Israel’s talent for losing friends and alienating journalists

By Michael Freedland, December 21, 2012
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A wise man once told me: rules are meant to be broken. Strange, from a solicitor. But he was a worthy member of our community and I knew what he meant - sometimes, it's better not to stick by the rule-book in the face of reality.

During the recent Gaza fighting, Israel broke its own rules and came out with the most forthright public-relations campaign since the Six-Day War. The country seemed to shelve its normal disregard for putting its case forward. Marvellous. And then… back to square one (or square aleph?). Bibi announced his new settlement plan and all hell was let loose - as were Israel's ambassadors, summoned to their not-always-friendly neighbourhood foreign ministers.

Did Israel really - and I mean, really - have any good answers? No. Not one. But Israel somehow enjoys giving the impression that it doesn't care what other people think. The Gaza war was one thing. This was another altogether.

Once more, the country I love has shot itself in the foot. If ever there was a lesson in how not to conduct so-called public relations, this is it.

Once more, the country I love has shot itself in the foot

Israel not only does itself harm, it hinders the work of the people who try to sell the country - and those, like the Jewish community in Britain, who want to buy it. We know that the brilliant Daniel Taub has great affection for us. But it is perhaps time that the Jews in the land of his father recognised just how hard his job is. Boycotts are one thing. Student problems another. But, more crucially, there is the problem of his own country - although being a very loyal diplomat doing a close-to-perfect job, Taub wouldn't dream of saying or perhaps even thinking that.

Certainly, it is not easy to convince TV reporters and some of the less enlightened newspapers to wean themselves away from what is perhaps an incipient hostility to the Jewish state. But there are some things that cannot be avoided.

When did we last hear in the mainstream media about life-saving hospital equipment invented and made in Israel? Has Israel ever tried to talk about the way Palestinians are treated in Israel's own hospitals; about Arab recipients of Jewish kidneys? Or about the fact that those same Israeli hospitals are staffed by Palestinians - not by Palestinian cleaners, but by Palestinian doctors.

One of the principal consultants in that most Jewish of hospitals, Shaare Zedek in Jerusalem, is an Arab.

Why, when there has been collateral damage to Arab property, let alone innocent Arab life, does not an Israeli general sound as if he really means the regret he expresses?

None of this is new. At one time, the Israel Government Tourist Office was managed by a man who deserved hundreds of medals for attracting tourists - to Spain, France, Italy or anywhere but Israel. He was so rude in his dealings with the press that no decent travel writer would dream of suggesting people tried Jerusalem or Eilat.

In the early days, Arab diplomats wouldn't agree to be in the same studio as an Israeli - not that they needed to worry. Israeli spokesmen not only couldn't provide a decent argument. Most hardly spoke English (in desperation, the JC's own travel editor was at times brought in instead).

Then there was the attitude of government officials, literally from the top down. When I was running the BBC (later LBC) programme, You Don't Have To Be Jewish, I met every Israeli Prime Minister from Golda Meir onward. Yes, dear Golda. She came to London after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, principally to speak to a Royal Albert Hall rally for "Jewish solidarity". She did give a brief press conference, but was unhappy to be interviewed. I told her she would get perhaps 5,000 at the Albert Hall. I could give her 100,000. She spent ten minutes explaining why she didn't have five minutes for an interview: "Darling, I don't have the time…"

Then there was the time I told the press attaché I was going to Israel and wanted some interviews. "Who?" he asked. I rattled off a few names: the prime minister, the foreign minister, the education minister and so on. "Of course, ring next week." I did. "Give it another few days," he said. I gave it another few days. Still nothing. Eventually, he asked: "When are you going?" For the third time I told him - "tomorrow".

"OK," he said. "When you get to Israel, ring the government press office." I did just that and got the answer I was really not at all surprised to hear: "It's very late. Why didn't you tell us you were coming?" And I was on their side.

Would this still happen today? I'd like to think not with Daniel Taub as ambassador.

    Last updated: 3:11pm, December 21 2012