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Eylon Levy: Israel’s ‘whole public diplomacy’ is ‘improvised’

Former government, IDF spokespeople call for Israel to take a more professional approach to communicating with the world

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Eylon Levy, Israeli government spokesperson, speaks to members of the media about the extended truce, humanitarian aid, and the release of hostages during his daily briefing on November 28, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Two of Israel’s highest-profile spokespeople since Oct. 7 – former government spokesman Eylon Levy and Lt. Col. (Res.) Jonathan Conricus – lamented the state of Israel’s public diplomacy on Wednesday in a webinar for the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy.

“The whole public diplomacy operation…was improvised and set up on the fly,” Levy, who recently departed his government role amid reports of political infighting, said. “The fact that I was able to become a government spokesman tells you the best and worst about Israel. The best is that Israel knows, in times of emergency, to be flexible and agile and creative and give young people responsibility. The worst, because this is not the way it should work.”

Levy, whom Israeli media said in January was being targeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, over his participation in the pre-Oct. 7 protest movement, pointed out that when the war began, Netanyahu did not have a spokesman for foreign media. He added that the department that handles media relations “is still largely improvised.” He became the government spokesman after joining a volunteer effort to organize a daily press briefing about the war, which was eventually adopted by the government’s Public Diplomacy Directorate.

“The IDF spokesperson’s unit is a veritable empire when you consider the number of people it was able to bring into reserves, but the civilian effort doesn’t have that,” Levy said. “The incredible mobilization we’ve seen in recent months needs to be formalized and institutionalized and made official. It’s not too late to do it in this war.” 

Levy said that while IDF Spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari “is wonderful,” there are bad optics associated with having no civilian address for the public and the media to get information.

Conricus, the former IDF spokesperson to foreign media and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, also said that the military taking the lead in communications “is not how it’s supposed to be. It should be driven by men and women, preferably women, in suits who do not represent the military… I’m [pushing] for women of color.”

Conricus said the IDF has improved in its communications with the international media in this war, prioritizing it more than in past crises.

“Hagari speaks in English and really puts international media front and center. We’ve seen multiple cases where international media has been given access to breaking news that Israeli media, the vaunted military correspondents, are not getting access to,” he pointed out. “That is part of an understanding that I think is correct…that communicating well with the world…is a very important enabler for the IDF to continue to operate. If we don’t do it right, we are shooting ourselves in the foot and we are limiting our freedom of action to operate and pursue our strategic goals.”

Still, Conricus argued, “even if we were 10 times better, I think Israel would face a very hostile and difficult media environment. That doesn’t mean we are relieved and don’t have to be much, much better. … We are scrutinized more than any other country, as a democracy fighting to defend its civilians.”

Israel needs to establish a communications structure, with funding and personnel in regular times, which would then be prepared during wartime, Conricus said, adding that public diplomacy needs to be “addressed systematically, not just a one-off.” A holistic approach would have to include Israeli, Arabic and international media.

The government would also have to hire — in addition to people who are good at speaking on camera — talented graphic artists, social media experts, editors, fact-checkers, open-source intelligence analysts and others.

“Those are the kinds of people who we need permanently who can sit and work together and prepare for the day they are really needed,” Conricus said. “The IDF spokesperson unit and parts of the Prime Minister’s Office have been good at responding to a crisis, but then in the downtime, we dropped the ball many times. We need to have consistency.”

In the IDF, someone should have the role of clearing intelligence for public relations purposes, including high-quality visual imagery, communications intercepts and “ammunition to use in the media battle that we fight every day,” he said.

Fact-checkers and open-source intelligence analysts, he argued, would help understand fake news spread by Hamas and others. “It’s sometimes days before we understand what’s going on…and before we can issue a verified statement on behalf of the State of Israel that this isn’t what happened, that’s fake, actually this is what happened. We need to be able to do that faster,” Conricus said.

Asked what could be done immediately to improve the government’s communications, Levy first said that the government should hire Conricus “or someone of his caliber and understanding of crisis communications.”

“There is a lot that we can do and things can happen right now. We don’t have to wait until the war is over,” Levy said, calling for there to be “a fleet of spokespeople in all languages who will be trained, who will be centrally briefed, who will have people helping them.”

Levy noted that he had no staff, only volunteers in Israel and the Diaspora to help compile his daily briefing and summaries of major news stories: “Even the person who was sitting at the computer and reading the journalists’ questions [in his daily press conference] on Zoom was a volunteer. … It starts with having full-time paid professionals who aren’t feeling that they’ve put their life on hold in order to contribute to the war effort.”

The former government spokesman also called for better synergy with Diaspora Jewry. “I think part of the reason that I resonated so much with the Diaspora was that suddenly they felt that they had a central address of a place to go and get information. … Israel is not fully utilizing the Diaspora and the incredible awakening that we have had” in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks.

Also on the Misgav Institute panel was Matt Krieger, CEO of Gova10, a strategic communications firm, and the chief communications officer of the campaign advocating for Israeli-American hostage Hersh Goldberg-Polin’s release from Hamas captivity.

Krieger suggested that part of professionalizing the government’s approach would be to learn from the way public relations works in the tech world, and realize that “communications between spokespeople and journalists can’t be so transactional. We can’t just look at this as…when we have a story, we’re going to come and ask you to tell that story however we want. We need to cultivate relationships in a deep way with all of our key journalists. … That needs to be a real priority, mapping out and understanding who those journalists are, how to reach them and how to get them to be more sympathetic to the stories that we’re telling.”

Krieger also noted that Israel’s two foreign ministers during this war were not able to communicate effectively in English, and their top aides were not empowered to do so, either.

Levy said that those ministers did not give interviews to international media “at a time that the prime minister, who had more than enough things to be busy with, was rolling up his sleeves and appearing in international media.”

Krieger also spoke about his experience working with hostage families to help them share their stories with the media. Soon after Oct. 7, Krieger and other PR professionals started to connect families impacted by the Oct. 7 attack with journalists. He and former Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz organized a well-attended press conference on Oct. 10 for the families of U.S. citizens kidnapped by Hamas, which was one of the first instances in which hostages’ families told their stories to the international media. That was followed by similar press conferences for French and German families.

“There was no [structure] in place to deal with this,” he recounted. “Civil society and people like myself…understood we have something very specific to offer and wanted to leverage that talent to help Israel and the hostage families.” 

Coordination between government public communications and the hostages’ message “carries a lot of baggage,” Krieger said. “Even the Americans and the Israelis, who are seemingly on the same side of the negotiations are having a hard time finding their footing in terms of how to approach the hostage story. And there are questions that arise on a daily basis. Are the hostages being prioritized? Because oftentimes it doesn’t feel like they are.”

Krieger noted that the government “is in a tough spot with the hostage families,” in that “they need to show strength, they need to fight a war” while also trying “to placate the Americans…to work with the Qataris and the Egyptians.”

“The families have found that they’ve been much more effective organizing on their own, and each family has taken a different approach,” he stated.

Krieger lamented that while “the hostage story has been more sympathetic” for international audiences, “it is becoming much harder to tell that story in an ongoing way because people are losing interest,” which he blamed in part on the “overall anti-Israel stance that many journalists and media outlets have.”

“That being said,” Krieger added, “there are many fair journalists that are out here and telling a story in as balanced a way as possible and want to report the facts.”

Disclaimer: Jewish Insider’s Lahav Harkov is a senior fellow at the Misgav Institute and moderated this session.

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