Israel PR head 's English language barrier

By Ronen Plot, April 7, 2011

This week brought Israel's PR an unexpected windfall in the shape of Richard Goldstone's retraction of the main conclusion of his commission's report on the Gaza operation. But despite its aspirations to run a slick, high-tech new-media operation, it still seems the wrong people are in charge.

Ronen Plot, the Director General of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs - the agency tasked with co-ordinating Israel's hasbarah efforts worldwide - embarked on a trip encompassing both US coasts and the major European capitals. According to the ministry, he was due to meet "opinion-makers, Jewish community leaders, government officials and media organisations."

But there was an embarrassing detail in the press release, concerning Mr Plot's language skills: "He speaks only Hebrew and Russian".

After the release was published the ministry responded, saying that the director-general was travelling mainly to meet "Russian-speaking" communities and that his English was "of conversational level, not at the level of lecturing". No word, though, as to the qualification of a non-English speaker for a key job in explaining Israel's positions to the world media.

Mr Plot is a veteran politician on the local Israeli-Russian scene and an ally of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein. His political connections were the main qualification for the job.

His is not the only questionable PR appointment. Last Sunday, the government confirmed the appointment of Gidi Schmerling as the head of the National Hasbarah Directorate, in addition to his position as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's official spokesperson.

A former journalist on the Maariv daily, Mr Schmerling's previous experience was mainly as spokesperson at Jerusalem City Hall, but he has little international experience. One insider at the office said that "he was personally approved by Bibi's wife, Sarah, and that is what counts."

Three weeks ago, Mr Schmerling was one of the officials responsible for the fiasco at Ashdod Port when many foreign media camera crews were refused access to a viewing of the advanced Iranian weapons that were captured by the Israeli Navy, en route to Hamas in Gaza. No one at the PM's office has so far been held accountable for the PR screw-up, although the head of the government press office, Oren Helman, said that the "matter will be looked in to."

Meanwhile, Mr Netanyahu's office was very satisfied last week with his youtube interview with carefully screened web surfers and plan to make the sessions a regular event.

Last updated: 11:26am, April 7 2011