Israel should clean up its own house

Israel considers itself a victim of the world media. Those who live here and many Jews in the Diaspora are convinced that as far as the international media are concerned, Israel can simply do no right. The trend started with the 1982 war in Lebanon, escalated during the first intifada, and came to a crescendo in the last bloody four-year conflict with the Palestinians.

So outraged are many Jews abroad by the perceived imbalance that they have contributed tens of millions of dollars to organizations that try and correct it. Some of these are of the "watchdog" nature, ensuring that reporting out of Israel and the occupied territories remains balanced. Others try to help foreign journalists in Israel find positive stories, or provide professional help to Israel’s foreign ministry to improve the way its spokespersons appear on television.

If the truth be told, it is hard for an occupier to get a fair break in the media. By definition, occupation is ugly. It means curfews and roadblocks, house demolitions and pitting tanks against children with stones. And yes, while terror is terrible as well, unlike occupation it is sporadic, not permanent, and is seen as a response to occupation, not aggression in the name of aggression.

Given Israel’s poor base line in the media war and the ever growing importance of media in foreign policy, one might have assumed that Israel would recognize this strategic challenge and deal with it with the same efficiency it applies to other challenges to the country at the strategic level. This, however, has not happened: frankly, if Israel’s image is under attack it is not the messengers who are to blame, but those sending the message. Israel’s public policy is in a shambles.

In 2002 the State Comptroller undertook a thorough look at the country’s information services. His report was highly critical. It cited lack of cooperation, indeed rivalry, among those responsible for Israel’s information services, with consequences deeply damaging to Israel’s image abroad. The report came in the wake of the April 2002 Israeli retaliatory attack in the Jenin refugee camp following the Passover suicide bombing at the Park Hotel in Netanya in which some 30 people died. For several days the entire world believed that Israel had committed a massacre in Jenin; after the dust had settled it emerged that there was no massacre at all. Some 30 Palestinians, most of them armed, had been killed in fighting in which Israel had sustained heavy losses as well. Why had the entire world believed otherwise? Even an official Israeli spokesman had put the death toll at "hundreds".

A workshop on Israel’s media performance during the operation, organized by the Bronfman Program on Media Strategy at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, sought to determine why this had happened. It emerged that there were no lines of communication between the IDF Spokesman’s Office and the Israel Foreign Ministry. While the world believed massacre, Colonel Fuad Halhal, of the Israel Defense Force’s civilian assistance program in the territories, was handing out blankets, getting a new generator into the Jenin general hospital, and coordinating ambulance routes with Palestinian doctors and UN teams–all of this in Jenin, in real time, and all of it carefully documented on video. The Foreign Ministry was totally unaware of either the footage or of Halhal’s actions. Instead of being able to present Israel humanely, Israel’s spokespersons could only mumble platitudes while the world believed massacre.

The same happened when in early 2002 Israel intercepted the Karine-A, the ship carrying Iranian arms to the Gaza Strip. The interception of the vessel was a major coup and could have worked well for Israel’s image. The Foreign Ministry, however, only heard about it from the news. The military thought it so important that the interception be kept secret that it shared the information with no one. Had a team from the Foreign Ministry, the IDF Spokesman’s Office, the Israel Government Press Office, and the Prime Minister’s Office been assembled in advance and sworn to secrecy while they planned a coordinated strategic media response, the end result could have been very different.

The examples are endless. During the first hours after Israel’s assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader was portrayed by the international media as a crippled cleric killed by the Israelis on the way home from morning prayer. Again, the army had considered his assassination so secret that it could not tell colleagues at the Foreign Ministry whose job it was to explain these things to the world. Again, a coordinated body could have put together a file that would have explained that the decision to kill Yassin came the day after the crippled cleric had sent two suicide bombers into Ashdod port to explode themselves amidst chemicals and other incendiary materials in order to create a "strategic" explosion, and that he had ordered attacks on Israelis that had left hundreds dead over the years. With news of the attack the background file would have been released and Israel’s image would not have suffered the brutal attacks it did at the time.

Yes, the media is critical of Israel and yes, often the country gets treated unfairly. But that is no reason why Israel should not clean up its own house as well.