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Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari: From theater kid to Navy SEAL to the IDF’s iconic wartime spokesman

The IDF spokesman’s daily press briefing has become popular viewing in Israel, and his willingness to engage directly with the international media stands out from his predecessors

In the chaotic months since Hamas’ massacre and the ensuing war, there has been one mainstay for Israelis: IDF Spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, standing in front of two Israeli flags and speaking to the nation. 

Each evening, Hagari recounts the day’s events in plain language, bowing his head in memory of soldiers killed in battle and describing ground operations deep inside Gaza and airstrikes against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Then, he takes questions from reporters.

Hagari’s nightly press briefings, which began on Oct. 7, have made him a wartime star in Israel in a way that no IDF spokesperson has been in many years.

Israel’s public broadcaster Kan shared a video by a comedian about how “everyone loves Daniel Hagari: Left, right, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, secular, religious – and even men. No one is in the consensus as much as Daniel Hagari.” Israeli singer-songwriter Aya Korem rewrote her popular song “Yonatan Shapira” to be about the IDF spokesman, who, she sang, caused a “humanitarian crisis in my heart.” 

A popular meme being sent around on WhatsApp in recent weeks reads: “Why are women attracted to Daniel Hagari, you ask? Because he is the only man who bothers to update them every day, at the same hour, [with] what he did that day, what he plans to do tomorrow and at the end, he answers their questions.”

Former Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai was perhaps the most iconic spokesperson in the IDF’s history, earning the nickname “the national soother” amid the threat of chemical attacks from Iraq during the Gulf War, and calming Israelis with his catchphrase: “Drink water.” 

Shai told Jewish Insider he gives Hagari a top grade.

“He broadcasts honesty, purposefulness and practicality,” Shai said. “He isn’t talking nonsense and isn’t trying to flatter anyone. He’s just presenting the true picture within the existing limitations.”

“So many people lie and tell half-truths, but Hagari looks like someone you can trust. He tells you the situation in five minutes. Sometimes he says something patriotic, but not often. He isn’t populist or calling for revenge,” Shai said.

Shai said that Israelis have a lack of trust in politicians in general, pointing to polls showing a sharp decline in support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hagari, Shai said, “represents something else. That is his advantage. He wasn’t a media figure before, like some past spokespeople were. The public sees that; the public sees his spirit and they like it.”

Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari speaks to the press from The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defence, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023.

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Hagari, 47, known to his friends as Danny, is a married father of four, the youngest of whom is one year old. He grew up in Tel Aviv as the eldest of three siblings. His brother Ben is an acclaimed video artist based in New York. His other brother, Yoni, lives in the rehabilitation village ADI Negev-Nahalat Eran for people with physical and mental disabilities, which the IDF spokesman visited during the war. 

There has been much made in Israeli media of the fact that Hagari majored in theater (as well as biology) in high school and starred in school plays as a teen, leading commentators to speculate that his experience made him a natural at the spokesman job. He also spent many hours as a child behind the scenes at the famed Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, where his mother ran the subscription office. 

Hagari enlisted in the IDF in 1995 and climbed the ranks of Shayetet 13, the equivalent of the Navy SEALs, becoming its commander in 2019.

Before leading the Shayetet, Hagari served as a top aide to IDF Chiefs of staff Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot, both currently members of the war cabinet. The position put him at the intersection of government and military and gave him a broad view of the IDF’s operations, its ties with Israel’s other security arms and its international and public relations. 

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevy handpicked Hagari to be the spokesman, a job he officially began in March.

With his current success and popularity as spokesman, there has been recent chatter in the IDF that Hagari may be promoted to the rank of major general, possibly as the head of the IDF Personelle Directorate, a job that, in recent years, some have parlayed into a political career.

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Hagari’s experience as a combat soldier on the ground contributes to his ability to effectively relay the IDF’s messages, said former Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and a frequent critic of the IDF’s media efforts.

Hagari is “not just a talking head; he’s a rear admiral and the former commander of the shayetet,” Katz said. “It gives him gravitas that other people don’t have, and that makes a difference.”

Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, the IDF’s international spokesman, praised his blue-eyed commanding officer’s “authentic, Ari Ben-Canaan style,” a reference to Paul Newman’s character in the film “Exodus.”

“It’s an advantage that he’s a [born] Israeli and not a polished native English speaker,” Hecht said. 

Shai said he prefers Hagari’s sabra accent to other officers in his unit who come from the English-speaking world.

“It bothers me that all of our official spokespeople have American or British accents,” he said. “You rarely see a spokesperson with an Israeli accent…[Hagari] speaks English well, with simple, clear language.” 

The fact that Hagari speaks English in public at all — and even holds press briefings in English — is a rarity among IDF spokesmen in recent years.

Katz said Hagari is “the first in over 20 years to speak English directly to the international media and the international community.” 

“You can’t underestimate the importance of having a seasoned officer with a senior rank of rear admiral talking to the media in English and taking reporters into the Gaza Strip, like he did on several occasions, showing them underground tunnels [used by Hamas]. This has significant impact on public opinion around the world,” Katz said.

Shai agreed that “it’s important for the IDF spokesperson to have the ability to communicate with journalists in English.” 

Hagari himself has emphasized the need for the IDF to communicate well internationally.

The international department “used to be the misfits on the side,” Hecht said, but Hagari “understands the importance of [English communications] and mobilizes it to deal with the international sphere.”

A prominent example of how the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit works differently under Hagari was the 47-minute video of atrocities committed by Hamas on Oct. 7. The initial screenings were organized by the IDF for foreign reporters in Israel. Israeli embassies and consulates around the world have since been permitted to show it to media figures, diplomats, lawmakers and other opinion leaders.

“It’s horrific. It will never leave me, for life,” Hecht said of the video.

Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari speaks to the press from The Kirya, which houses the Israeli Ministry of Defence, in Tel Aviv on October 18, 2023.

Hagari was present for the first media screening, and spoke for close to 20 minutes to the roughly 200 assembled journalists before the footage was shown.

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit has also embedded more journalists with the troops in this war, including visits to the tunnels and hospitals used by Hamas in Gaza.

Embedding journalists with the troops is not something that comes naturally to the IDF. During the Second Lebanon War, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, then the IDF’s spokesperson, was sharply criticized – some say scapegoated – for allowing journalists to accompany the troops and giving them what many viewed at the time as too much access. Since then, the IDF has been more hesitant to allow journalists to embed.

Hecht said the IDF was “afraid of embeds” when he entered his role. He started working to bring a change before this war, making the case to Hagari for Fox News’ Trey Yingst to go into the West Bank town of Tulkarem with the IDF. He needed to “teach the forces that the media is not the enemy and we can gain points this way.” 

Media watchers may have noticed that CNN’s Nic Robertson, ABC News’ Matt Gutman and others were let into the terror tunnels under Rantisi Hospital before the usual suspects – Hebrew-speaking military analysts such as Channel 12’s Nir Dvori or Channel 13’s Alon Ben David.

Hecht told JI that “bringing in journalists to see, without us putting it out in our name, has a lot of power,” which is why he focused on “bringing in tier-one journalists.”

Katz called the practice “a total break with decades of tradition in the IDF.”

“Israeli reporters were not happy, but it was smart. It shows an understanding that the operation is dependent on international legitimacy, and if you don’t have it, you’re in trouble,” Katz said. “They’re showing a new sophistication.”

The IDF’s media strategy “has paid off and the overall legitimacy for the Shifa Hospital raid was undeniable,” he added.

Katz also argued that the IDF Spokesman’s Unit is working much quicker than in the past, citing the denial that Israel bombed the Al-Ahli Hospital in the early days of the war within hours of the explosion caused by Islamic Jihad as an example.

“They’re getting the information out quickly and immediately, responding without shying away,” Katz said. “It’s a different approach and I think it’s working.”

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