Israel's public diplomacy efforts leading up to, during, and after the Gaza flotilla incident in May 2010 were hampered by systemic, structural flaws within the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister's Office, the Foreign Ministry, and the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Unit, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss said in a report published Wednesday.
"In an age in which public opinion has a considerable impact on the legitimacy of diplomatic security conduct, public diplomacy has become a matter of the highest priority. Israel's defense and global advocacy campaigns were intended to clarify the state's political and security positions for policy and opinion makers as well as the general public both locally and abroad. Media outlets, with their central role in forging public opinion, are of strategic importance to the state which wishes to utilize them to spread its message," the report stated in its introduction.
During the IDF's preparatory phase prior to the boarding of the Turkish flotilla on May 31, 2010, state-wide public diplomacy aimed to back the reasoning for a military operation to commandeer to the flotilla. "On the heels of the operation and following a significant delay in getting materials out to the international media, a rear-guard effort was made in public diplomacy in the international realm to 'put out the fire in the media,' and henceforth minimize the negative impact of the event on Israel's image."
The comptroller also notes the growing power of the military branches of the public diplomacy system as opposed to the civilian branches, "a gap whose results were evident during the flotilla incident."
Lindenstrauss said that the IDF Spokesperson's Unit delayed the dissemination of video footage and photographs of the incident aboard the Mavi Marmara because it was concerned that images depicting its elite naval commandos being beaten and taken captive would hurt the IDF's image. The IDF Spokesperson said it delayed the dissemination of the footage because of technical issues.
The IDF Spokesperson's Unit is officially in charge of different military advocacy units, but in "actuality acts as spokesperson and advocacy department for the country, due to the unit's size, resources, and the information if holds in the military and state security fields," Lindenstrauss wrote.
"The unit continued to take the lead during events relating to the Gaza flotilla, mainly by default, in order to fill in the gaps created in Israel's advocacy abilities on both the national and international levels. This reliance is incongruent with the idea of Israel as a democratic state. Establishing an advocacy branch as part of the Defense Ministry should reduce dependency on the IDF Spokesperson's Unit, although this problem could only be solved by an additional and significant improvement in the abilities of the Foreign Ministry's office, which is responsible for Israel's foreign advocacy, the National Information Directorate's role in assembling and directing Israeli advocacy on a national level, and top authority responsible for constructing messages intended for foreign and internal advocacy."
For its part, the IDF Spokesperson's Unit said in response to the report that its messages during the flotilla incident were delayed "due to a process of authorizations between the military echelons and political leadership."
"The pictures [sent from the Mavi Marmara] were delayed because the helicopter that was to be used for transferring the images was diverted, as well as a convoluted process of authorizations in the IDF. Due to these delays, processes have been put in place both within the IDF and in its dealings with the political level," the IDF Spokesperson's Unit said in a statement.
The comptroller recommends that IDF Spokesman's Unit functions be spelled out clearly, since public diplomacy "employed by the military establishment may overstep its currently- defined scope." This will help solve the vacuum that exists today and prevent the creation of situations of ambiguity or ad-hoc statements during an event in relation to the realm of responsibility of each public diplomacy group during a crisis. During this special period, the National Information Directorate must supervise the public diplomacy work and activity intensively, the comptroller said.
Lindenstrauss said that as a whole there has been significant improvement in both coordination and utilization of the state's public diplomacy ability. This includes recognition of its overall importance within the military and political echelons as well. However, significant flaws that appeared in previous comptroller reports have not been addressed, he said.
The State Comptroller points to a "growing disparity between the ability of the state to conduct international hasbara and public relations on issues of diplomacy and security and the resources needed to effectively contend with this challenge."
This is especially severe, the comptroller notes, in an age of exploding mass media development on the international stage and the increasing influence of the media on public perception, as well as the increasing resources "the enemy is investing in the public relations arena."
"The National Information Directorate, which has formed in a process over the years, does no longer display, in its abilities and structure, a suitable and contemporary conception in the face of the country's challenges on the international media front."
The comptroller said that the National Information Directorate, which acts as the top professional authority, guiding and coordinating other advocacy groups such as the IDF Spokesperson's Unit, during peace as well as in times of crisis, and specifically on matters relating to world opinion, finds it difficult to provide an adequate response in accordance with relevant government decisions from 2007. This is largely due to the small number of staff members both in times of calm and times of crisis, and to the Directorate serving as the Prime Minister's Communications Advisor. In addition, the National Information Directorate, which works in the PMO, is still not prepared to perform continual and consecutive coordinating efforts with other advocacy groups, in times of emergency and especially during war, in order to facilitate the formulation, transferring and implementation of messages, for a systematic, initiated and responsive effect on public opinion on the international and national levels.
The report also shows that the Foreign Ministry has difficulty supplying information and providing advocacy. This is mainly due to a growing disparity between the vital necessities needed in such a central field and the limited abilities of the Directorate in its current formation, abilities that can no longer meet its needs. "The importance of foreign advocacy is becoming greater and greater in light of growing communicative and advocacy-related challenges in this major front. Therefore, it is imperative that the Foreign Minister and the administration of the Foreign Ministry's office take the necessary actions required to repair and improve its performance in this crucial field," the report states.
The comptroller reported that the "perpetuation of the current situation damages the National Information Directorate's ability to influence the various target audiences and produce the best, swiftest and most efficient expression of Israel's policies and activities related to foreign affairs and security. This is the case predominantly during crises that are "explosive and prone to draw fire" — crises in which Israeli public diplomacy from the outset must confront extremely complex situations involving the way the world perceives Israel's positions.
"Such crises situations in the areas of foreign affairs and security require the professional cooperation and coordination of all relevant public diplomacy groups. These groups must also work together with the foreign and defense ministries under the supervisory leadership of the National Information Directorate and with the prime minister's support to deliver convergent, real-time vital information concerning Israel's policies.
"This synergy, which is currently limited, is crucial in our attempt to influence public opinion to support the policies, aims and methods of operation chosen and employed by Israel. Without this objective, any activity, no matter how successful and justified it may be, may be seen as unsuccessful or even a failure when it comes to dealing with public opinion throughout the world," the comptroller said.
"Due to ever-growing challenges in the media-diplomacy front, the State Comptroller believes it is necessary to formulate, agree upon and implement a comprehensive national emergency plan to rectify and improve whatever is necessary within the national public diplomacy arena, in accordance with the prime minister's guidance. The work will involve the correction of failures within each group that handles a particular aspect of public diplomacy, mainly including the PMO, Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, IDF, Public Diplomacy Ministry and other groups that should be consulted, as well as coordination among them. All of these groups will work together under the overall coordination and guidance of the National Information Directorate within the PMO, which will only be assigned function-related tasks, will be supervised by the prime minister, and will constitute a supreme professional and organizational authority for all other public diplomacy groups," the report stated.
According to a PMO statement on March 18, 2012, "The Prime Minister accepted the comptroller's recommendation to formulate, agree upon and implement a comprehensive national emergency plan to rectify and improve whatever is necessary within the national public diplomacy arena." The statement also said the structure of the public diplomacy unit within the PMO was modified so that its activities have been divided into two groups: public diplomacy itself and presentations to the media within the scope of the National Information Directorate.
The State Comptroller said it views these measures by the PMO in a positive light and believes that their complete implementation will lead to a significant improvement in the future and a better ability to confront public diplomacy and media-related challenges the country will need to face.
The National Information Directorate responded to the State Comptroller's report with the following:
"The National Information Directorate was established five years ago, and since then its involvement in national decision-making has been growing. Its coordinating between all the different hasbara sources is also becoming more sophisticated all the time. The State Comptroller's report notes a significant improvement in the coordination of all the hasbara bodies in fully utilizing the abilities of the hasbara system under the leadership of the National Information Directorate. The comptroller notes that the political and military echelon understand the importance of hasbara. Additionally, the comptroller notes progress in hasbara over the Internet and in New Media, and in hasbara directed at Arabic-speaking audiences, all which have been implemented by the National Information Directorate.
"In accordance with the comptroller's recommendations, we will formulate a plan for necessary rectifications and improvements within the public diplomacy realm. We have already begun to make changes in accordance with some of the failures pointed out by the comptroller."