Palestinian elections Jan. 9 and the start of President George W. Bush’s second term Jan. 20 are causing the Israeli government to adopt a new approach in its message to the media.
“The hasbara [public image of Israel] we knew is now over,” said Aryeh Mekel, Israel’s consul general in New York. “Over the last four years, we explained that we were the victim, that the Palestinians were the villains, and that we were not using excessive force [in chasing down Palestinian terrorists]. Sometimes we were successful; sometimes we were not.
“We are now at a new stage in which we have to explain that we want peace, that we have a disengagement plan, and that if we get real negotiations with the Palestinians, we want to implement the ‘road map’ ” to peace.Mekel said that during negotiations “serious issues will arise, such as the borders of a Palestinian state and Israel’s red lines as far as its security is concerned. There will also be different opinions within Israel that will radiate to American public opinion, including Jewish public opinion in America.”
To help deal with these new dynamics, the Israeli government held a four-day training session at various sites in New York last week for its media spokespeople, as well for three new consuls general in North America.
Among those briefing the group was Mekel, who was Israel’s chief spokesman in the United States after the second intifada erupted in 2000, and media specialist Marco Greenberg.
“This was my first experience in a training session,” said Rachel Naidek Ashkenazi, who for the past three years has served as spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defense. “I didn’t come [to the job] with the proper background. I was in marketing.”
She said that after 9-11, she was thrust into the job when the spokesperson left to work in the area of homeland security.
“The crucial thing now is to continue practicing the skills we acquired here so that that they will become second nature,” Ashkenazi said.
Maj. Avital Leibovich, spokeswoman for the Israeli army’s Northern Command in the Galilee and Golan Heights, said the training gave her better insight into the American media. Leibovich said she was impressed that ABC News anchor Peter Jennings dropped in when the group was meeting with ABC network executives.
“I knew we’re in a global village, but what amazed me is that [Jennings] was willing to be open to broadcasting almost any material,” Leibovich said. “I asked him if he would broadcast [anti-Semitic] insults from Hezbollah TV [to expose its lies] and he said yes. I was very surprised by this.”
(Last Friday, the U.S. government declared Al Manar television, the voice of Hezbollah, a “terrorist organization.”)
Ashkenazi said Jennings’ comment came during a discussion about the media being objective or interpretive.
“We think everything is biased,” she said. “There is no objective truth; there is only a matter of balance [in the presentation of news].”
Ashkenazi said each trainee worked one-on-one with media specialists to learn the “techniques of answering questions, of bridging questions to another subject while putting forth the message we want to portray. There are all sorts of techniques I was not aware of before.”
Leibovich said the course also gave the participants an opportunity to meet their colleagues in the U.S. and Israel.“We all have a connection now, so we can assist each other,” she said.
David Akov, Israel’s new consul general in San Francisco, said although he has worked with the media in the past, “it is an ongoing process.” He said he learned some techniques in how to broaden the media’s interest in Israel to cover subjects besides politics.
Cobie Brosh, who has served as consul general in Toronto for the past year and a half, said the course improved his skills in dealing with the media.
“I still need some time to digest the key approaches,” he said. “But I’m much more aware of how to say things when approached by a reporter. It has upgraded my skills.”
David Saranga, for the past two-and-a-half years the deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the training session was useful.
“It’s like going to the gym,” he explained. “You can exercise, but you can always improve yourself. If you’ve done it in the past, that doesn’t say you are an expert at it. You have to practice to maintain a certain level. I’m giving interviews almost every day, and still there is room for improvement.”