"The whole world is against us" is a popular saying in Israel. Human rights organizations love attacking Israel, The UN falls over itself to publish statements condemning what we do, and the world media has already chosen what side it is on in the conflict. Where is Israel's counterattack and Israel's official position in all this? Are we doing enough to improve Israel's public relations? Ask a journalist in Israel, whether Israeli, Palestinian or foreign, the most likely answer will be "No". Just like the paradoxes we see on the battlefield when large, powerful countries with huge resources can't manage to squash terrorist and guerilla organizations—so it is on the media battlefield. Israel, with all its resources often fails to explain its position to the world.
People love to grumble about Israel's "public relations inadequacies". From where we're standing it often seems that the Palestinians have cornered the market on explaining their side to the world. Israel's story is not put across as it should in the established media, and the written and broadcast media in most western countries has already taken sides in the conflict. But it's not our fault.
Israel does not exploit the internet correctly, even in the most basic sense of publishing official data, using the internet as a creative tool through blogs and forums.
However, technological progress and the development of the internet as a source of up to date, readily available information can change all this. Unlike the traditional world media, Israel can use the Internet to convey messages without having to go through the media. The terror organizations learned this trick very early on and use the internet to spread their opinions and information in different languages (as well as to pass on operational orders). At a conference organized by the Netvision Institute for Internet Research at Tel Aviv University, representatives of the army spokesman's office, the foreign ministry, and the media met to discuss the future of Israeli information on the internet.
Reality According to "Betzelem"
Yonatan Dahoach-Halevi, who is a former head of the IDF's Department of Information and Public Affairs, is responsible for the IDF Spokesman's website, is a political content consultant to the ministry of defense, and an associate researcher with the Jerusalem Center for Public and Political Affairs, sees the internet as a world of unlimited possibilities. Israel, explains Halevi, does not exploit it correctly, even in the most basic sense of publishing official data, using the internet as a creative tool through blogs, forums, etc. "Israel doesn't publish information in a free and flowing way on the internet. There is no Israeli database that academic researchers can use to write articles, or for researching the subject of Israel. If an academic researcher wants to write a position paper he goes to the internet and only finds Palestinian information and no Israeli data. Any information published by Israelis is put there by the Betzelem organization and other human rights organizations. The information they publish isn't always accurate, but given the lack of other resources, the academics will use that data. The UN also uses their information. This creates a situation where the falsehoods and misinformation put out by the Palestinians becomes reality, their perception of reality".
Dahoach-Halevi's opinion was supported by one of the conference participants, who reported that she had contacted the IDF Spokesman's Unit on numerous occasions to request information and had received no reply. Betzelem on the other hand had answered her inquiry quickly and supplied the information efficiently. It is only natural that journalists or academics carrying out research will ultimately use that information.
No Pioneers, No Brakes
Lately Dahoach-Halevi has been working in Canada and knows the Canadian media up close. As someone who can see the Israeli conflict through foreigners eyes, it is important for him to put across points which seem clear to us but aren't clear abroad. "The Israeli approach" he explains "namely, that it is enough if we just tell the truth, is wrong". For example, he recounts, incidents like time when left wing activist Rachel Corey was run over by a bulldozer have not gone away. They are alive and kicking on the internet, where Israel's opponents are sure not to let their side of the story fade away. Borrowing an image from the world of football, Dahoach-Halevi, says that Israel is playing on the internet without a proper defense.
Dahoach-Halevi warned that the Palestinians are using the internet to rewrite history and to create the past through their eyes.
Dahoach-Halevi warned that the Palestinians are using the internet to rewrite history and to create the past through their eyes. They fastidiously post historical documentation in scrupulous detail of their narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict thus putting Israel's very existence in question. Eli HaCohen, the professional director of the Netvision Institute for Internet Research, refined the problem; "We should consider not only the fact that they are rewriting the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they are also rewriting the history of the Jewish People. By this I mainly refer to the various websites denying the holocaust, which have recently sprung up all over the internet".
Dahoach-Halevi doesn't just bemoan the situation he also suggests ways to correct it: "If we want to succeed in the information war on the internet against the Palestinians, it would be very good if we copied how they do things. I mean, for example, the Israeli sites should appear in more languages. Exactly like the Hamas site which appears in a large number of languages, not like the foreign ministry site which is in very few languages". Dahoach-Halevi also suggests ways of using blogs, video clips, and RSS updates. Above all, he thinks that the IDF Spokesman, Israeli Intelligence, and the foreign ministry should join forces and work together on the internet as information agencies in every sense to tell the Israeli side of the conflict.
Broadcasts from the virtual field
Lieut. Col. Dinur, head of the Information Department of the IDF Spokesman's Unit and the IDF representative in the discussion, explained the limitations on the official Israeli side in terms of counter-information against the Palestinians: "Now everyone can put whatever they like on the internet. The Spokesman's Unit can't post things that aren't definite". Therefore, there is often a delay in the IDF Spokesman's response. At the same time, there are a large number of hits on the IDF Spokesman's site, almost 4.5 million a year, mostly from abroad. Dinur would like to use the fact that the internet enables Israel to communicate directly with its target audience to deliver messages through the net that aren't biased. This could be done by introducing a direct communication channel between the IDF Spokesman and the media. There are plans for IDF internet, cellular, and TV broadcasts for delivering the message direct.
Unlike Dahoach-Halevi and Dinur who suggest ways of improving Israel's performance in information and public relations, Amir Gissin, director of the foreign ministry public affairs department, believes that in the main, information efforts should not be carried out by the government. We can't copy how the other side works, explains Gissin. Things that the world is willing to accept in our opponents would elicit a severe international backlash against Israel. The other side has sites containing slander and hate propaganda. The foreign ministry can't produce sites like that because the world has double standards regarding Israeli and Palestinian public information. As a rule, explains Gissin, "Governments should keep their hands off the internet. They can encourage internet information and public relations but they can't undertake it themselves". To explain his position, Gissin gave a recent example: the foreign minister of the Europe Union officially protested to Israel against him and the foreign ministry for encouraging internet protest against the Finnish foreign minister's blog. The protest involved a very rapid response by 6,000 Israeli surfers who expressed their dismay at the anti-Israeli things said in the blog. According to Gissin, the official protest illustrates how dangerous it is for the government to be involved in such efforts.
However, the fact that the director of the foreign ministry's public affairs department doesn't think that the Israeli government should be involved in official internet public relations doesn't mean we can't do anything. It is down to internet users to seize the initiative. There are several examples of private Israeli public information efforts. There are 30,000 members in the Giyus group who have been using "Megaphone" technology since the Lebanon war to encourage positive reports about Israel and protest negative one-sided anti-Israeli coverage. Besides this initiative there are internet information activities by students of the ORT school network and pensioners helping the Israeli Internet Association.