When 10-year-old Muhammad al Dura was shot and killed on camera in the opening hours of the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel lost the information war. There was a child, a boy, hugging his father on the back, hiding behind a barrel, ducking and dodging as bullets whizzed between Israel and Palestinian positions, only to be killed for all to see. It did not matter that a Palestinian bullet may have been responsible. The image of Israel as a ruthless aggressor and occupier, guilty of disproportionate use of force, was cast forever.
So much was this the case that Ehud Barak, speaking at a conference at Tel Aviv University two years later, related how as prime minister he visited several countries in Europe, and almost all the heads of state he met had Dura’s picture framed in their offices, making normal political and diplomatic discourse impossible.
Since then, Israel has been fighting a losing media battle, even when the media should have been on its side, like during the horrific lynching and decimation of three Israeli reservists who had strayed into Ramallah by mistake early in the war, or the devastation caused by the many suicide bombings that have rocked the country over the past three years. While these images generated revulsion around the world, they did not translate into empathy for Israel or its cause. Israel continued to be seen as the aggressor, even though it had not initiated the conflict in September 2000.
Despite the devastation of suicide bombings, Israel continued to be perceived as Goliath and the Palestinians as victims. No matter how repulsive suicide bombers who specifically go after civilian populations may be, they did not negate the negative imagery of F-16s, helicopters, tanks, artillery and bulldozers operating in populated areas, nor create a sense of equivalency in the eyes of the international public.
The image problem for Israel was more than just a vanity issue. As the war progressed, the harm to its international relations on all fronts, other than the United States, was tangible. The media was also one of the main avenues for the Palestinians to achieve their primary strategic goal of internationalizing the conflict.
The information war, in consequence, took on an important strategic dimension. The authorities responded in two ways: the military grasped that it had to cooperate with the media on the understanding that if you cannot cap the story, cooperate with those working on it to get your point across. The new war crimes regime at the International Criminal Court and its implications, coupled with the intrusive eye of the camera in documenting the army’s behavior, also had an impact on the army modulating its behavior toward the media.
In government however, particularly the Prime Minister’s Office and the Government Press Office, it was decided to deal with the problem by declaring the media an enemy of Israel. Danny Seaman, head of the GPO, went as far as calling the foreign press contingent in Israel "anti-Semitic." His colleague, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s spokesman to the foreign media, Raanan Gissen, has made the same assertion in private and public. Instead of trying to win over the media, they went to war against it, rallying the muscle of Israel’s friends abroad to pressure networks into being "fair and balanced". Well-meaning members of the Jewish community established media watch organizations hoping to stem the tide of criticism, while others hired spin doctors and media experts to help the Israeli government make its case.
The Israel Defense Forces has had some success in changing its relationship with the media, but government foreign media relations remain tenuous, based on suspicion, not cooperation, as witnessed by Seaman’s recent failed attempt to regulate who holds a press card by submitting the list of applicants to the General Security Service. And despite all the investment, Israel’s international image continues to deteriorate to a point where, whether we like the poll or not, most Europeans think Israel is the number one threat to world peace.
The truth is that you can hire all the spin doctors in the world, but when you raze three seven-story apartment buildings to the ground in Gaza in response to an attack on soldiers at Netzarim, or when wild settlers are allowed to cut down 200 and more Palestinian olive trees with impunity, with no attempt being made to find the perpetrators, you will not get the media to tolerate you, let alone love you.
If Israel spent more time thinking about its policies than its information problems, the country’s image would improve remarkably. Media should be taken into account before bulldozing houses and orchards or building a security fence that–if allowed to go on as planned–will imprison 140,000 Palestinians in four concentrated areas and cut them off from their fields and, in many cases, from their families.
If Israel wants to win the information war it should stop shooting itself in the foot, something it has done so consistently it is a wonder the country can still limp along.