Tuesday, September 8, 2009

HRW and Israeli PR

Iain Levine writes in today's Jerusalem Post about the reluctance of the current Israeli government to engage with Human Rights Watch over its reports on Operation Cast Lead this past winter.

In a PR sense, Israel made huge strides this winter by establishing an English-speaking press unit, publishing videos of their operations on Youtube, and texting Palestinians. However, Israel's media strategy internationally was somewhat out of touch with the attitudes of people outside of Israel. Claiming the human rights violations are sometimes justified did little to help Israel's case, even in instances where it was arguable true. Israel acted shocked that the media would be critical of some of the less savory tactics used by the IDF in Gaza.

For better or worse, close scrutiny of Israel by the press is a ground condition. It should set the stage for Israel's PR, not surprise it anew each time Israel enters a new conflict. The argument that sometimes killing civilians is justified have merit, but it has little resonance in countries who do not deal with violence on the same level as Israel. Continual self-reflection and a struggle to do better are qualities that Israel embodies internally. It would be beneficial to highlight these qualities internationally.

Human Rights Watch would also likely present a more even-handed version of the facts if it had more of them to deal with. Refusing to engage with HRW means that Israel has no chance of getting its side of the story across. Engaging is highly unlikely to guarantee a "pro-Israel" slant, but it will shed light on the complexity of the debate in a way that makes readers of HRW reports much more aware of the complexities of the Security-Rights relationship. Overall, this will benefit Israel's ability to make its side of the story resonate with a global audience.

This is similar to the way the US military embeds reporters in its units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Allowing journalists to see the complexities of battle gives them a different perspective on the complexities of war. The Pentagon holds press tele-conferences with senior officials in Baghdad almost bi-weekly. Multi-National Force Iraq publishes a Facebook page. While the American public has clearly not swung in favor of the war in light of these measures, engagement with the public has increased the transparency of the military and given those interested a high level of access into the complexities of the War in Iraq.

Likewise, engagement is an important step that Israel could take to improve relations with journalists and organizations. In fact, one of the journalist community's biggest complaints in Operation Cast Lead was that they had no access to Gaza to document what was happening there. As a result, Israel ended up looking far more nefarious than it actually was. And Israel looks nefarious by refusing to comment on HRW's reports, which are the summaries of personal interviews conducted with civilians. Even contextualizing the events presented in the reports without justifying them would significantly improve Israel's ability to convey the complexities of warfare to a wide audience.

Of course, it is usually easier to defend an innocent client. If Israel finds that for some events it cannot provide sufficient justification, perhaps this should be an sign internally that a policy change is in order. Regardless, the PR battle is one that Israel is losing badly, and will continue to lose in the absence of engagement.

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