It is frequently said by those of us who live outside Israel that Israeli public relations are a disaster, and that official efforts to defend Israel always leave us feeling more vulnerable than we were before. The truth is that Israel’s spokespeople seem to lack the most basic understanding of how to conduct themselves, and this not only applies to what they say but how they say it—to their tone of voice, their assertion, their effrontery when challenged.
I’ve argued this in the past, but the message never gets through. So this time, rather than belabour the point, I want to present an example—one so egregious that it combines in one horrific PR train crash a whole portrait gallery of what IDF and government representatives get wrong, with the result that they end up reinforcing the very prejudices against Israel that they’re meant to be arguing against.
Unfortunately, I have no entree into Israeli governmental or military circles, so I cannot escalate the issue. If you are better placed than I am, then when you have read this, please share it with them, because it’s ludicrous for Israel’s publicity machine to be its own worst enemy when there are so many other talented enemies to choose from.
My example occurred two weeks ago, on 20 November, at 8:18 am. BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme had just interviewed the World Health Organization’s Dr Richard Brennan, based in Cairo, about the critical health needs of the few remaining patients at the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, now that the hospital—and most of Northern Gaza’s health care system—had been put out of action by the IDF.
So that Israel could justify the intensity of its bombardment and the consequent number of deaths and injuries, Today invited onto the programme Israeli Government Spokesman Eylon Levy, 32—a former International Media Advisor to President Isaac Herzog and one-time student at both Oxford and Cambridge.
What followed was an object lesson in how a PR representative should not go about their business. To make things simple, I’ll identify the errors as we go along.
Mishal Husain, meet Eylon Levy
Levy’s inquisitor was the cool-headed Mishal Husain, a highly intelligent radio host, with a similar educational background to Levy’s but nearly 20 years older and with a Pakistani background.
Husain began by raising a series of questions that probed Israeli claims. One concerned Hamas’s use of the Al-Shifah hospital as a major command-and-control centre; the other queried whether the two hostages seen on video footage being bundled into the hospital might have been there to receive medical attention.
Both were legitimate enough questions and could have been answered legitimately by focusing on the facts. Instead, right from the start, Levy offered sweeping and emotional statements, reminding listeners of the brutality of October 7, as if we weren’t aware, and of the existential threat that Hamas represented to all Israelis.
Appealing to emotion rather than reason is common practice in the public arena, but there are limits. Hamas’s reputation deserves to be attacked but it sounds weak to use a generalisation to defeat a specific challenge; it suggests you can’t handle detail. Lesson 1: Answer the question; don’t fall back on camouflage.
Husain then asked what the rest of the footage from the hospital went on to show—in particular, whether it showed the two hostages being treated—and had to put the question twice. Again, instead of answering, Levy said that if Hamas could shoot and abduct people, it wouldn’t be giving them treatment. That may be true but it’s not a definitive answer. Lesson 2: Don’t use circumstantial evidence. If a style of argument isn’t admissible in court, it doesn’t become persuasive when used for PR.
Lesson 3: Don’t exaggerate. Lesson 4: Don’t get het up
Levy went on to float the extraordinary idea that every doctor in the hospital had seen the two hostages being brought in, even though the video clearly showed that this was not the case. Since the video has been widely published, it was evident to all that Levy was claiming too much. Lesson 3: Don’t exaggerate. And Lesson 4: Don’t get het up when you talk, as Israeli spokespeople often do. It’s a sign of weakness.
Levy added that when it was safe to do so, BBC journalists would be allowed to see the Al-Shifa tunnels, to verify Israel’s claims about them. That allowed Husain to observe that a BBC reporter had been allowed into the hospital the previous week but had not been given full access and had not been allowed to quiz patients and doctors while there. Levy did not reply. Lesson 5: Don’t over-promise and don’t make promises about the future; concentrate on what’s deliverable now.
The conversation then moved on to the issue of morality and international law, the assault on Al-Shifa’s humanitarian status, and whether Israel’s attack was proportional to the military advantage gained, given that two thirds of the 14,000 casualties were women and children.
Levy replied that it was Hamas that had jeopardised the hospital’s humanitarian status by putting people at risk, and that Hamas’s data on casualties was necessarily unreliable. Husain responded that Hamas’s data, derived from the Gaza Health Ministry (GHM), has proved reliable enough for Israel to quote it in past conflicts, and asked Levy what better data he had. He offered none. Lesson 6: Don’t attack your enemy’s figures if you don’t have more reliable figures to quote back.
It was then put to Levy that the GHM’s casualty figures were also consistent with six weeks of bombardment. By way of reply, Levy asked Husain how many militants she thought were included in these figures. She rightly turned the question back to him by asking again about his figures. Lesson 7: Don’t interrogate your interrogator. It’s your role to answer questions, not ask them.
When Husain pressed Levy again on Israel’s figures for the number of militants killed, Levy talked across her (not for the first time), and repeated what he had previously insisted, saying “we know that we have killed thousands of terrorists,” but again without giving a number. Lesson 8: Don’t assert; it’s bullyish. Make calm facts carry the argument. Lesson 9: Don’t talk across your interviewer: it’s rude and people don’t like it. And Lesson 10: Don’t try to establish your case by repeating an earlier answer. It makes you look as if you’re out of ammunition.
When Husain repeated her question, Levy responded in the same way again. Lesson 11: Don’t waste a follow-up question and don’t sound insulted that you’ve been asked it; you’re being given a second chance. Don’t waste it. And Lesson 12: Don’t behave as if your interviewer isn’t paying attention; that’s rude. In fact Husain was paying very close attention, which is why she was able to expose Levy’s shortcomings.
Lesson 17: Don’t complain about the line of questioning
Husain pressed on, inviting Levy to agree that Israel has access to Hamas’s records on killings and injuries, and relies on these records when putting out statements of its own. Rather than responding to this point, Levy again tried to talk over her. Lesson 13: Don’t ignore what you’re being asked. And Lesson 14: Don’t try to staunch a question by interrupting it.
Questioned about the figures, Levy did at last change tack, saying that since the GHM is run by Hamas and denied the atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists, it could not be believed on anything it said. Then, to fend off Husain’s challenge, he returned to the earlier issue of proportionality, to introduce a point he should have made previously: that the IDF’s attack on Gaza was proportional to Hamas’s genocidal intentions.
He went on to repeat another earlier comment, about October 7 being the worst massacre since the Holocaust. Not good. Lesson 15: Don’t sound as if you’re clutching at straws. Make sure you’ve got more than one answer for every question.
Husain then tried to move on to the events on the West Bank, where she said 200 Palestinians including 52 children had been killed by Israeli forces and another eight by Israeli settlers. Before she had had time to frame a question, however, Levy—who again had been trying to talk her down—tried to block her by insisting that she had asked him to talk about proportionality, implying that she hadn’t allowed him to do so. But she had, and he had answered.
Lesson 16: If a new line of questioning comes up, don’t insist on going back an earlier line of questioning that you felt more comfortable with. Lesson 17: Don’t complain about your interviewer’s agenda. Know your place. And Lesson 18: Don’t suggest that your interviewer is behaving improperly, especially when the weak link is you.
Husain now put her question more directly: “Why are so many people dying in the West Bank?” For the third time, Levy protested that she had asked about proportionality, and that he was trying to answer that question, as if he wasn’t being allowed to, which was entirely untrue; he had already given a perfectly coherent reply.
Husain now started saying, with Levy protesting in the background, “We’ve spent much of this interview on the subject of Gaza. What’s your answer as to why so many Palestinians are … ” at which point he cheekily interrupted her, to ask whether she was satisfied by his previous answer about proportionality. Lesson 19: Don’t be bumptious.
Sidestepping this impertinence, she asked the question again. Astonishingly, Levy now demanded to be told whether she was satisified that Israel’s actions in Gaza were proportionate—adding, “or do I need to …? Lesson 20: Don’t try to score points against your interviewer; try to get them on your side. (It’s harder but more worthwhile.)
At this point, Levy finally bottled out
She put the question again. “Why are so many Palestinians dying in the West Bank?” Again he tried to block her, saying, “Well, I want to know whether the answer I gave you is satisfactory or whether you want further clarification,” which met with a quietly delivered reminder, as if to a child who does not understand basic protocols, “It’s not for me to say whether an answer is satisfactory or not. I’ve just asked you a question about the West Bank.” Lesson 21: Don’t ask your interviewer for validation; it’s juvenile.
One would have thought that any PR spokesman would by now have got it into their dense head that it was time to move on. Not in the case of Eylon Levy. Bristling and aggrieved, he flung back, “Well, I hope that the answer I presented about Israel’s proportionate response is satisfactory.” Lesson 22: Don’t be passive aggressive; it’s hateful.
It was also a gift to the interviewer, giving her all she needed to draw the obvious conclusion: “Are you not willing to answer questions about the West Bank?” Stiffening, Levy claimed that the situation in the West Bank was that Hamas was trying to escalate the conflict beyond the borders of the Gaza Strip, towards Lebanon, towards the West Bank, towards Yemen, and that Israel was doing its best to contain these efforts—a terrible answer, because the nasty work now going on in the West Bank has nothing, directly, to do with Hamas. Lesson 23: Don’t dissemble.
Baffled by this answer, Husain asked whether he meant that the 200 deaths were an effort by Israel to pre-empt a potential Hamas takeover of the West Bank. At this point, Levy finally allowed himself to bottle out altogether. “These figures are deeply upsetting. I’m not familiar with the particular circumstances.” Lesson 24: Don’t pretend not to know what you know; but if you’re going to, then do it early on: don’t waste our time by grandstanding.
Levy’s claim not to be familiar with the new outrages in the West Bank was the final gift, giving Husain the obvious slam dunk—“Perhaps you should be, as the Israeli government’s spokesperson”—leaving him struggling, squirming, and desperate to find safer ground.
“Well, we are in a war at the moment, in response to the October 7 massacre, the worst terror attack in world history after 9/11 and we’re determined at the moment on focussing on destroying Hamas so it can never again perpetrate atrocities like that against our people—not from Gaza, and not from anywhere else.”
That single sentence, delivered early on, had been Levy’s strongest case but it only needed saying once. Repeating it, and then using it as armour against a separate line of inquiry, made him look as if he had something to hide. Lesson 25: Anticipate what you’re going to be asked before submitting to an interview, make sure all your answers are effective, and don’t make the answer to one question become the answer to all questions.
And that was it: “Eylon Levy, thank you.” For anyone of any sense, the interview was a massive own goal, failing in every respect to do what a PR interview needs to do—winning over the unconvinced—and succeeding only in making Levy, and Israel, look devious.
No one who had previously thought ill of Israel could possibly have been turned around by what was said. Neutrals willing to be persuaded of Israel’s good intent could only have shaken their heads in disbelief.
What is upsetting is that the distastefulness of this interview, obvious to all others, seems not to have troubled Israeli officialdom; Levy, astonishingly, is still in post.
It seems also not to have troubled those who did not need converting. On a Facebook page that I sometimes drop in on, I find young mums in the Jewish community in London posting “He’s brilliant, isn’t he? I wonder if I can claim him as a relative” and “Kinda fancy him, not gonna lie” and “Can’t even begin to tell you how obsessed I am” and “Apparently he is single too, lol.”
And there, in a nutshell, is Israel’s entire problem: its most ardent supporters’ incapacity to see what others see—and to take the necessary action.
I’m not going to leave it there: we were up to 25 take-aways. Let’s round it up to 30. Levy repeatedly called Husain by her first name. Horrible horrible horrible. So, Lesson 26: Don’t call your interviewer by their name: it’s unnecessary. A good interview does not depend on a facade of intimacy. Lesson 27: When you keep using someone’s name, you make yourself look smarmy, ingratiating and self-important. Why would you want to do that?
Lesson 28: Naming your interviewer, especially in a tough exchange, is a hostile reflex, intended to disarm. It’s not charming: it’s somewhere between presumptuous and patronising. Lesson 29: The use of the interviewer’s name suggests a misunderstanding of your relationship—or a wish to misrepresent it. You’re not friends and you don’t become friends by naming them. You are fellow professionals and the nature of your engagement should be one of courteous detachment.
And Lesson 30: Have a bit of self-respect. No one wants to be hit on by a cocky former London public-schoolboy who’s 20 years their junior. For heaven’s sake.
Right. I’ve said my bit. Now please, someone, get the diplomatic corps in Jerusalem to read this and take note. For my part, next time I’m asked to give a talk about public relations, I’ll be using this interview as an object lesson in what not to do.
But it breaks my heart that such an interview exists. I’ve heard Hamas and Palestinian Authority spokespeople lose their temper in an interview but they never sink to this level. Why do we?
(The BBC interview referred to here can still be listened to for the next two weeks.)