Special spin body gets media on message, says Israel
By Rachel Shabi in Tel Aviv
The Guardian, 2 January 2009
Israel believes its has won broad international support in the media for its actions in Gaza thanks to its PR strategy, which through a new body has for months been concerned with formulating plans and role-playing to ensure that government officials deliver a clear, unified message to the world's press.
The body, known as the National Information Directorate, was set up eight months ago following recommendations from an Israeli inquiry into the 2006 Lebanon war. Its role is to deal with hasbara - meaning, in Hebrew, "explanation", and referring variously to information, spin, and propaganda.
The directorate's chief, Yarden Vatikai, said: "The hasbara apparatus needed a body that would co-ordinate its agencies, coordinate the messages and become a platform for co-operation between all the agencies that deal with communication relations and public diplomacy."
The directorate acts across ministries and decides key messages on a daily basis. Of its core messages for the media, there has been the advice that Hamas broke the ceasefire agreements with Israel; that Israel's objective is the defence of its population; and that Hamas is a terror organisation targeting Israeli civilians. "In general, we think we are succeeding in getting the message across," said Vatikai.
Israeli officials have also enjoyed a clear edge with coverage. An Israeli foreign ministry assessment of eight hours of coverage across international broadcast media reported that Israeli representatives got 58 minutes of airtime while the Palestinians got only 19 minutes. Speaking for the Israeli military, Major Avital Leibovich said: "Quite a few outlets are very favourable to Israel, namely by showing [it] suffering ... I am sure it is a result of the new co-ordination."
Speaking to the Jerusalem Post, the former Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Gillerman said: "I don't know how long it will last but at this moment Israel has no small measure of understanding and support, and even approval, from many countries."
One of the challenges of Israel's media offensive has been to counter the disturbing images of Gaza in the conflict. "In the war of the pictures we lose, so you need to correct, explain or balance it in other ways," said Aviv Shir-On, foreign ministry deputy director-general for public affairs. "Support doesn't mean the world is standing behind us, but it does mean people understand what we are doing and why."
The hasbara directive also liaises over core messages with bodies such as friendship leagues, Jewish communities, bloggers and backers using online networks. Last week the directorate started a YouTube channel showing Israeli bombings in the Gaza strip. "New media is a new war zone within the media - we are planning to be relevant there," said Leibovich.