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How the Mavi Marmara sank Israel’s public diplomacy

How the Mavi Marmara sank Jerusalem's public diplomacy efforts

That State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’s report into the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident has pointed to a severe shortfall in Israel’s public diplomacy comes as no surprise.

For those of us involved in Israeli public diplomacy in the non-governmental sector, the weaknesses were only too apparent at the time. For hours after the news broke, we were glued to internet sites, Israeli TV and international news stations. Conflicting casualty reports were thrown around, and the only thing that was clear in the confusion was that Israel was facing a potential catastrophe from a PR perspective, not to mention the other ramifications.

In those hours, as Europeans awoke to the flotilla as the top story on their breakfast news, Israeli reaction was notable in its absence. Instead, the vacuum was filled with breathless commentary from anti-Israel activists aboard the flotilla, backed up by fuzzy images from video feeds on the boats.

I, and presumably many others, Israel’s supporters included, started to contemplate the worst possible scenarios, our ability to respond hobbled by a lack of verified information or rebuttal to the horrific charges appearing in the media.

Having lost the continent where Israeli impropriety is almost a given, the fight back only began hours later, with the release of the images that revealed the truth: Israeli commandos had been viciously assaulted by the Mavi Marmara’s passengers.

While these images appeared in time to catch the US media market, the initial damage had already been done. Incomprehensibly, the images had been in the possession of the IDF for some considerable time, and one source in the IDF confirmed to me that his own appeals to the higher echelons to use the video had disappeared in a bureaucratic knot as the General Staff failed to appreciate that effective PR was just as important as achieving military objectives in such a situation.

Too little, too late? Footage taken from the Mavi Marmara security cameras and annotated by the IDF Spokesperson's Office was held for hours after news of the incident broke in Europe. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Too little, too late? Footage taken from the Mavi Marmara security cameras and annotated by the IDF Spokesperson's Office was held for hours after news of the incident broke in Europe. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

After all, despite the injuries to IDF soldiers and the deaths of those Turkish activists-cum-terrorists, the IDF had actually achieved what it set out to do, taking control of the flotilla’s vessels and escorting them to Ashdod port. But although the military objective had been met, the accompanying public diplomacy deficit doomed the operation to failure.

The Lindenstrauss report notes the delay in getting the photographic material out, placing the blame on the IDF. Those who are familiar with the workings of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit (of which I am a reservist) will recognize that the Unit’s primary responsibility is not to furnish the foreign media with positive photos of Israeli soldiers petting cute kittens (or each other). Its purpose is to ensure that the IDF maintains the full and absolute trust of the Israeli public, without which Israel’s citizen army would be irreparably damaged.

So, in the General Staff’s thinking, which is perhaps mirrored in other parts of the IDF concerned with its domestic standing, the images of “the best of our best” being beaten by a bunch of “peace activists” isn’t good for morale.

The images were, however, crucial in arresting the public diplomacy freefall that Israel suddenly had to face in the international media.  Spreading those images as widely as possible, through social networks as well as mainstream media, helped to contain some of the initial PR damage. But it also demonstrated to pro-Israel advocacy organizations how we are sometimes at the mercy of Israeli officialdom.

HonestReporting was one of the first to issue a detailed response to the Mavi Marmara, having been primed to go from the early hours of that May morning. But how could we produce any content at all until the IDF, the Foreign Ministry and other state bodies started to supply us with the ammunition to fight back?

Israel already had a powerful weapon in its armory, yet chose not to load the ordnance in advance.

Lessons have been learned and implemented. The Mavi Marmara affair will go down alongside other past public diplomacy failures such as Al-Dura, the Jenin “massacre” and other incidents where the big lie was allowed to spread unchecked. The Mavi Marmara won’t be the last, but we can hope that from a public diplomacy perspective, the Lindenstrauss report will be a cathartic moment.

About the Author
Simon Plosker is the Managing Editor of HonestReporting. With overall responsibility for HonestReporting’s content and output, Simon joined the organization in November 2005 following several years working in a variety of non-profit organizations and immigrating to Israel from London in 2001. He has a BSoc.Sc in International Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham and a MSc in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics.