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The Crisis of Israeli Crisis-Management

The most important criticism of Israel that has been written about the flotilla debacle is by David Horovitz, the editor of the Jerusalem Post. It is titled “A Scandalous Saga of Withheld Film,” and it strikes at the heart of Israel’s continuing inability to respond competently to PR crises.

The lack of credibility given to [the initial, verbal] official Israeli account, bolstered by the flow of footage from the activists aboard the vessels and the incontrovertible evidence of death, created the narrative on which the international community passed its judgment on Israel as the hours went by on Monday.

Demonstrations flared, first in Turkey and in those parts of the Arab and wider world most hostile to Israel, and then into Europe and beyond. …

Approximately 12 hours after the event, however, when all the condemnations had been issued, the demonstrators had weighed in worldwide, the Arab League, Security Council, Human Rights Council and all were convening or preparing to devote their attentions to this latest Israeli outrage, official Israel finally decided to release the grainy but distinct footage it had been sitting on all day showing precisely what had unfolded in the pre-dawn battle at sea.

In a crisis that was being scrutinized with white-hot intensity by virtually every government, NGO, and media outlet in the world, seconds and minutes counted, and hours, much more so. Accused of massacring unarmed peace activists but in possession of video incontrovertibly showing that the charges were false, Israeli officials… sat on the evidence. Horovitz:

It was the result of a decision. The officials, in their various competing, conflicting, inadequate propaganda hierarchies, actively chose, after consultation, not to release it. …

Some of their considerations are not beneath contempt. There was a legitimate concern, for instance, that the footage, showing colleagues in such trouble, might prove demoralizing for Israeli troops. And some of their considerations are utterly contemptible, including the scandalous parochial obsession with local TV – the insistent, misguided desire to hold back dramatic material until late in the Israeli day, so that as many people as possible here will see it fresh on the 8 p.m. Hebrew nightly news.

It would be bad enough if this were the first time this kind of incompetence and parochial blindness had fundamentally contributed to the perception of Israeli wrongdoing and criminality. But this is an old story. It follows a pattern that is agonizingly familiar to anyone who has been paying attention to Israel over the past decade. It can be found in virtually every Israeli PR disaster going back to the opening days of the intifada and the Al-Dura affair, another self-inflicted disaster.

The cycle is always the same: 1) Israel is accused of a monstrous crime; 2) the international media, European and Arab governments, NGOs, and anti-Israel commentators whip themselves into a lather with denunciations and recriminations; 3) Israel quickly finds itself in the eye of a media and diplomatic storm; 4) for a day or two (or longer) Israel looks guilty as sin, and average citizens in democratic countries become convinced that Israel indeed has committed a great crime; 5) then, slowly, doubt is cast on the prevailing narrative; exculpatory evidence comes to light; it becomes apparent that the charges are false or trumped-up; 6) but it doesn’t really matter. The wave of media and political furor has passed. The Israel-haters who rushed to judgment never retract their initial condemnations. Guilt makes the front pages, but exoneration is ignored. In the minds of people everywhere, the charges have stuck.

This cycle repeats itself largely because Israeli institutions simply do not care to treat the media and information battlefield with even a fraction of the competence that the IDF brings to the physical battlefield. If there is one lesson that the Israeli government should learn from the flotilla ambush, it is that it’s time, once and for all, to overhaul the way the national-security institutions of the country respond to crises. Instead of waking up Monday morning to a video of “peace activists” trying to massacre IDF soldiers, the world woke up yet again to claims of an Israeli massacre — all because some bureaucrats sat on the video for 12 hours.


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