task the decision making process employed by the prime minister and the IDF. Unlike other military connected operations, the flotilla was something which could have been prepared for in advance. The intelligence community knew the IHH was planning to try and break the Gaza blockade months ahead of time.
From what can be read into the report and the various analyses published in the Israeli press, the problem was that no one took this flotilla too seriously. By the time the threat was understood, it was too late and events took a turn for the worse. Much worse.
IN MY opinion, the flotilla incident was probably the single worst hasbara (public diplomacy) fiasco Israel has experienced in over a decade, and that includes the Second Lebanon War. It turns out that at least some of that damage could have been avoided.
Before I get to that, though, I’d like to point out a few facets of the report I found particularly interesting. First is the wide international media coverage the story has gotten. A good percentage of the articles I read implied the IDF commando raid was illegal despite the fact that the report itself did not indicate that whatsoever. It’s a shame that so many of the pieces failed to mention the Turkel committee and the subsequent United Nations inquiry which both found the Gaza blockade to comply with international law.
ANOTHER ASPECT which must be taken very seriously is the lack of coordinated public diplomacy effort before, during and after the incident. Reading between the lines of the various articles written in the Israeli press, it’s clear that one of the major problems is too many cooks in the kitchen. Both the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the Foreign Ministry were chastised in the report.
In response, senior officials from both branches went on the defensive. Officials at the Foreign Ministry went so far as to say that they were the first to kick into damage control mode during the confrontation, despite the lack of information from the army. Minister Avigdor Liberman even suggested that his office should be the one speaking to the foreign press.
The questions remain: Who exactly is in charge of dealing with public diplomacy at this level and is there anyone coordinating the message? I suspect that the answers will depend on who you ask and which day of the week they get the question.
The logistics of dealing with situations like this, though, should be clear. Public diplomacy must take the format from the military, considering every situation which threatens Israel’s image as if it was a conventional attack. Hasbara war rooms, coordinating all of the players, must be manned 24 hours a day and on alert for potential threats. Extensive preparations need to be made weeks in advance in cases such as the flotilla.
If there’s an ongoing story, every correspondent needs information immediately. If we don’t provide it, they’ll only be reporting the narrative eagerly handed out by our enemies. Pertinent data coupled with background information must be made available to the international media.
At all costs, we must avoid the situation where the reporting has spiraled out of control with lies, slander and fake or doctored visuals. The price for failure in the media war is very high. There might not be Israeli dead or injured but every time an opinion is changed from pro to anti-Israel is a loss.
WE ARE used to fighting to defend ourselves and our right to live in peace. Sometimes, though, we also need to seize to moment with the international media. We now are at that crossroads with regard to the flotilla.
On Friday, the story broke that the President of the IHH, Bulent Yildirim, is being investigated for allegedly transferring funds to al-Qaida. This is according to reports out of Turkey, no less.
According to the Turkish daily Haberturk, the head of the organization which organized the flotilla might have been funneling aid to the organization which perpetrated 9/11. Not only that but the Turks apparently raided the IHH offices in Istanbul and found weapons, explosives and bomb making instructions. Allegedly, there was also documentation showing the IHH was planning to take part in terror attacks in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia as well.
We can’t let this story get buried.
Israel has taken a weak stance towards Turkey on the flotilla. We were in the right in stopping the boats from reaching Gaza. We regret the loss of life but our soldiers were attacked and their lives were at risk. We have repeatedly tried to mend fences with Ankara, to no avail. That has not stopped the Turks from demanding an apology and reparations, slapping sanctions on us and indicting the top IDF commanders who were involved in the raid. This is something which we should not tolerate.
So now the time has come for Israel’s public diplomacy to spearhead an offensive. Not only should we press the story of the Yildirim investigation, we should be pointing out that this is not the first story to indicate that the IHH is rooted in terrorism and murder. We have the ammunition – it’s time to use it.
While we coordinate this media blitz and hopefully gain some leverage, our diplomats must discreetly reach out to and propose an end to the diplomatic freeze. While there were some innocent activists aboard the boats, the flotilla was organized by a terrorist organization. It’s time to put the incident aside and offer a normalization of relations. We shouldn’t ask for an apology, but should be ready to match every demand that Turkey made from us, if that normalization is rejected.
The writer is an independent media consultant.
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