Uriel Heilman - Getting Israel's Message Across
Getting Israel's message across

Getting Israel's message across

Not long before the Israeli Air Force dispatched fighter jets over Gaza last December in what would become the opening barrage of Israel's 22-day war with Hamas, an assortment of Israeli officials gathered for two separate meetings in Jerusalem to discuss possible scenarios for an Israeli confrontation with the Palestinian terrorist group.

No decision to launch an operation had been announced yet, but Israeli officials involved in hasbara - explaining Israel's message to the world - figured some sort of military offensive was in the offing. Israel's cease-fire with Hamas had fallen apart in late June 2008, and with the increase in Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, the pressure for military action was mounting.

At the meetings, which included officials from the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign and Defense Ministries, the Israel Defense Forces, the Shabak internal security service and spokespeople from municipalities in southern Israel, participants gamed out responses for a variety of circumstances. They went over talking points, decided who would do what at a time of crisis and discussed how to convey Israel's message in a coordinated and comprehensive way.

When Operation Cast Lead was actually launched on the night of Dec. 27, 2008, taking many Palestinian fighters in Gaza by surprise, the group sprang into action.

Diplomats from the foreign minister on down took to the airwaves, explaining to reporters from New York to New Delhi why Israel had launched the operation to curb Hamas' rocket fire into Israel. The IDF set up a press center where reporters could get quick and accurate information about the fighting, including videos of forces in combat.

When, in the early hours of the war, Hamas claimed that nine Israeli soldiers had been taken captive and two killed, Israel was able to respond immediately and effectively, demonstrating that the claims were false.

"Speed is the top priority," said Yigal Palmor, spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "The goal is to bring your message as fast as possible to the widest possible audience."

Israel stepped up its PR effort as the war unfolded. The morning after the operation began, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went on NBC's "Meet the Press" to make Israel's case for the war and clarify its objectives.

"The situation is a situation in which Israeli citizens are targeted from Gaza Strip, a place that we left few years ago in order to create a new horizon for peace. But we got Hamas in return," Livni told NBC's David Gregory.

"Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip. We left Gaza Strip," she said. "We dismantled all the settlements. But since Gaza Strip has been controlled by the extremists, and since Gaza Strip has been controlled by Hamas, and since Hamas is using Gaza Strip in order to target us, we need to give an answer to this."

The effort was not limited to traditional media.

On the third day of the war, the IDF launched a channel on the popular online video sharing website YouTube, where viewers around the world could access video clips supporting Israel's case for war. The IDF posted footage of Hamas weapons storehouses in Gaza, booby-trapped schools in Gaza City, rocket crews firing from Palestinian civilian areas and Israeli medical teams treating Palestinian wounded. The videos included footage taken from cameras aboard IDF unmanned aerial vehicles flying above the fighting.

By the fourth day of the conflict, Israel's Consulate in New York had opened an account on the social messaging website Twitter and held a virtual press conference to answer questions from the public on the conflict in Gaza.

In keeping with Twitter's format, the questions and answers were limited to 140 characters each.

"the sole purpose of this opt. is 2 protect Isr's s.border & 2 allow ISR 2 live safely. this opt is indiferrent 2 politics," the consulate wrote in typical Twitter shorthand in response to a question from a user named carrotderek.

"we're not at war with the PAL people. we're at war with a group declared by the EU& US a terrorist org," read another answer.

As the war dragged on into January, Israel expanded and deepened its PR operation. The newly established National Information Directorate at the Prime Minister's Office held multiple conference calls per day to ensure accurate and timely information was getting to those who needed it. The IDF sent mobile text messages to reporters' cell phones to give them minute-by-minute updates. Representatives who spoke to the press stayed disciplined and almost uniformly on-message.

Pro-Israel groups, too, tried to get the message out. The Israel Project, a nonprofit organization that provides Israel-related resources to journalists, held news conferences in Sderot, Ashkelon, Jerusalem and Washington, and flooded reporters' e-mail boxes with statistics, photos, phone numbers of potential interview subjects and news summaries.

B'nai B'rith World Center in Jerusalem participated in brainstorming sessions with other advocacy groups and collaborated with the IDF and the Israeli government to quash false rumors about the fighting.

"We were asked to use materials that were coming out to undercut the argument that Israel was targeting civilians purposely," said Alan Schneider, director of the B'nai B'rith World Center. "The sources coming out of Gaza were Hamas and Al Jazeera. We tried to present an alternative, more accurate version."

B'nai B'rith held conference calls with Jewish leaders around the world to keep them apprised of the facts, published articles in newspapers dispelling rumors and distributed materials to members detailing IDF efforts to spare civilians, which included dropping leaflets in Gaza warning residents before air strikes and making phone calls to residents of specific areas of Gaza to evacuate their homes.

"They were not getting this information through normal media," Schneider said.

At the foreign media's headquarters on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, the location of the IDF spokesman's office in the same building as the TV networks enabled army spokespeople to be available around-the-clock to assist reporters in person. All material was translated into multiple languages, and the IDF recruited officers to talk to foreign reporters in their own tongues, including Arabic.

Over the course of the 22-day war, IDF officers conducted more than 1,200 interviews, and representatives from Israel's government ministries, embassies, consulates and pro-Israel advocacy groups conducted thousands more.

In a variety of languages, formats and settings, they tried to convey the same basic message: Israel was forced into war by a terrorist group that fired rockets every day at Israeli civilians, remained committed to Israel's destruction and was unsympathetic to the plight of Gaza's civilian population, which was being used as pawns in Hamas' struggle against Israel. Despite this, the IDF was conducting the war in the most humanitarian way possible.

So, was their effort successful? (We'll get back to that.)

Israel's PR problem

It's no secret that Israel has an image problem.

From the Op-Ed pages of daily newspapers, to ivy-covered university campuses, to the streets of Europe, Israel' image is not rosy. Surveys show that most people know Israel only as a place of religion or conflict, with a small percentage holding strong views about who's to blame for the conflict.

In pro-Israel circles, advocates sound a near-constant refrain about Israel's need for better hasbara - a term that literally means "explaining" but is used as a catch-all for Israel's public relations.

"Since the day I entered public life, there always was the question where is the Israeli hasbara," said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. "I don't have the answer to that."

There is some debate over who is responsible for Israel's image. Many point the finger at the government, arguing that it does a poor job of PR. A few say Israel's actions - particularly vis-à-vis the Palestinians -- are to blame.

One school of thought says no one is at fault; it's the nature of Israel's strength relative to its enemies in the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Israel were weak, it might find more sympathy in the court of public opinion, but its weaknesses would put the country at risk. Instead, Israel is powerful, and its use of power to subdue threats makes it appear to many to be a Goliath.

"There's a price to pay for being strong," said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who now heads the U.S.-Israel Institute at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv. "We have become very strong. That doesn't mean that we're not under siege. That does not mean that we're not under threats."

For many Israelis and Israel supporters around the world, however, Israel is in the role of David, not Goliath.

The world may see a powerful Israeli army bombing a school in Gaza, but Israel supporters see the army taking defensive action to protect Israeli citizens being fired upon by rocket crews operating near the school and using weapons stored on school grounds. The world may see Israeli bulldozers demolishing Palestinian homes, but Israel supporters see such IDF operations as essential to cleaning out terrorist hideouts and destroying buildings that hide arms-smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza.

The world may see a lopsided casualty count with a hundred times more Palestinians killed than Israelis during the recent war, but Israel supporters see an Israeli army that takes pains to avoid civilian casualties fighting a Palestinian terrorist group that specifically targets Israeli civilians.

Likewise, the world may see the Palestinians as besieged, but Israel supporters see the Jewish state as besieged, surrounded by a sea of hostile Arabs - to say nothing of the Shiite mullahs in Tehran.

In the Middle East, where the truth often lies in nuance rather than in photos or 60-second video news reports on 24-hour cable news channels, Israel faces an uphill battle making its case.

"There are a lot of anti-Israel groups that are putting things out that are not accurate," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of The Israel Project. "Israel has a lot of enemies that are looking to take advantage of any mistakes it makes, or are making things up to make Israel look bad."

That's where hasbara comes in. From the Israeli prime minister to the IDF officer in the field to the pro-Israel advocate writing a letter to his local suburban newspaper somewhere in the Diaspora, the idea is to explain the truth that lies beneath.

"We walk in and say, 'We love Israel and we love the Jewish people, but here are the facts,'" Mizrahi said. "We footnote everything."

"We are for transparency," the IDF spokeswoman, Maj. Avital Leibovich, told B'nai B'rith Magazine. "We don't have anything to hide."

This is the philosophy that guides Israeli hasbara efforts: If they just can get to know the real us, they'll love us. If we can show the true face of Israel - whether in a time of conflict or calm -- they'll understand our position.

"What we want to do is connect to people in a way that they can understand Israel's point of view," said Palmor of the Foreign Ministry.

In times of conflict, this means getting information out quickly and effectively, whether by e-mailing reporters, arranging a press conference in Mandarin for the Chinese press or embedding a reporter from the BBC with IDF troops in Gaza.

In the times in between, it means showing the world that there is more to Israel than conflict.

"We have a good product; come, try the product, taste it and form your own opinion. This is the rationale behind it," said David Saranga, the consul for media and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in New York. "Make your own mind up about Israel."

Hasbara beyond the conflict

When Saranga held his press conference on Twitter about Israel's Gaza operation, the goal wasn't only to communicate Israel's message in a forum popular among young people.

It was also a bid to showcase the Jewish state as a cutting-edge innovator, quick to develop and adapt to new technologies. The news conference on Dec. 30, 2008 was the first time Twitter was ever used for such a purpose, and it caught the attention not only of people passionate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but technology buffs as well.

The event spurred write-ups on numerous blogs (online diaries, or web logs) and in a few news stories, including a piece in The New York Times' Week in Review section.

"We succeeded reaching a niche of people who are interested in technology and were interested in the press conference because it was interesting technologically, not because they were interested in the conflict," Saranga said in an interview with B'nai B'rith Magazine. "We connected between Israel and one of the brands that's often talked about in American media: Twitter. It made Israel relevant to people who are interested in Twitter."

The idea is to add new dimensions to the way people perceive Israel, showcasing facets of the country in interesting and relevant ways for different niche audiences. That may mean courting the medical community with news of Israel's scientific advances, talking to artists about Israeli art or bringing vintners to Israel to discover Israeli wines.

"We try to respond to the audience with information about Israel so that they can see Israel in a way that is close to their heart and values," Palmor said. "The overall strategy is not just to give people information or increase awareness about Israeli culture, economics, sports, gastronomy, literature, theater or technological development, but to make people understand that Israel is a country with values and culture, and it's not just what you see in the headlines."

In the old days, Palmor said, Israel projected the same message with little thought to audience interest. That strategy, he acknowledged, was not successful.

"One strategy is counterproductive," he said. "What is good for the United States is not good for France, and vice versa."

The Israeli Consulate in New York has run with this idea.

In July 2007, the consulate caused a stir when it helped Maxim, a monthly men's interest magazine, put together a five-page spread of scantily clad IDF women soldiers striking sexy poses against various Israeli backdrops.

"They're drop-dead gorgeous and can take apart an Uzi in seconds," the headline read. "Are the women of the Israeli Defense Forces the world's sexiest soldiers?"

"We took an existing brand, Maxim, and connected Israel to it," Saranga said unapologetically. "The idea was to do a project targeting adults in a specific age cohort."

"People perceive Israel through two lenses alone: the conflict and religion," Saranga went on. "What we want to do is add another dimension, which is the human face. People are not familiar with the Israeli face. We want to show that Israel is a normal place, that it's a place of great cultural creation, that it's a hot place in terms of lifestyle."

This is the re-branding of Israel: getting niche audiences to associate Israel with positive, rather than negative, images.

By that measure, Israel scored a coup when Sports Illustrated decided to use a shot of Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli on the cover of its annual swimsuit edition in February. Instead of the image of an armed Israeli soldier firing a tear gas canister at Palestinian teenagers, the image of Israel the world woke up to was of a sizzling-hot Refaeli wearing a tiny bikini, pulling away at the bikini-bottom's strings.

Esquire's follow-up feature, "5 Israeli Women We Love, from the Swimsuit Issue & Beyond," didn't hurt either. "All of a sudden, Israel is producing more than its share of spectacularly beautiful models and actresses," the tagline read.

Israel's non-conflict hasbara effort goes beyond bikinis and babes.

It can result in a travel story on kibbutz spas in a major U.S. daily, press about an Israeli initiative to make Israel the launching ground for a network of environmentally friendly electric cars or even a few lines in a story about something else that reflect positively on Israel. These outcomes could stem from something as simple as an e-mail or as laborious as an all-expenses-paid press junkets. Sometimes, it's pure coincidence.

With media outlets flooded with conflict stories from the Middle East, it often is not easy to get them to devote more ink or airtime to a story on Israel. That just raises the bar for Israel's hasbara promoters to come up with innovative ideas to attract positive attention.

One of the Foreign Ministry's primary modes of operation is to "bring people for visits to Israel who can tell about Israel," Palmor said, using theme-specific trips for journalists and other opinion shapers focused on various aspects of Israeli society.

In May 2006, a coalition of groups including Israel21c, the America-Israel Friendship League, America's Voices in Israel and the Israeli Foreign Ministry took a group of American entertainment reporters from music magazines, men's magazines and teen glossies to Israel for a carefully choreographed trip focused on Israeli cool. The group visited trendy Tel Aviv nightclubs, met with Israeli rock stars, visited with a gay and lesbian rights group, and explored the heart of Israel's avant-garde scene.

Jessica Hopper, a radio journalist, writer and publicist from Chicago, said she hadn't really thought much about Israel at all until she was invited on the trip.

"I think I only had one preconception: that we'd get blown up," Hopper said. "Being members of the media we consider ourselves more enlightened, but we didn't really have an accurate picture. We're seeing that the country and people here live totally normal lives despite the conflict."

American Jewish groups also organize trips to Israel for lawmakers from federal, state and even local legislatures. The trips, which focus on political and military issues, provide a multi-day show-and-tell opportunity to make the case for Israel.

Israel is also stepping up its effort to improve Israel's image through new media.

This spring, the Israeli Consulate in New York brought six American photographers and new media professionals to Israel to enlist them in a campaign to post positive photographs of Israel online. Participants were chosen based on their proficiency in editing open-source online media such as Wikipedia and Flickr, where users can share photos free of charge. After fanning out over Israel and taking pictures, the participants were supposed to upload their photos to websites where users around the world could view and download them free of charge.

This way, the Foreign Ministry hopes, next time you type the word "Israel" into Google's search engine, maybe you'll get a pastoral image of the Galilee or of the sun setting over Masada rather than a shot of an Israeli tank barreling through an olive grove somewhere in the West Bank.

When it comes to Israel beyond the conflict, the challenge is finding ways to get Israel noticed in an era of dwindling news budgets and shrinking overseas coverage.

When it comes to the conflict, however, the challenge is to project an accurate image of Israel to the world. That brings us back to our earlier question.

Did Israel's hasbara work during the war?

It didn't take long after Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in Gaza for the outrage to flare up worldwide.

Masses of protestors from Madrid to Caracas took to the streets to protest Israel's campaign in Gaza. The Qatar-based TV network Al Jazeera broadcast gruesome images of the dead and wounded from Gaza, often in montages overlaid with dramatic music. The opinion pages of newspapers from London to Lahore printed harsh condemnations of the Israeli assault. In Spain, representatives of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and his ruling Socialist Party joined in anti-Israel demonstrations where participants called for holy war and praised Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group.

In Israel, hundreds of journalists seethed at being kept out of Gaza by the IDF, which had imposed a ban on reporters from entering the strip, saying it was necessary to keep them out of harm's way. Many journalists said they suspected the real reason was that the IDF wanted to impose its control over the information coming out of the battlefield.

At the same time, however, journalists for the most provided the context for the war, explaining what precipitated the Hamas-Israel confrontation in terms that gave Israel's perspective a fair shake.

For example, here is CNN's Anderson Cooper on Dec. 29, the third day of the war: "To give you a better idea of what Israel is dealing with, here's the raw data on Hamas. The group took over Gaza back in June of last year, after winning parliamentary elections the year before. Dating back to 1987, during the first Palestinian uprising, Hamas has never wavered in its commitment to Israel's destruction, and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and, obviously, Israel. The organization is believed to have between 15,000 and 20,000 troops, thousands of short-range rockets, and ample funding, some of it coming from Iran."

Media outlets, including Arabic-language ones, gave airtime to Israeli officials who explained the reasons for the war using remarkably similar terms to describe the conflict.

Perhaps most importantly, governments in Europe, North America and elsewhere around the world blamed Hamas for the fighting -- essentially adopting Israel's position even if they criticized Israel's execution of the war. Even in the Arab world, in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, government officials criticized Hamas for provoking the war.

"This time," veteran Israeli columnist Hirsch Goodman wrote in the Jerusalem Post, "Israel got the public diplomacy right."

"We think we did a very successful job," said Yarden Vatikay, director of the Prime Minister's Office National Information Directorate, which coordinated the hasbara efforts of Israel's myriad agencies. "We think we were successful in making most of the countries understand that the Hamas is a terror organization, that it is responsible for what happens in that area because it just broke the ceasefire and expanded into shooting on densely populated civilian areas."

The secret, Vatikay and others said, was better preparation, coordination and discipline in Israel than in the past.

"This time there was more of a centralized spokesmanship," said Leibovich, the IDF spokeswoman. She contrasted it with Israel's widely criticized performance during the 2006 Lebanon war, when every Tom, Dick and Harry in the IDF (or Yossi, Dudu and Kobi) gave ad hoc interviews as they saw fit on subjects of their choosing.

This time, a minimal number of people gave interviews to the press, and they talked beforehand to coordinate their messages.

"This enabled us to speak in one voice, unified, with no additional interpretations, using the same terminology," Leibovich said. "I think in this we were very successful. We were on the same page as the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office. We were very well synchronized."

That's not to say the war was good for Israel's image; in most of the world it certainly was not. The question is, did Israel do the best it could, given the circumstances?

"When you're talking about spokesmanship, there is no scientific way to measure the doctrine," Liebovich said. "Especially during crises, we should evaluate each day at a time. When you look back at a week, you always have your little victories and a few losses. Not everything is perfect and not everything is easy."

Palmor said the Foreign Ministry relies of public opinion surveys to gauge worldwide opinion about Israel. Almost always, he said, the polls confirm what is already obvious anecdotally.

"Operation Cast Lead in Gaza certainly caused a deterioration of Israel's image - in some places more, in others less, in certain audiences more, in others less. In some it's deep, in others it's inconsequential," Palmor said. "Despite that, in the realm of media, the media that supported Israel before the war continued to support Israel, and those that opposed Israel continued to oppose, and those who were neutral continued to be neutral."

In the battle for hearts and minds, the most critical audience for Israel is arguably not the press or the public, but foreign governments.

On Jan. 18, the last day of Operation Cast Lead, six European heads of state arrived in Jerusalem and expressed their support for Israel. Standing with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the leaders of France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic all blamed Hamas for the conflict and backed Israel's call for clamping down on weapons smuggling from Egypt into Gaza. Some also called on Israel to ease conditions for Palestinians in Gaza.

Ultimately, Vatikay said, the question isn't whether Israeli hasbara was successful, but what worked and what didn't.

"We understand what kind of success we had and what issues worked more and what worked less," he said. "It's not a win or lose game."