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In crisis after crisis, Israel is losing the public relations war. Is it winnable?

In crisis after crisis, Israel is losing the public relations war. Is it winnable?
Protesters carry away the wounded shot by Israeli forces as medical units are overwhelmed by casualties on the border fence separating Israel and the Gaza Strip. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

King Bibi,” a documentary tracking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 40 years of public life through the lens of his appearances in the news media, sold out both times it played at the Jerusalem Film Festival, which closed Sunday.

It was an easy sell: Israelis are obsessed by the media and by their long-serving prime minister, who is considered both a wizard of communication and a leader defined by his hatred of the press.

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Production notes for the film mention that 20 years before Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, “Netanyahu already understood the political benefits of a toxic relationship with the media, and direct communication with the public.”

But those domestic benefits have their limits. Once widely seen as a scrappy society struggling to survive in a hostile region, Israel is now often described in Europe and the United States, especially from the left, as an unjust society and a brutal occupying force.

Within Israel, critics on the left believe that its problems stem from bad policies that no amount of good public relations can conceal. Critics on the right assert that foreign coverage — there are nearly 500 foreign correspondents in the country — is inherently biased against Israel.

“Even if Israel had 1,000 beautiful, Oxford-educated spokespeople who were prompt and professional at all times, it wouldn't make much difference,” said author Matti Friedman, who formerly worked for the Associated Press in Jerusalem.

In late July, Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, wrote that the country’s mishandling of the media is “the most glaring failure” of its policy toward the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the militant group Hamas. Oren, a member of the Israeli parliament since 2015, charged that Israel has no professional communications team.

“There is … no single authority that coordinates and supervises these various activities,” he said.

The remarkable thing about that complaint is that, for the past two years, Oren has served as Netanyahu’s deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy.

Moreover, there is a National Information Directorate, a unit within the prime minister’s office responsible for coordinating “the public diplomacy activities of various governmental bodies in foreign and security affairs.”

Yet the general feeling is that when it comes to media, no one is in charge. Yarden Vatikay, who is in charge of the directorate, does not interact with the public or the news media. (In keeping with his low profile, he declined to comment for this article.)

“The bench of official Israeli spokespersons is pretty much empty,” said Shalom Lipner, a veteran of 26 years in the prime minister’s office, who is now a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It is a virtual wasteland.”

Netanyahu’s press secretary, Shir Cohen, 26, does not have a public role. David Keyes, 34, the prime minister’s Los Angeles-born foreign media advisor, was known as a wunderkind of online activism before his 2016 appointment.

Keyes is both praised and blamed for planning Netanyahu’s strategy of interacting with the public almost exclusively through video clips posted on official social media platforms.

“The Israeli government has prioritized a digital approach to communications,” said Yigal Palmor, director of public affairs and communications for the Jewish Agency and formerly the spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry. Such a social-media-based national communications strategy, he said, was so flawed as to be “unforgivable.”

Keyes defended the strategy. “Prime Minister Netanyahu is using powerful technologies to bring the truth about Israel to enormous new audiences around the world,” he said. “His series of short online videos has been seen by many tens of millions of people” and the results “are incredible and inspiring.”

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The strategy can appear, at the least, counterintuitive. In late July, one day after three Palestinians were killed in Gaza border clashes and as protests against Israel’s controversial nation-state law escalated, Netanyahu posted a video about an imaginary, oppressed Iranian schoolgirl called Fatameh.

“This is a tough story,” the prime minister intoned from his office, “but you need to hear it.”

The Fatameh video has been viewed on Facebook and on Twitter about 200,000 times, but it is difficult to gauge its effect in transmitting Israel’s narrative to the world.

At a time when Western governments are increasingly leery of Facebook’s algorithms, the state of Israel, according to all its official spokesmen, assesses the relative success and reach of its media strategy by relying on standard Facebook analytics.

Udi Segal, a veteran political correspondent and television host, was blunt: “There are no professionals responsible for Netanyahu’s communications.”

In the absence of an Israeli Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Israeli army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis has been the face that Israel projects to the world — or doesn’t.

On May 14, 60 Palestinians were killed in clashes on the Gaza border. At roughly the same time, in Jerusalem, the United States Embassy was being jubilantly inaugurated. The army made no comment about the fatalities, but the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted celebratory tweets on the embassy opening, a long-sought diplomatic achievement for Netanyahu,

From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, senior White House advisor Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin attend the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14.
From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, senior White House advisor Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin attend the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem on May 14. (Menahem Kahana / AFP/Getty Images)

On May 15, after media outlets the world over had reported on the violence on the border, the army released a laconic statement announcing, with no additional information, that following “inquiries, it appears that at least 24 terrorists with documented terror background were killed during the violent riots.”

No journalists were permitted to embed on the Israeli side, where they might have witnessed some of the violence Israel alleged.

Manelis was held responsible for what some called a public relations failure. Ron Ben-Yishai, a veteran columnist at the tabloid Yediot Ahronot, called the army’s 24-hour delay in issuing any statement on Gaza “inexplicable.”

“The issue goes deeper,” Palmor said. “They are ‘speaking in Israeli,’ assuming the public around the world can grasp concepts familiar to Israelis. For example, why say ‘Gaza fence’? Why not call it an international border, which it is? What does an American think of when hearing the word ‘fence’?”

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The army, some observers here say, should not be tasked with representing Israel’s complex reality to the world.

Israeli leaders are “sending the army to address a fundamentally civilian problem,” Barak Ravid, Israeli Channel 10 News’ senior diplomatic correspondent, said after a news conference in which Manelis faced a barrage of questions.

In an interview with The Times, Manelis, a respected military intelligence officer who is close to the chief of staff and has no previous experience with media, said his job “is to explain how the army is fulfilling the orders it receives from the government, not the government's national policy.” But he believes that Israel is achieving its public diplomacy goals.

Like Keyes, Manelis deems Israel’s results in digital media “excellent.”

“In terms of public awareness and Israel's messaging we have had significant successes,” he said, attributing “the way the events of the past months are perceived by the public in Israel, Gaza, the Arab world and part of the Western world” to “a wide range of outreach via traditional media and the IDF's [Israel Defense Forces’] digital platforms.”

“We are getting our message directly to the public,” he said. “They get it straight from us.”

Tarnopolsky is a special correspondent.

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