ToI investigatesThousands of briefings but less tolerance for Israeli claims

‘In world’s view, Palestinians are the weaker side’: Inside Israel’s PR war

The Foreign Ministry is overseeing a newly coordinated ‘hasbara’ effort and believes it is proving its worth, but it’s an uphill battle in the court of global public opinion

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Host John Oliver castigates Israel in a "Last Week Tonight" segment, May 16, 2021. On screen is what he called a 'triumphant meme' in which an IDF Instagram post showed 'before and after' images of a Gaza City tower where foreign media had offices and where the IDF says Hamas had military assets. (Screenshot)
Host John Oliver castigates Israel in a "Last Week Tonight" segment, May 16, 2021. On screen is what he called a 'triumphant meme' in which an IDF Instagram post showed 'before and after' images of a Gaza City tower where foreign media had offices and where the IDF says Hamas had military assets. (Screenshot)

On Sunday night, “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver opened his program with a blistering denunciation of Israel’s conduct in the ongoing conflict against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, accusing Israel of “war crimes” and “a form of apartheid.”

“Falling back on convenient, sanitized terms like ‘real estate disputes’ and ‘airstrikes on militants’ sounds a little disingenuous when what you’re describing is forcing people from the homes they’ve lived in for decades, and killing civilians and children,” said the late-night TV host, referring to the legal fight over evictions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood as well as the casualties from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

The week before, “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah addressed the conflict at length, saying that the difference in casualty numbers between the two sides was the key factor in how he views the violence. “Personally, I cannot watch that footage, and hear those numbers, and see a fair fight,” Noah said, whereupon he compared the conflict to fights he had with his little brother as a teenager.

Videos showing Israeli strikes on targets in Gaza garnered millions of likes on TikTok under hashtags like #savessheikhjarrah and #gaza. Celebrities including Lena Headey, Mark Ruffalo, and Roger Waters, and Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate Malala, took to social media in support of the Palestinians, accusing Israel of “crimes against humanity” and “apartheid.”

While millions of viewers were watching the talk show hosts lambast Israel, some world leaders showed their firm support for Israel in dramatic fashion. On Friday, the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovenia flew the Israeli flag on government buildings in a show of solidarity with the Jewish state.

“Israel has the right to defend itself against these attacks. To show our solidarity… we have put up the Israeli flag” on the chancellery and the foreign ministry,  said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Senior officials in leading Western countries including the US, UK, Germany and France also emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas attacks.

As Israel engages in conflict with Gaza-based terrorist groups, both sides are employing sophisticated information campaigns to bring international pressure on the other side and to increase their own freedom of action. The opinions stated on talk shows, social media, and by government officials are all influenced by the success of these information efforts.

The Foreign Ministry is leading Israel’s campaign, and feels that it has been a clear success under the guidance of a new coordinating body. But others argue that once again, Israel’s public information – or hasbara – campaign is slow and ineffective.

A new ‘bridge’

Last Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Division created an initiative called Gesher – Bridge in Hebrew – to bring the IDF Spokesperson, Israel Police, Prime Minister’s Office, Strategic Affairs Ministry, and Government Press Office together in the same room.

Gesher is “creating the messages, coordinating the media appearances, coordinating digital activity, and giving answers to our embassies and consulates abroad,” Lior Hayat, Foreign Ministry spokesman, told The Times of Israel.

PMO senior adviser Mark Regev, the former Israeli ambassador to the UK (Tolga AKMEN / POOL / AFP)

This is not the first time an overarching office has been established to coordinate the work of relevant government bodies, but the scale of coordination is unprecedented, said Hayat. The National Information Directorate and the National Hasbara Forum in the Prime Minister’s Office were established after the 2006 Second Lebanon War to coordinate between government bodies.

The National Hasbara Forum is no longer coordinating Israel’s foreign messaging. The Prime Minister’s Office – specifically Arabic-language spokesman Ofir Gendelman and senior adviser Mark Regev – and the Foreign Ministry are the main bodies crafting the messages, Hayat explained.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a May 16, 2021 press conference (Screenshot)

Senior officials also play an important role in their meetings and talks with international counterparts.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has spoken with more than 30 foreign ministers during the conflict, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken with US President Joe Biden and other world leaders.

Israeli officials have briefed thousands of journalists throughout the conflict

Israel is also working with Israeli athletes around the world, including basketball players Deni Avdija and Gal Mekel and soccer players Eran Zahavi and Tomer Hemed, to get Israel’s message across.

Israeli officials have briefed thousands of journalists throughout the conflict as well. On Saturday alone, Hayat, IDF foreign media spokesman Jonathan Conricus, and a police spokesman briefed 180 journalists, according to the Foreign Ministry.

The goal of the public information campaign is to expand international legitimacy for Israel’s military and diplomatic actions against Hamas, Hayat explained.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabi Ashkenazi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on June 10, 2020.
(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“The main message is that Israel is under a terror attack that was launched by Hamas on Israel’s civilians,” Hayat stressed. “Each and every missile that Hamas launches is not just a terror attack, it is a double war crime,” because they target Israel’s civilians and are fired from Gaza’s residential areas.

“We see this message all over,” Hayat argued, “and it was very well-received by the international press.”

Every Israeli embassy and consulate around the world tracks local media coverage and reports back daily.

Michael Oren attends a political debate held at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The government message is enhanced by well-respected former officials including Michael Oren and nonprofit pro-Israel organizations such as StandWithUs, which is independent of the government.

Israel’s message is also being received in Arab countries with which Israel has ties, like the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, said Hayat. “We get a lot of response through social media from people all over the Arab world, of support and especially messages against Hamas.”

New media focus

The Foreign Ministry’s social media team cites statistics that it says show the effectiveness of its campaign.

Official social media accounts – not including IDF accounts –  have over 200 million impressions since Operation Guardian of the Walls began last week, said Hayat.

Foreign Ministry head of new media Tamar Schwarzbard (courtesy)

A typical month sees between 60 and 100 million impressions.

Since last Monday, the official Israel and Foreign Ministry Twitter accounts have seen an increase of more than 125,000 followers, Tamar Schwarzbard, the Foreign Ministry’s head of new media, told The Times of Israel. The Foreign Ministry hosted Twitter Spaces chats with over 2,000 listeners, some from Muslim countries including Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia.

It has seen similar growth on other social media platforms. Since the fighting broke out, Israel’s TikTok channel has grown from 19,000 to 85,000 followers. A TikTok video showing an Israeli man protecting his younger sister from rocket fire garnered 5.4 million views.

Content shared on the ministry’s Facebook page had an exposure of around 50 million users in the Arab world.

“The goal of Israel’s digital and public diplomacy is to assist in the wider MFA’s efforts to garner support for Israel around the world,” said Yiftah Curiel, Foreign Ministry director for digital diplomacy. “This includes statements by leaders, rallies in support of Israel, and similar activities. Throughout the past week, we’ve seen such support for Israeli actions in face of rocket attacks by Hamas.”

A mixed picture

Not everyone, however, is persuaded that Israel’s strategic information campaign is proving effective, or that it is being correctly focused.

“It’s a mixed picture,” said a non-official source close to Israel’s hasbara campaign. “It’s not as if the Israeli argument is not heard. There’s a lot of room for it… But the set of arguments Israel presents — some are quite overused.

“It can sound less convincing, not because the argument is wrong, but because there is less tolerance for Israeli arguments.”

Pro-Palestinian protesters in Berlin take part in a demonstration against Israel amid the fighting in Gaza between the Israeli military and Hamas terror group, May 15, 2021. (Stefanie Loos/AFP)

Israel should be focusing on providing evidence for the claims it makes to its international audience, and not on sharing videos of IAF’s operational wizardry, the source said. “What might be relevant for Israeli audiences — how fantastic the Israeli Air Force is — might not be so good in international media. It’s hard to square the circle.”

“Take John Oliver’s critique,” added another veteran media professional. “Defenders of Israel would argue that his entire starting point is inaccurate — that he ignores such basic aspects as Israel having no claims on Gaza, or Hamas’s declared goal of destroying Israel, or the fact that nobody would be under attack on either side were Hamas not initiating conflict. He even seems to be blaming Israel for having a rocket defense system, Iron Dome, that keeps its civilians safe.

Israel leaves the door wide open to its critics, and dismays its supporters, by failing to effectively explain, in real time, when things go wrong

“But self-damaging Israeli hasbara makes it so easy for him, for example with the ‘before and after’ IDF Instagram post he cited celebrating the demolition of the Gaza media tower — what he called the ‘triumphant meme.’ And most substantively, Israel leaves the door wide open to its critics, and dismays its supporters, by failing to effectively explain, in real time, when things go wrong.”

“More than two days after that tower was destroyed, promised evidence that it was a Hamas HQ has yet to be publicized,” this media professional noted Tuesday morning. And for almost a full day after some 40 Palestinian civilians were reportedly killed in an Israeli strike on Gaza City overnight Saturday-Sunday, in what appears to be the single deadliest strike of the conflict, “the IDF refused to comment on the incident at all. Late on Sunday night, an IDF spokesperson finally said the airstrike was intended to destroy underground Hamas military infrastructure beneath civilian homes, and still refused to address whether the IDF was aware of how many civilian casualties such a strike could cause.”

We have yet to receive a comprehensive understanding for the attack on the media building in Gaza

Others agreed that the PR operation was a mixed bag. “The IDF is very much on top of its social media game,” a senior professional in an American Jewish organization told The Times of Israel. “The updates have been frequent and hard-hitting, which has been helpful in giving organizations supportive of Israel much of the material they need to make the case.

“At the same time, there have been several cases in which the information put out has been incomplete or has arrived late, which has hampered efforts to defend those IDF actions that have drawn the most controversy, most notably the attack on the media building in Gaza, for which we have yet to receive a comprehensive understanding.”

The building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media in Gaza City collapses after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP/Hatem Moussa)

He also criticized the IDF’s Hebrew-language memes, which are not always well-received when translated by others around the world.

Israel’s message has been “consistent and strong,” said the American Jewish professional, but images of civilian casualties in Gaza often drown out Israel’s narrative.

The damage in Gaza is way, way larger and more dramatic than in Israel. In the world public opinion, Israel is the stronger side, Palestinians are the weaker side…This is the limitation of hasbara. You have to say it frankly

It’s challenging “to create a coherent and effective communication effort,” said Yarden Vatikay, former head of the National Information Directorate. “I think it’s being done and it’s being done well.”

But Israel’s public diplomacy faces inherent challenges, Vatikay said. “The damage in Gaza is way, way larger and more dramatic than in Israel. In the world public opinion, Israel is the stronger side, Palestinians are the weaker side… This is the limitation of hasbara. You have to say it frankly. People will say ‘There’s no hasbara,’ because they see demonstrations around the world. Of course you will see demonstrations and actors, and [critical coverage from] a majority of the world media, because that’s always their point of view.”

“The main goal is not to be nice,” Vatikay explained. “The goal is to achieve as much international legitimacy as we can give to the leadership, to the army, to do its job… For the army to wage its war as we want, and not to be stopped by the international community.”

Despite the challenges, Israel’s official and unofficial spokesmen were clear in their determination to continue making Israel’s case abroad.

AJC Managing Director of Global Communications Avi Mayer presents the findings of a new survey of antisemitism in the US to the Knesset Aliya Committee, October 27, 2020. (Screenshot)

“Ultimately I care far less about the Twitter mobs that flood my timeline with Hitler memes than I do about those observing the conflict from afar whose minds aren’t yet made up, and I’m willing to put up with hostile television interviewers in order to get my message to those watching at home,” said Avi Mayer, managing director of global communications at the American Jewish Committee. “We know Israel’s cause is just and we will continue to stand up for her through thick and thin.”

Added Mayer: “The vicious antisemitic chants heard in European capitals in recent days make clear that, for many, this isn’t about Israeli policy, but rather about Israel’s very existence.”

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