Israel needs to better coordinate the image war – editorial

Israel may be winning the war against Hamas terrorists on the battlefield, but it is again losing support in the court of public opinion as international sympathy tips in favor of the Palestinians.

On May 13, an IAF strike leveled al-Jalaa Tower, an 11-floor building in Gaza City containing the offices of several international media outlets – including The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera – after giving residents an hour to evacuate.

The video of the strike aired around the world elicited wide condemnation, including a statement from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that he was “deeply disturbed” by the Israeli airstrike.

In a briefing with reporters, the IDF said it targeted the building because it had been used by Hamas to house military intelligence and research. The explanation did not suffice.

As Ambassador Arthur Lenk tweeted, “It often takes too long for @IDF to tell its stories during conflicts (Mavi Marmara, Jenin, Muhammad el-Dura, terror tunnels, shooting from schools). In the end, its claims are often proven true but the news cycles have long moved on & images have already damaged Israel’s reputation.”

Israel may be winning the war against Hamas terrorists on the battlefield, but it is again losing support in the court of public opinion as international sympathy tips in favor of the Palestinians. One of the reasons for this is that no person or body is authorized with the overall responsibility of presenting Israel’s case effectively to the media and the world.

In 2002, the State Comptroller issued a harsh report on Israel’s PR efforts, decrying “a lack of an overall strategic public relations conception and objective” and a lack of coordination between the various organizations involved.

Four years later, after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Israel established a public diplomacy department in the Prime Minister’s Office that was meant to integrate all relevant government agencies and to coordinate among them while deciding on clear talking points and messaging.

Yarden Vatikay, a former IDF officer, was appointed to coordinate Israel’s domestic and foreign media policy and he did so for some time but he stepped down two years ago. No one was appointed to replace him. In 2015, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy was authorized to act against the delegitimization of Israel – but this too was short-lived and ultimately ineffective.

In the current conflict, Israel’s supporters have proudly shared images of the Iron Dome intercepting Hamas rockets before they can kill and damage people and property in Israel. But these are overshadowed by the images of Israel leveling the Gaza media building or a house in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, killing at least 10 members of the Abu Hatab family, most of them children.

After Israel celebrated Jerusalem Day, international audiences witnessed a video of Jewish men singing and dancing at the Western Wall as a fire raged outside the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Such images played into the Palestinian narrative that this conflict centers on Jerusalem, and was triggered by Israeli restrictions on Muslim prayers during Ramadan and the threatened evictions of Arab families in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.

Hamas is portrayed as the guardian of Palestinians, and Israel – which has justifiably responded to the indiscriminate firing of rockets by carrying out attacks against terrorist targets in Gaza – is unfairly perceived as the aggressor rather than the victim.

While Israel has many eloquent spokespeople, from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, there was no coordinated effort from the outset to counter these harmful images, which clearly play into the hands of Hamas.

Due to the lack of an interagency body, the Foreign Ministry took charge, improvised and created a task-force to run media operations. This is commendable but it is not enough.

As recent wars with Lebanon and Gaza, including the current one, have demonstrated, Israel needs to take the battleground of public diplomacy earnestly and establish an agency that will ultimately be responsible for presenting Israel’s case.

The agency should be headed by a well-respected and gifted individual, overseeing a team of experienced experts from Israel and abroad. This should be the last war in which Israel is not armed with a first-class public diplomacy team to deftly defend it on the international stage.

It’s time to establish an Iron Dome system for public diplomacy, to fight back and defend Israel in the theater of public perception.

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