Foreign Ministry says it handled Gaza well. Michael Oren begs to differ
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Oren: We've still not internalized where the battlefield is

Foreign Ministry says it handled Gaza well. Michael Oren begs to differ

Spokesman says ministry took a calculated decision not to fan the flames of an event that wasn’t greatly resonating. Deputy minister for diplomacy leads a despairing counter-chorus

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image of Palestinian protesters evacuating a wounded youth during clashes with Israeli troops along the Gaza Strip border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Illustrative image of Palestinian protesters evacuating a wounded youth during clashes with Israeli troops along the Gaza Strip border with Israel, east of Khan Younis, March 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

As news about Friday’s violent clashes at the Gaza border fades somewhat from international headlines — before a likely revived focus with the next major Gaza protest slated for Friday — Israeli officials and pundits are arguing over the government’s public diplomatic response to the first iteration of the so-called March of Return.

The Foreign Ministry insists that the situation was expertly handled and entirely under control, arguing that several dozen spokespeople across Europe and America worked diligently to put out Israel’s message and respond to Palestinian claims in the press as deemed appropriate. Several current and former officials dealing with Israeli public diplomacy — in the local parlance, hasbara — however, are highly critical of Jerusalem’s response to the march, bemoaning the fact that Israeli public diplomacy has evidently learned very little from previous military altercations and tripped woefully unprepared into a Hamas-laid trap it should have seen coming.

Michael Oren, for one, the deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office who is responsible for diplomacy, said Israel was patently unprepared for the crisis on the diplomatic and media battlefield, and that the word he was getting from abroad was that the Israeli narrative is losing “big time” to the Palestinian narrative.

The Foreign Ministry’s approach was guided by the real-time assessment on Friday and Saturday that the Palestinian effort to get the world’s attention to focus on the Gaza protests “failed to take off,” said Ohad Kaynar, a spokesperson for the ministry.

This assessment, in turn, led the Foreign Ministry, in coordination with other Israeli public diplomacy officials, to minimize their response lest Israel “fan the flames” of a news event that had otherwise garnered surprisingly little global interest, he said.

We didn’t want to pour fire on a flame that was burning low

“We monitored the various hashtags on social media and articles in the media, and determined that Hamas is failing,” Kaynar said. “We didn’t want to pour fire on a flame that was burning low.”

Kaynar was the only Foreign Ministry spokesperson on active duty during the weekend’s event, when Israeli forces killed 15 Palestinians in the course of riots at the Gaza border, most of whom the army says were members of terrorist groups. The ministry’s chief spokesman, Emmanuel Nahshon, is currently on vacation. Another ministry spokesman was abroad for other reasons. During Jewish holidays, the ministry is usually closed.

Absences and holidays notwithstanding, Israel’s public diplomacy response to the march was fully coordinated between the army, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office, Kaynar insisted, citing “thousands of WhatsApp messages” discussing the appropriate course of action.

Having determined that events were getting relatively little media exposure, it was decided to deploy a limited number of spokespeople — including Netanyahu’s media adviser David Keyes and Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev — to various television studios so as not to give more oxygen to a story that was slowly dying, he said.

Israeli officials were more active on the government’s 600 social media channels, Kaynar added. They monitored the number and relative success of hashtags on Twitter as well as minutes and seconds of airtime Palestinian and Israeli speakers were granted on global news networks, he said.

In stark contrast to the ministry’s firmly upbeat assessment, Deputy Minister Oren declared bitterly that “Israel’s public diplomacy wasn’t ready.” Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the US, lamented: “It always goes wrong. We don’t lay the groundwork, we don’t prepare the media about what’s about to happen.”

“The diplomatic field was on vacation,” lamented a recently retired senior official involved in Israeli hasbara who asked not to be named. “Things always seem to happen on Shabbat, and they always seem to be slow to pick up the diplomatic thing.”

A former diplomat, who also asked for his name to be withheld because he didn’t want to offend former colleagues, carped that Israel has learned nothing from previous crises.

“In September of 2000, we were caught unprepared when the Second Intifada broke out on Rosh Hashanah,” he recalled. Images of Palestinian suffering were broadcast around the globe, with no one from the Israeli side available to speak because everyone was off.

“Conclusions should have been drawn since then, but it didn’t happen,” the former diplomat said. “If you know some big military operation is going happen, you have to make sure people are ready to comment. But again, this didn’t happen this week, because everybody was home celebrating Passover.”

Was the IDF much better than the Foreign Ministry?

On an operational level, the army’s response to the Gaza protests was deemed a success — certainly by the military itself, the security establishment and the government. But several veteran members of its spokesperson unit this week privately complained about the poor performance of Lt. Col. Oron Mincha, who stammered his way through an interview with France 24.

The head of the IDF Spokesperson’s international desk, Jonathan Conricus, is currently abroad on a long-planned Passover vacation.

Over the weekend, the army hastily asked some experienced former spokespeople to help out with briefings and interviews. Some happily obliged but said they were contacted only after a pro-Palestinian narrative had already been established in the media. Others were unable to accommodate the army’s request on such short notice.

Palestinian protesters run for cover from tear gas fired by Israeli security forces during clashes following a demonstration commemorating Land Day, near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on March 30, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

“Everything should be coordinated in advance between the Foreign Ministry and the IDF and other spokespeople,” Yigal Palmor, a former spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry said. “But it is essential for the upper echelons to remember that communications and image are not something you deal with after an event or in the course of an event, but something you have to take into account in the early stages of planning.”

MK Oren said he publicly warned of Israel not being properly prepared to defend its good name during the inevitable next round of violence. He decried the fact that his office has neither the budget not the authority to launch a more effective hasbara effort.

We spend a lot of arms to defend ourselves. What are we doing to defend our right to defend ourselves?

Oren, who in recent days gave interviews with media in the UK, Germany, the US and elsewhere, said he does not question the Foreign Ministry’s assessment that the crisis was low-key and therefore did not require sending more talking heads into TV studios.

Deputy Minister Michael Oren at the Knesset, June 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel)

“But I am on the receiving end of the international press. And what I am getting is that our narrative is losing big time to [the Palestinian] narrative,” he said.

The solution to Israel’s PR problem is not sending more spokespeople to give interviews in crisis situations, but to train them to deliver a “very calibrated message,” said Oren.

“The first point we have to make is that Hamas is a terrorist organizations. This is not getting through. We have to hammer it in,” he said.

Fault for the government’s poor public diplomacy performance this week does not necessarily lie with the IDF Spokesperson, the Foreign Ministry or even with the National Information Directorate, a body within the Prime Minister’s Office tasked with coordinating the state’s advocacy efforts, he went on.

The mindset that led to it is decades old, he posited. Part of the problem with public relations is that many Israelis no longer believe that it is even worth trying to convince the Western media of the righteousness of their cause, Oren said.

“We as a society have not decided that this worth an effort. Many think that it’s too late. And there is a case to be made for that. But I think at the very least what we have to do is try much harder.”

If Israel’s good name is important, then the country needs to make its defense a national priority and the National Information Directorate should be given “millions of dollars” to wage an international campaign, he urged.

“We spend a lot of arms to defend ourselves. What are we doing to defend our right to defend ourselves?” he asked.

Israeli soldiers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza and the potential for demonstrators to try to breach the security fence on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We have not internalized that the 21th century battlefield is as much if not more on computer screens and televisions screens than it is on the actual battlefield,” he said.

Hamas wants Israelis to shoot Palestinian civilians, said Oren, because its goal is not necessarily to breach the Gaza border fence but mostly to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world.

“Now, we have to do what we have to do to defend ourselves. I’m not saying that we have to change what the army is doing,” Oren said. “But we do have to change the way we explain what the army is doing.”

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