The world of Israel Public Relations can often appear to be comical – as was this case with this week’s release of the Israeli state comptroller’s report that says that Israel’s Foreign Ministry struggled to “act properly” in the wake of the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident.
The report says this was due to a “the wide gap between what is required of it and the ministry’s limited abilities,” and places the blame squarely on Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The report says that the failure is due to Israel not using Arabic-language public relations; it also says that “an inadequate division of labor with the Israel Defense Forces was problematic.” But to actually claim that Israel’s major PR problem is because the Jewish State doesn’t communicate properly in Arabic sounds like a Saturday night life skit.
The entire release of this report is questionable – why not keep it classified and provide information and solace to Israel’s enemies? Let’s review the facts – commandos from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) raided and seized the MV Mavi Marmara (the flotilla) after communicating warnings that a naval blockade of the Gaza area was in force. The commandos were seemingly unprepared for the dozens of militant terrorists who swarmed around them wielding knives and iron bars. A bloody battle took place, and nine flotilla passengers were killed in the mêlée, and at least seven IDF soldiers were wounded. It was a major diplomatic debacle for the Israeli government. The public responded, enraged; it damaged Israel’s image because initially it appeared that Israeli soldiers were storming the ship violently (when, precisely because of the predictable reaction of the world the soldiers were carrying paint guns, not actual weapons), and not that they were attacked first.
Even if you believe as I do that Israel’s actions in boarding the flotilla of ships were entirely justified, the way Israel handled the crisis was a huge tactical and strategic fiasco. The boat received warnings not to enter Israeli’s sovereign space, and the boat proceeded anyway. What’s surprising about soldiers wanting to stop foreigners from coming illegally on shore?
Even if people are “peaceful”—and the boat passengers weren’t—does that mean a peaceful group can take their own flotilla to Guantanamo Bay or Canada? And would media reports say Canadian police were wrong to shoot at a boatload of people who refused to stop when asked, and then attacked the police when they boarded the ship? Think I am wrong? Again, take a boat with a group of people on it over to Guantanamo Bay, or even Rikers Island in New York City. When law enforcement or the military orders you to stop, just keep advancing forward. Let me know how it goes.
There is no other country in the world that has the legitimacy of its very existence questioned. The resulting coverage and Israel’s handwringing and late-to-the-game response did long-term damage to the Jewish state’s already badly bruised international reputation. The Gaza flotilla was comprised of eight ships and about 800 participants/passengers. The event wasn’t organized by peaceful humanitarians with pure motivations of relieving the suffering of Gaza residents.
Besides, the people of Gaza do in fact have access to food, medicine, and relief supplies – they are provided by both Egypt and Israel. The flotilla was organized by the Turkish group Insani Yardim Vakfi (Humanitarian Relief Foundation), which has well-documented links to global jihadist terrorist movements including al Qaeda that should have been released before the commandos boarded the flotilla. Why release a video days after the event, and with Hebrew subtitles? Why not show sooner that there were ample weapons onboard, and why not show very clearly Israeli soldiers being attacked first? The very bad situation for Israel was made worse by the fact that they could not control the narrative in the press and in the public square. Did Israel’s PR folks not know the ships were coming? There is no reason for PR in Israel (or anywhere) to be so mishandled and neglected.
Israel is a young country and it often learns things painfully. The flotilla events provided the government with a crash-course on the power of social media. Images of the on-board conflict spread around the world like lightning via YouTube. Even now, two full years after Israel got hammered in the foreign media, there is no wake-up call in sight, no explanation.
Israel believed its justified cause would uphold its image in the public eye. While that may be true in some cases, a justified cause is not enough to be right these days – in politics or in business. Anyway, being right does not help you frame the debate nor does it keep you from being constantly on the defense. It’s not enough to simple convey a message – you need people to listen.
Israel Public Relations remains an internal battlefield rather than a serious matter – Foreign Minister Lieberman responded by saying “The entire affair should be entrusted to the PR department of the Foreign Ministry.” Frankly, another foolish statement – and all of this from a government who doesn’t communicate with PR firms or communications professionals.
Interestingly, Ze’ev Jabotinsky considered the ideological father of the Likud had the following quote which showed the importance he assigned to propaganda: “A newspaper is a grand thing,” Jabotinsky wrote in 1932:
“There is no labor of higher worth than that of the journalist, whether he writes instructional articles or reports on a robbery that took place yesterday in the slums. Like the function of the blood circulating through the body, or like the function of commerce in the international market, so is the function of journalism in the realm of the spirit…Who were the first to teach us to always interfere in matters that are not ours, to judge people and nations, even though we were never chosen for the position of judge? The work of the publicist is a legacy from the Prophets of Israel…Our passion is to speak, to proclaim—“Shouting” is what the same audience calls it, ‘we have no need for words, give us actions.’ One thing that audience forgets is that speech is also an action – Perhaps the most authentic of all other actions. Cities have been destroyed, and more will fall, but what was shouted in the wilderness thousands of years ago is alive and still relevant. The world was created by the Word. The world will be mended by the Article.