Fewer military officers; more women; tightly controlled messages; and ministers kept on a short leash. This was Israel’s new media game-plan in Operation Cast Lead.
The Gaza attack is the first major demonstration of Israel’s total overhaul of its ‘hasbara’ operation following the Second Lebanon War. While the military aspects of the operation were meticulously planned, a new forum of press advisers was also established which has been working for the past six months on a PR strategy specifically geared to dealing with the media during warfare in Gaza.
“Whenever Israel is bombing, it is hard to explain our position to the world,” said Avi Pazner, Israel’s former ambassador to Italy and France, and one of the officials drafted in to present Israel’s case to the world media. “But at least this time everything was ready and in place.”
One of the decisions taken following Israel’s failure to explain its case during the Lebanon War was the formation of a National Information Directorate within the Prime Minister’s Office, tasked with coordinating the efforts of the press bureaus in the various government departments.
The Directorate, which has been up and running for eight months, began planning six months ago for a Gaza operation. A forum with representatives of the press offices of the Foreign and Defence ministries, the IDF Spokesman Unit and other agencies held numerous meetings to decide on the message.
The forum held two system-wide exercises in the past two months, one aimed at foreign media and, last week, one dedicated to the Israeli press.
“One of our lessons from the Lebanon War was that there were too many uniforms in the coverage,” says Yarden Vatikay, director of the National Information Directorate, “and that doesn’t come over very positively.”
The international media were directed to a press centre set up by the Foreign Ministry in Sderot itself so that foreign reporters would spend as much time as possible in the main civilian area affected by Hamas rockets. When the IDF was represented on the international TV networks, it was by Major Avital Leibovich to project a feminine and softer image.
Ministers have been ordered by the Cabinet Secretary not to give interviews without authorisation so as not to repeat the PR disaster of a year ago, when Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai threatened the Palestinians with a “holocaust”.
So far, the two cabinet members without direct responsibility who have been most regularly interviewed have been Social Affairs Minister Yitzhak Herzog and Interior Security Minister Avi Dichter.
For the first time, sufficient numbers of spokespeople in a range of languages were appointed and briefed in advance. Mr Pazner gave close to 100 interviews in the first three days of the operation, in English, French, Spanish and Italian.
In his view, the toughest and most hostile questioning was “definitely by the Spanish interviewers, and also the French, especially the Canadian French”.
Israeli diplomats and spokespeople working with the British media have said that so far “most of the hostility has been in the print media, especially in The Guardian and The Independent. The electronic media, including also the BBC, have made more of an effort to seem even-handed.
“The coverage is definitely less hostile to Israel than what we saw during the Second Lebanon War two-and-a-half years ago.”
Both the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry ran monitoring services to view foreign media coverage and pass the results back to press officers to enable them to address the claims being put forward by reporters and Palestinian interviewees.
The months of preparation and the increased intensity of the media efforts have also shown results in Britain.
Senior diplomats in the London Embassy, headed by Ambassador Ron Prosor gave an unprecedented 25 interviews to national television and radio channels, in the first three days of the operation.