Is­rael’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions break­down

The gov­ern­ment keeps scor­ing a PR own goal as ‘pub­lic ad­vo­cacy’ re­mains a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball ME­DIA ANAL­Y­SIS

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT&ANALYSIS/ -

hen I vis­ited Is­rael with a Board of Deputies mis­sion three years ago, the Bri­tish del­e­ga­tion was can­did. Jerusalem had a good story to tell as it con­tem­plated an end to the Greater Is­rael pol­icy and uni­lat­eral with­drawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. But this dra­matic shift, to­gether with all the other pos­i­tive de­vel­op­ments in the Jewish state — from high-tech break­throughs to the fan­tas­tic work be­ing done in Is­raeli hos­pi­tals for all com­mu­ni­ties — was not be­ing pro­jected be­cause of fail­ing of has­bara (com­mu­ni­ca­tions).

The re­peat­ing of the Pales­tinian mantra of “oc­cu­pa­tion, oc­cu­pa­tion, oc­cu­pa­tion” in ev­ery pos­si­ble me­dia and pub­lic fo­rum was drown­ing out Is­rael’s be­lief that it could uni­lat­er­ally break the dead­lock in the Mid­dle East. At a re­laxed meet­ing with Ariel Sharon in the Prime Min­is­ter’s of­fice, the del­e­ga­tion was as­sured that things would be dif­fer­ent from now on. Sharon would be tak­ing charge of has­bara, there would be an in­creased bud­get and the re­spon­si­bil­ity would rest with his of­fice.

Three years on, the Board was back in Is­rael this week to ex­press its sol­i­dar­ity and to gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of Is­rael’s mood fol­low­ing the sec­ond Le­banon war and amid the con­tin­u­ing fusil­lade of Kas­sam rock­ets tar­geted at the Negev town of Sderot from near neigh­bours in Gaza. But as was the case in 2004, the nar­ra­tive of the war — more

Wvaliant from Is­rael’s view­point than widely re­ported — has been let down by a se­ri­ous fail­ure of what Jerusalem now likes to call pub­lic ad­vo­cacy.

We s hould not b e sur­prised. The promised re­forms of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions process pledged by Sharon were never im­ple­mented. In­stead of one clear mes­sage from through­out gov­ern­ment — a les­son that could have been learned from Tony Blair’s so­phis­ti­cated spin ma­chine in Bri­tain — pub­lic ad­vo­cacy re­mains a po­lit­i­cal foot­ball. The Is­rael Gov­ern­ment Press Of­fice, the For­eign Min­istry and the IDF each do their own thing. The Knes­set is cur­rently hold­ing hear­ings on how bet­ter to or­gan­ise com­mu­ni­ca­tions and whether bud­gets should be al­lo­cated in a dif­fer­ent fash­ion.

In many ways, Is­rael’s prob­lems with the do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional me­dia are a great com­pli­ment to the Jewish state, re­flect­ing a vi­brant, plu­ral­is­tic democ­racy where par­ties and coali­tions rise and fall with as­ton­ish­ing reg­u­lar­ity and the min­is­te­rial pack — with the no­table ex­cep­tion of Shi­mon Peres — is reg­u­larly reshuf­fled. Is­rael goes out of its way to make life as easy as pos­si­ble for the in­ter­na­tional press corps, which makes Jerusalem its cen­tre of Mid­dle East re­port­ing.

Dur­ing the Le­banon con­flict, the gov­ern­ment press of­fice, headed by vet­eran Daniel Sea­man, set up for­ward head­quar­ters in Haifa for the world’s me­dia. Al-Jazeera was of­fered much the same fa­cil­i­ties as CNN and the BBC. The view in Is­rael is that the best way to deal with English­language Al-Jazeera and crit­i­cal me­dia is through “judo” — en­gag­ing them on their own ter­ri­tory. Is­rael of­fers crit­i­cal broad­cast­ers high-level spokes­men. If the me­dia out­lets fail to take up the of­fer or pro­vide bal­anced air­time, then claims of in­de­pen­dence are chal­lenged.

There is a be­lief in Jerusalem that the in­ter­net, blog­gers, pod­casts, mo­bile tele­phony and so­cial net­works now of­fer new in­for­ma­tion sources to mil­lions of younger peo­ple who don’t bother with the tra­di­tional me­dia, mak­ing crit­i­cal out­lets like The In­de­pen­dent and The Guardian less im­por­tant over time. The re­al­ity is the op­po­site. Far from be­ing in re­treat, tra­di­tional out­lets are seek­ing to lever­age their ex­per­tise and con­tent through new me­dia. As Google dom­i­nates the search sphere, so the BBC web­site and Guardian on­line dom­i­nate the news sphere. The Guardian is no longer just an opin­ion-for­mer in the UK but reaches mil­lions across the United States. MyS­pace may ap­pear merely a “so­cial site”, but as part of the Mur­doch em­pire it can be used even­tu­ally to dis­trib­ute con­tent from Fox News or The Times.

There is a ten­dency in Is­rael to blame the me­dia for all the ills. The Mayor of Sderot — who wants de­ci­sive ac­tion to bring an end to the reign of ter­ror against his cit­i­zens — sug­gests it is the me­dia’s fault that re­tal­i­a­tion can­not take place. The politi­cians, he ar­gues, take a lead from a press ready to pounce on Is­rael for ex­er­cis­ing its right of self-defence.

The me­dia is never go­ing to buy into ev­ery Is­raeli ver­sion of events. Yet the key to good com­mu­ni­ca­tions is fast and ac­cu­rate re­sponse to crit­i­cism, rep­e­ti­tion of the Is­raeli case and us­ing pub­lic ad­vo­cacy at ev­ery level. Sim­ply com­plain­ing that the me­dia is anti-Zion­ist or an­tisemitic does not ad­dress the is­sue but is an ad­mis­sion of de­feat. Is­rael does have a me­dia story to tell. But it ap­pears con­gen­i­tally in­ca­pable of or­gan­is­ing its com­mu­ni­ca­tions in an ef­fec­tive, co­her­ent and co-or­di­nated way.

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