Israel has been taking its licks in the international arena since it launched Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in Gaza on July 8. But criticism of Israel was actually worse during Israel’s last battle with Hamas in 2012 and the Second Lebanon War during summer of 2006, according to Ilana Stein, spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
One reason is those cross-border tunnels Hamas built to reach Israel. Built of concrete at great expense, given Gaza’s general poverty, they reportedly contain not just weapons, but tranquilizers and handcuffs, presumably to subdue Israeli hostages.
“For years, our diplomats around the world have been saying that Hamas is a terrorist organization,” said Stein. “The international community didn’t understand why we wouldn’t let Hamas bring in cement to Gaza a few years ago. Now you all know why. So that’s a success for us.”
Score one for Israeli hasbara, or public diplomacy. Despite its military success against Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel has never been able to win the information war against its adversaries. Now, with Protective Edge in its fourth week, Israel appears to have learned from past hasbara mistakes and has improved the way it delivers its message to the media and the public, both in the United States and internationally.
A Pew Research Poll published July 28 bears this out. Asked if Israel’s response to Hamas is “proportional,” a plurality of 35 percent of Americans surveyed answered that Israel’s actions were “about right.” An additional 15 percent said that Israel is not going far enough, while 25 percent answered Israel has gone too far, and 24 percent don’t know.
Another reason Israel’s hasbara (the Hebrew word means “information”) has improved is that Israel and pro-Israel organizations have become more sophisticated with their messages and have learned to share information in real time, according to Omri Ceren of The Israel Project, which disseminates information about Israel to reporters and policy makers in Washington D.C.
“It has to be fast, it has to be accurate, you have to put it in the hands of people who can use it,” Ceren said.
Former Pittsburgher Sharin Berman, who is part of an Iron Dome anti-missile system detachment for the Israel Defense Forces, has even become part of the campaign. She is one of two soldiers photographed in front of an Iron Dome installation as part of the PR campaign backing Operation Protective Edge. Superimposed on the photo is a quote from the corporal and her comrade: “During the last operation, we were busy worrying about the situation, and now, we are busy protecting the State of Israel.”
In the past, Israel’s hasbara efforts have been reactive, attempting to explain its actions rather than promote its cause to supporters who are looking to disseminate the Israeli narrative and convince those who are undecided about Israel’s various conflicts with its neighbors.
Today, Israel’s official bodies — including the Israel Defense Forces’ Spokesperson’s Unit and the Foreign Ministry — have invested in professional design and communications teams to improve on the content from previous military engagements. No longer does the IDF respond to critics in the media with long-winded explanations about its missions. Rather, it has been able to make its messages more attractive with sleek graphics and simple, direct slogans.
Pro-Israel hasbara efforts have traditionally come from lobby groups such as AIPAC, the Jewish federation and synagogue movements and media watchdogs including the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, or CAMERA.
Those involved in hasbara say it is also important to provide media outlets with accurate information proactively, rather than criticize them.
Still, biased reporting against Israel abounds in traditional media outlets in the United States and internationally, according to some observers.
“It’s a very depressing, sobering time to sit and watch the media if you’re an Israel supporter,” said Ronn Torossian, founder and chief executive officer of New York PR giant 5W Public Relations. “I think that this has certainly been a case that no matter what Israel does, they’re the bad guy.
“Many in the world look at Israel as the big bad guys and the Palestinians as the innocents, and it’s very hard to counter the narrative of ‘Well, this many Palestinians were killed and this many Jews were killed,’ ” Torossian said. “In a way the world is saying, ‘Well, if the Iron Dome [missile defense system] didn’t work and 100 Jews were killed each day, that would be OK, then the war would be fair.’ ”
Although Torossian believes that winning the PR battle is important in modern warfare, he said that there may not be much more Israel can do and that priority should be placed on the mission rather than be concerned about public perception.
“I saw [Israeli] Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, who is a master of the media, saying that ‘we might lose the PR war and that’s OK, but to lose the military war is not OK.’ ”
Israel is “doing a good as we can in a terrible situation,” said Steven Greenberg, owner of SDG Communications in Israel.
“It is a losing battle because we can’t compete with dead children in Gaza from a picture point of view. It makes it look like a disproportionate conflict. The more dead kids [media outlets] show, the more damage they can do,” Greenberg said.
Still, he says, “If Israel was my client, I wouldn’t do much differently.”
Mr. and Mrs. Middle America
Greenberg stressed the importance of “putting the conflict in the context of people who need to understand it. For Mr. and Mrs. Middle America it’s about putting it in local terms” for them to understand if it was their neighborhood or state having rockets launched at it all day.
Chief among Israel’s hasbara weapons, according to Greenberg and Torossian, are Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, and his predecessor, Michael Oren. Both U.S.-born Israeli diplomats have gone on the offensive to criticize bias and are ubiquitous in the media, unlike Israeli spokespeople in previous conflicts, Torossian and others said.
“I think that Ron Dermer has done a phenomenal job,” Torossian said. “I think he’s been a great voice for Israel.”
Much of Israel’s new hasbara landscape has its roots in 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense — one of the first conflicts in which traditional newspapers and TV outlets began losing influence to Internet-based social media such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter.
In addition to official social media units, a hasbara movement began to take shape among Israel’s tech-savvy students, who organized social media campaigns on Israel’s behalf.
Stein of the Foreign Ministry said that the government prefers that university students initiate the campaigns because “anything a government writes is mistrusted by people. They say it’s the government so it must not be how the people really feel. But when you have university students writing, it’s more personal, more true.”
Since 2012, the reach and importance of social media have grown and so has Israel’s corps of volunteer publicists, with war-room-style facilities being opened and supported at many Israeli higher-education institutions.
North of Tel Aviv, the teenagers of Scouts for Peace created a PR war room to get Israel’s message out to the world, Greenberg said.
“They sit with their laptops 24/7 and work with the IDF spokesperson to disseminate information,” Greenberg said.
Ro Yeger, a student at Bar Ilan University, sees a big difference this time around from efforts she participated in during Operation Pillar of Defense.
“I think that we have seen an improvement in the quality of materials being produced,” said Yeger. “It may simply be because the story just gets crazier as time goes by, but the hasbara has focused more on personal stories, so people can relate, which then ups the support for Israel’s right to defend itself. I think people can now picture what it really means to live life under fire.”
According to Rothstein and Ceren, learning how to leverage Twitter and other social media has been essential to spreading Israel’s message to new areas and bypassing traditional media.
But, said Ceren, “you have to ask yourself, what you are trying to accomplish. The number of people who get their news from Twitter is actually not very big. But there’s nothing wrong with occasionally preaching to the choir. It’s the only way you’re going to get them to sing.”
Dmitriy Shapiro is the political reporter for Washington Jewish Week and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alexa Laz is a WJW general assignment reporter and can be reached at email@example.com. Rachel Benaim for JNS.org in Jerusalem contributed to this story.