Explaining war

“Let the general in,” she says with a smile.

The Armored Corps brigade commander is tall and broad-shouldered, radiating experience and machismo with a trim grey beard covering a strong jaw. He’s the third general to come to this office this week seeking guidance.

The woman sitting behind the desk is several years his junior and a few ranks below him, too – yet when the brigade commander sits down, it is Avital Leibovich who is giving the orders. Fox News wants an interview with a senior officer who can explain what happened in the alleyways of Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, and it is Leibovich’s job to make sure the journalists hear what the IDF Spokesman wants them to hear.

“Every question they ask you, answer with an example from the field. Describe what you have seen with your own eyes, what you and your soldiers have experienced. Be as descriptive as possible,” she says.

“It bothers me that they’re talking about soldiers abusing Palestinians (during the operation), wrecking homes and whatnot,” the general says. “For every ugly story like that, I can give two stories that are the total opposite. I’m talking about reservists sending letters of apology to the families whose homes they commandeered, sending them money and leaving them food, that sort of thing.”

Leibovich looks the commander in the eye. “That’s exactly what they need to hear,” she says.

And now he’s ready to go.

This is today’s IDF: coordinated, rehearsed, media savvy. Perhaps even more significantly, it is an army in which its spokesmen play a larger role than ever before – for better and for worse.

THE MEDIUM is the message, as communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said. Just in case, though, the IDF Spokesman’s Office now controls both. The foreign press liaison unit, as the face and voice of Israel’s army to the entire world, is the gateway through which information flows (or, often, does not flow), and it has transformed from something of an afterthought into a major part of the military’s arsenal. As wars are increasingly fought on the virtual battlegrounds of television and the Internet, the soldiers of the IDF Spokesman’s foreign media liaison unit are a new breed of pressed-uniform commandos.

Leibovich’s highly motivated crew includes recent immigrants like Lee Hiromoto, a 26-year-old Yale graduate from Hawaii, Harvard graduate Arie Hasit, 25, and Aliza Landes, 26, a McGill grad.

“The North American desk must be one of the best educated units in the IDF,” Landes says only half-jokingly.

It was Landes and Hiromoto who came up with the idea, a day into the fighting of Operation Cast Lead at the end of December, to launch a youtube channel with material from the IDF Spokesman’s Office. It quickly became the most viewed channel in the world.

Here, initiative is the name of the game. Another recent immigrant on Leibovich’s staff of 20, Devora, called up one of the top military journalists in her native Belgium and offered to introduce him to Belgian Jews serving in combat units. He’s due in Israel soon to produce a lengthy feature for television that will be distributed across Europe.

“We’re proactive. We no longer wait for someone to come to us with a request, we are now the initiators. We suggest stories to journalists, instead of the other way around,” says Leibovich, who was just promoted to lieutenant-colonel. “Since each area has its own unique characteristics, and its specific areas of interest, we provide each ‘audience’ with what it needs,” she adds. “We tailor information and stories for North America, for Europe, for Russian-language media, for Arabic media, and for Latin America and the Far East.”

Whereas interaction with the Spokesman’s Office once meant long delays and garbled armyspeak, there is now a greater focus on productivity and efficiency, of providing what journalists need.

“I send out SMS messages to 400 reporters each day,” Leibovich says. “If someone wants to know how many Kassams fell in 2008, they can call me and get an answer within five minutes.”

And if the phone is busy, journalists can simply pop in. After several years based in Tel Aviv, the foreign press liaison unit returned to Jerusalem a few months ago – setting up shop in the Jerusalem Capital Studios building that houses the offices of some of the most important foreign media companies.

“The fact that we’re here at JCS is significant,” Leibovich says. “As soon as something happens, we can respond and brief them immediately. So they don’t have to start running around, calling up people in Gaza, asking, ‘What’s going on? What are you hearing? What can you report?’ We tell them, ‘We’re attacking here and here, because Hamas did this and this.’ They get all the information they need from us. So there’s much less spin.”

“The IDF is very adept at ensuring that its message gets out there, and gets out there quickly – and I don’t say that as a smart-ass remark,” says ABC Australia correspondent Ben Knight.

“During the war, it didn’t take much effort to get people into the office at short notice and hear their side of things. We never wanted for comment from the IDF, and we never had to wait too long. So they are obviously very well aware of the importance of doing it and very well practiced at getting their point of view out there. The Australian army does things quite differently, I can tell you that.”

WHERE THE unit once was distant, today it seeks out contact with foreign correspondents.

“I have learned that if you don’t take a journalist out to see things with his own eyes, you just won’t get through to him,” Leibovich says. “But once you do…!”

One example of the positive effects of taking journalists into the field has been in coverage of the West Bank security barrier. In its early days, inefficiency at the roadblocks and transfer points meant lengthy waits, exposed to the weather, for Palestinians. More recently, improvements in procedures and infrastructure have significantly eased the situation, and showing that to the world helps reduce pressure on Israel.

“Back in 2003, all you saw were stories about the unbearable wait at roadblocks and all that. But things are so much better now, so much more efficient,” she says. “I take journalists out there all the time to inspect roadblocks. I tell them, ‘However long you want to wait here, I’ll wait with you.’ So they stay there for two and three hours, and they can’t believe what they see – that it only takes a few seconds to check a car and let it through. One Scandinavian group waited hours in the sun, turning red, expecting to see trouble that never came.”

(Some journalists respond, however, that while the army is eager to show them these improvements, it is loath to let journalists review the multitude of roadblocks and barriers throughout the West Bank that restrict the movement of Palestinians.)

Whereas visiting journalists may have once been treated with some disdain, the IDF now sees them as vehicles for getting its message abroad.

“We’re dealing, in many cases, with foreign correspondents who are flying in from Washington, or from Zimbabwe, or from Finland. They’ve had so little time to digest what’s happening here – they’ve heard a little, they’ve read a little – so that any chance we have to show them what is really going on, and help them put it in context, we have to take it.”

Leibovich has plenty of stories to offer: articles on technological advances in the army, which portray the IDF as a professional organization; on krav maga; on the ongoing development of the Merkava IV tank; on the increase in women serving in combat roles; on new immigrants in uniform, etc. – any chance to present the IDF as something other than just a fighting machine.

“We believe that the IDF has nothing to hide,” Leibovich says. “I’m not taking journalists on secret missions or anything like that, but I have no reason to hide a squadron of fighter jets. So, just the other day I brought the staff of 30 media outlets to an air force base to see the technology used in our F-15Is, our attack helicopters, and more.”

The army has invested in improving the quality of photos it sends out, and it sends out many more of them now than before. During the Gaza war, it made colorful, readable maps available to its reservists who escorted foreign journalists, so they could appreciate the seriousness of the rocket threat to the western Negev. And every morning, Leibovich sends out a report on the amount of humanitarian aid the army allows into Gaza. In the information war, then, the IDF is holding its own.

“We showed Palestinians setting up rocket launchers next to schools, or using civilian buildings as weapons storage facilities,” Leibovich says. “What did the other side show, except for people with their faces covered, making statements?”

The unit doesn’t take its work for granted, though, monitoring the foreign press to measure the tone of coverage on the IDF and to see whether the army’s perspective is reflected in that coverage. Soldiers even scan blogs, twitter, and all manner of new media to gauge the effectiveness of their work.

“I want to know whether our message got through,” Leibovich says. “If we’re trying to get across that we’re not targeting innocent civilians, for example, I want to see that that message comes through in the media.”

During the war, Leibovich enlisted the help of those outside the Spokesman’s Office who could make Israel’s case credibly.

“It’s very important for us to have commanders tell the stories of what they experienced personally,” she says. “Also, we had briefings almost every day, with an artillery expert, or an expert on weapons and international law. It wasn’t me speaking, it was outside experts. After that, when you read the wires, you read the quotes of those experts.”

Despite the experts, and the photos, and the SMS messages and the maps, however, there were still plenty of media outlets that chose not to present those materials.

“You know,” Leibovich says with a sigh, “sometimes there are correspondents here who ‘get it’ and file fair stories, but their editors back home change the stories. I can only send out the information, I can’t make them use it,” she says. “But I’m not going to just throw up my hands and give up. We’re not defeatists.”

NO, THERE are no defeatists in Leibovich’s office. But, for all the improvements in the functioning of the IDF Spokesman’s Office, there remain certain elements that are self-defeating. Take IDF Spokesman Brig.-Gen. Avi Benayahu, for example. At a toast with foreign journalists shortly before Pessah, celebrating the liaison unit’s move to the JCS building, Benayahu gave a speech that was more a lecture on the evils of Hamas than a welcome speech to professional journalists. He talked at the journalists, not to them, and his tone suggested he sees himself not as the “national explainer” that the popular former IDF spokesman Nachman Shai was, but as the army’s chief propagandist.

The journalists largely ignored Benayahu anyway, instead sharing with each other their frustrations about his unit’s apologetics, denials, and stonewalling on sensitive issues. It was just one sign of how, despite doing many other things right, the army still doesn’t completely “get it,” either.

While the world saw images of deprivation in Gaza, Benayahu and others insisted that there was no humanitarian crisis there.

“Of course there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza!” Leibovich says, incredulously. “Look, there’s a difference between having only pita to eat but at least having something to eat, and having nothing at all. Now, lots of trucks are going into Gaza every day – every day – with humanitarian aid…”

For European viewers sympathetic to the Palestinians, though, answering the cry, “It’s terrible there!” with the angry retort, “No, it’s not terrible, it’s only very bad” does not help Israel’s case.

What would help is more photos of terrorists operating in civilian areas – photos that the IDF had in spades both before and during Operation Cast Lead, but failed to release in time.

“I can tell you that our response time this time around, in comparison to the Second Lebanon War, was vastly improved,” Leibovich counters. “During the Gaza war, we distributed video four times a day.”

As the death toll in Gaza climbed, and Palestinians claimed most of the dead had been innocent civilians, the IDF countered that the vast majority had indeed been involved in the fighting or members of armed groups. Yet, even when it later produced a report claiming the final death toll was lower than the Palestinian figure by several hundred people, it refused to release the names on its list so journalists could investigate the differences between Israel’s claims and the Palestinians’.

The army’s response was essentially that identifying bodies was not its job. Its insistence on refuting Palestinian claims, but not substantiating its own, turned the death toll issue into a he said-she said argument that, ultimately, Israel lost.

Leibovich’s response – “The asymmetrical warfare that Hamas wages is not limited to the streets of Gaza. It extends to the press as well. In the end, the Palestinian narrative comes from unreliable sources” – typifies a “they’re wrong, and that’s the end of it” approach that makes many correspondents bristle.

Leibovich adds: “Our list of names went through a very lengthy verification process that included extensive intelligence gathering. We won’t release the names because we do not wish to harm our intelligence sources.”

Be that as it may, without the names, no journalist could take the IDF’s numbers at face value – although that’s exactly what the army expected of them. Of course, foreign journalists could have investigated on their own, had they been allowed into Gaza. But they weren’t. Despite the painful lessons from the spurious reports of a “massacre” in Jenin in 2002, Israel did not allow foreign journalists into the Gaza Strip during the fighting.

The ban was part of a general restriction on information, that came in response to the army’s much more open approach during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and it damaged Israel in two ways: it deeply frustrated many foreign correspondents who might have been made to see the war from Israel’s perspective, and it left the reporting to Palestinian and Arab media stationed in Gaza. This, in turn, allowed those reporters to allege various Israeli war crimes that no Western media could later disprove.

As one correspondent, speaking to The Jerusalem Post on condition of anonymity, notes, “When the IDF keeps quiet, it gives the other side an advantage.”

CLEARLY, NOT all foreign journalists share the enthusiasm of ABC’s Knight. The IDF Spokesman’s Office, says the anonymous correspondent, “is terrible about getting us information.”

“Oh, sure,” he says, “they’ll call us up and offer us the chance to talk with the first female officer in the canine unit, or something like that. But when it comes to the army’s use of white phosphorous or war crimes [allegations] – nothing.”

Investigating claims, and sharing the results of those investigations openly and quickly, is another sore spot.

“I don’t say that the IDF is all pure and white, that we never do things that aren’t right. But when something happens, we admit it. We learn from it, and we make sure things get better,” Leibovich says. “Well,” answers a correspondent, “it’s a problem that they’re the ones investigating themselves. It seems like they never find themselves guilty of anything.”

That perception is inaccurate – but since perception is reality, the IDF needs to combat it better.

The controversy over war crimes allegations leveled at the IDF from within its own ranks illustrates the point. A few weeks after the fighting, two veterans of the conflict told others gathered at the Rabin Pre-Military Academy that their comrades had shot and killed unarmed women inside Gaza. It took the army several days to investigate the claims – and while they were ultimately exposed as false, they did tremendous damage in that time to the IDF’s mantra that it is the most moral army in the world.

Another complaint, says a journalist, is that access to senior officers is often highly restricted, “and when we can meet with them, they either don’t say anything of substance because the lawyer sitting next to them tells them not to, or they tell us things that become worthless as soon as they forbid us from revealing their identity.”

Another correspondent complains that the IDF is “very amateurish about important things,” such as providing findings of official investigations but forbidding all reference to them as such. “They just don’t seem to know about, or care about, our rules of attribution.”

Additionally, both note with frustration, stories about which they have inquired without receiving a response often turn up in the Hebrew press – and then, when they call for a comment on the Israeli reports, the IDF refuses to even acknowledge that the story has already been published.

“We understand that the army has to limit information based on security concerns,” says the first correspondent. “But so much of this has nothing to do with security. Too often, they’re hostile to us, or they act like they just don’t care about us.”

“Ultimately,” Leibovich answers, “the IDF is my client, not the media.”

That, of course, is absolutely true. The IDF Spokesman’s Office is tasked with furthering the interests of the army, and those interests are bound to conflict with the interests of journalists sometimes.

“We have to explain why we’re right, why we’re fighting,” Leibovich says with genuine conviction. “And we have to contend with the image of the Palestinian underdog versus us as the larger, stronger force. It isn’t easy, but we’re doing our best. And I promise, we’ll continue to get better.”

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