Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a splash with a hand-drawn cartoon of a bomb, its fuse lit, at the podium of the UN’s General Assembly in September. He drew, in red magic marker, a thick red line.
This, he said, is the red line the world should set before Iran on its nuclear development.
The ploy engendered an immediate internet meme, and brought Netanyahu approval, notoriety and some grudging respect, for the efficacy in getting his message out.
On Monday, in much less graphic form, using the language of steely diplomacy, Europe showed Netanyahu what its own red line is: talk of construction in areas of the contested territories that would preclude a contiguous Palestinian state.
European governments were not amused by what in fact was a red flag maneuver, Netanyahu signaling to his rightward flank that he does not intend to curb settlement construction while, in fact, doing nothing.
What amounted to an announcement of permission to begin the initial planning stages of a sensitive area near Jerusalem was as striking for its clumsiness as for the questionable policy thinking behind it.
It was yet another in a series of public relations blunders that have plagued Israel in recent months and years, hurting its diplomatic standing with the rest of the world and confounding some of its staunchest allies.
Tamir Sheafer, a Hebrew University professor and an expert on political communications, said Israel remains an insular society, its acoustics still not adapted to the ears of an international market.
“You should always have in mind that wars are not won on field of battle. You have a diplomatic front, an international front. Before you open your mouth, you should have in mind that the entire world is listening, and what those international ears will hear,” he said.
In Israel, it is widely assumed that Netanyahu’s announcement, one day after Palestine won an upgraded status at the United Nations, was probably directed at right wing voters who will be voting for him, or for one of his competitors, on Jan. 22.
The beating Israel’s public image is receiving as a result perplexes many close observers, as does Israel’s failure to have avoided the public clash to begin with.
“It’s as if no one here has ever heard of ‘soft power’,” said one European diplomat, referring to the weapons of culture, technology, agriculture, science and medicine that Israel could use as its passport to the world. “You talk to people here and its all security, security, security. But the country is rich in everything you need for a soft power approach, and — nothing.”
The disparity between Israeli perceptions and international reception is gaping.
Among the early public relations stumbles exposed in the first days of last month’s battle in Gaza, Eli Yishai, the Interior Minister, said “the goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.” Officially, the government position was that the goal of the operation was to ensure the safety of its southern citizens, who had been pelted by rockets and missiles for months.
Whereas Israelis know Yishai as something of a local Allen West, a reliable source of gaffes and outlandishness, for the rest of the world he was speaking as Israel’s deputy prime minister.
Then there was a 26-year-old at the Israeli Defense Forces public relations office who engaged in some ill-advised showboating when he posted a blood-red image of the face of Ahmad Jabari, the Hamas strongman whose killing launched the operation, above the word “ELIMINATED.”
Yigal Palmor, the foreign ministry’s indefatigable spokesman, said the stunt was “a stupid thing, completely childish, not illegal but totally infantile.”
The fact remains that there were no filters in place to safeguard against the image being posted in the country’s name.
So it is, in the highly-strung, ultra-high tech yet oddly tone-deaf hub that is Israel. Add to that what Palmor calls “disproportionate coverage,” the fact that more than 1,000 members of the foreign press are stationed permanently in Jerusalem.
During the eight days of the Gaza conflict, some 800 Syrians died in the ongoing throes of a civil war that receives much less of the media’s glare.
“It is like living under a magnifying glass,” Palmor said. “Distortions occur. Perspective is lost.”
“Dealing with the foreign media is simply too low on our national list of priorities,” said Sheafer, the professor. “I have been screaming about this for years.”
“Public diplomacy is ignored. During the Lebanon war we had five people in the entire country whose job it was to deal with the foreign media. It is just not on the top of anyone’s mind. And then you hear something like what Yishai said, which causes tremendous damage to the nation, or some of the things that went out on the Twitter feed and you wonder if anyone realizes you win by affecting international consciousness.”
In the military spokesman’s office, young officers with barely any media training are charged with representing the county’s policies to the world.
“We use new media to circumvent the press and TV channels, to craft the message ourselves,” one of those staffers told BaMahane, the army’s internal magazine, reviewing the record several weeks after the fighting.
Israel’s flagrant reliance on Twitter during Pillar of Defense drew public discussion, but it ignored the strange hodgepodge in Israel’s approach to its message to the world.
Palmor now has six deputies, three of whom are dedicated to Arabic-language media, one of whom works only in Hebrew. That leaves Palmor and two others to field thousands of calls, Facebook messages, tweets and emails from the rest of the world, including huge media markets in English, French and Spanish.
Still, Palmor feels that his current situation is luxurious. For a six-month period not too long ago, he was completely alone in his office.
This story was originally published by Global Post.