`You're too naive ... the reporters will eat you alive'
His entire media experience had consisted of reading newspapers. Now, after two years as spokesman for the army's Central Command, Major Yoni Schoenfeld is leaving the job, considerably more knowledgeable about the press.
A common problem for local human rights activists and Israel Defense Forces spokesmen alike: continuous frustration from the increased difficulty of interesting the Israeli media in what is happening in the territories. The efforts of both groups, each from their own point of view, are often met by laziness, weariness, even an aversion to the facts. Don't burden us with the little details of the protracted conflict, implore the editors and reporters; when you find out who won, wake us up.
Major Yoni Schoenfeld ought to know. In the past two years he has served as the chief representative of the IDF Spokesman's Office in the Central Command. When he entered his post in the summer of 2002 a few months after Operation Defensive Shield, military operations in the territories were still a hot commodity. Reporters vied for the right to join Paratrooper or Golani operations in Nablus. Two years later, things could hardly be more different.
Israeli apathy to Palestinian suffering under the occupation is no longer a new story (and presumably does not bother the IDF spokesman too much), but even setting up a visit with a regional brigade commander in the territories now requires strenuous coaxing and persuasion by the army spokesmen. The high point, recalls Schoenfeld, was a recent incident in Nablus. An IDF force killed a cell of wanted men that the Shin Bet named as responsible for a series of acts of terror and the advanced planning of another terrorist attack. Two newspapers devoted a full page each to the incident. Most of the coverage was devoted to the sad story of the army attack dog killed by the wanted men during the raid.
This is where a certain media paradox comes into play, one with which the army spokesmen have gradually learned to live. The relative success in foiling would-be terrorist attacks is lowering the public's interest in warfare. The Israeli public has accustomed itself to the idea that the number of acts of terror within the Green Line has plummeted. It is less interested in the price paid for this - in terms of the day-to-day efforts of security forces and the suffering of the Palestinians.
"I am wary of making any sweeping generalizations," says Schoenfeld. "There are always journalists that do their jobs seriously, but you also see reporters that barely go out into the field, and who recycle stories. Our ability to interest them has diminished immeasurably. The most common attitude is: `You don't have anything new to tell me, right?' Interest only picks up when there is a terrorist attack. There were periods in which the IDF was operating for weeks in the heart of Nablus and the media was barely aware of it. Nevertheless, we have an interest in publicity, partly because it is important to the soldiers themselves that the their activities are featured in the media."
The attention of the international media has also strayed into other provinces. Josh Hammer, who recently completed a round as Newsweek's Jerusalem bureau chief, defined the phenomenon with brutal frankness in an interview that appeared in the September 3 Haaretz weekend magazine. The separation fence, he said, is good for Israelis and bad for Palestinians, but mainly it makes the conflict between the sides boring to cover. Hammer had a hard time concealing his joy at leaving the region.
Schoenfeld sums up two turbulent years in what was for him a very unexpected posting. The man responsible for his appointment was Major General Moshe Kaplinski. Prior to assuming the post of GOC Central Command, the meticulous Kaplinski had devoted some thought to the status of the command spokesman, and concluded that it was a critical position, in which the officer had to be a trusted aide of the general. He felt it would be best to appoint as his spokesman an officer with a combat background. It would be easier to teach a suitable company commander about the media, he argued, than to have the field officers suppress their suspicions about an officer who grew up in the Defense Ministry. Kaplinski felt that it was more important for the spokesman to have a primary source understanding of the mind-set of a soldier standing guard at a roadblock for eight hours.
The then-commander of the Paratroopers, Colonel Aviv Kochavi, was asked to propose a candidate (Kochavi's brigade is subordinate to the Central Command). He thought of Schoenfeld, who had been an outstanding company commander in the brigade and in Maglan, a select commando unit. Kochavi summoned him from the middle of law school. Brigadier General Ruth Yaron, the freshly appointed IDF Spokesperson, embraced the idea and saw to it that Schoenfeld would have enough overlap time to settle into the job. Until then, his entire knowledge of the media world had amounted to reading newspapers. The spokesman-designate accepted the offer partly because he felt that his studies were cutting him off from what was happening in the army at the height of the conflict. He did, however, consult with one of his commanders from the Paratroopers, who comes from a well-connected media family. "You're too naive. It isn't for you," he advised. "The reporters will eat you alive."
Naive is something that Schoenfeld is not. Two years at Central Command have made the 28-year-old paratroop officer into one of the more sophisticated spokesmen in the media arena. Although the regional command spokesmen do not grant interviews to the Israeli press, their behind-the-scenes influence may be discerned in hundreds of articles and reports. Since the conflict with the Palestinians does not usually take place in large scale, decisive battles, but rather is composed of countless small-scale incidents, there is great significance to the nature of the reports that are released to the press. As opposed to its image in previous years (and especially during the initial period of the conflict), the IDF Spokesman's Office has enhanced the level of credibility ascribed to its reports.
That does not mean, for instance, that when a unit of Border Guards disguised as Arabs kills a group of Palestinians in Jenin, then all of them really are armed wanted men, as the army claims, or that a girl killed in Nablus was indeed hit by Palestinian gunfire. As regards the two incidents, both of which took place last week, the media would be wise to show a healthy skepticism. But the unit does succeed in quickly dispelling unfounded Palestinian claims that are sometimes voiced in regard to the circumstances of various incidents, is able to put field commanders in touch with reporters when an urgent response is needed and can furnish credible information about events in real time. For reporters covering the conflict over the long term, these are not insignificant contributions. This is happening mainly due to a group of spokesmen that recently completed serving in the territories (aside from Schoenfeld, two officers that grew up in the Spokesman's Office come to mind - Southern Command spokesman Major Asaf Liberty and Judea and Samaria Division spokesman Captain Avsha Kasher). They have achieved this through continuous contact with the journalists, maintaining close ties with the generals and willingness to take responsibility even when the military bureaucracy is having a hard time keeping up with the media pace.
Loss of innocence
Schoenfeld's first accelerated lesson came the day after his appointment. A detachment from a battalion in which he used to serve fatally shot a group of Palestinians at an army outpost near Hebron. The IDF represented the dead men as terrorists; the Palestinians spoke of innocent workers who took a wrong turn in the road. Haaretz reporter Ada Ushpiz investigated the circumstances of the incident. The highly motivated Schoenfeld believed that if he could only have the journalist meet with the commander of the force, "a Paratrooper platoon commander, real salt of the earth," she would be persuaded of the accuracy of the army's version of events. Ushpiz gained no such impression. "It didn't work. The reporter adopted about 90 percent of the Palestinian version," he now confesses.
He gradually learned that the relationship between the army "field" and the spokesman is more complicated than he had thought. "There were officers who claimed that we in the IDF Spokesman's office are cut off from them, that we have no problem `selling' them instead of defending them from the media. At times, I would discern in the battalion commanders a wariness about giving me all the true details of an incident. They preferred a `more representative' version."
Schoenfeld recalls the frustration he felt at an incident in the village of Bidu, during the demonstrations against the construction of the fence a few months ago. "A request came in from a journalist, who asked if it was true that Border Guard policemen had tied a boy to a jeep during the demonstration. At that moment, I was with the general, not far away. I asked a Border Guard company commander, and he said that no such thing had happened. So I denied the report, with full confidence. A few days later, the photo showed up on the cover of Maariv and on page 3 of Newsweek."
Schoenfeld has had some instructive experiences with the Paratroop brigade in which he grew up. Two incidents in the Ramallah area were especially jarring. On one occasion soldiers gathered all of the men in one of the villages in the dead of night, to warn them against continued stone throwing. On another occasion, an imam was taken from a neighboring village for a nighttime ride in a jeep and was let off a far distance away, as punishment for a sermon delivered in the mosque that the soldiers interpreted as "incitement." Reporters asked for a comment, whereupon the spokesman updated Major General Kaplinski, who set out to investigate the soldiers' behavior himself. "I can't remember us doing such things when I was a company commander," Schoenfeld later told one of the battalion commanders. The senior officer admitted: "Evidently, we've lost the sensitivity."
In recent months, he has been working intensively on revelations of soldiers' behavior in the territories such as that publicized by the demobilized soldiers' group called Shovrim Shtika (breaking silence). Schoenfeld says that he places great value on allegations that are based on actual field service, but is bothered by the recent journalistic vogue of portraying the soldiers as victims of the conflict, as reflected in the trial of the Paratroops commander for beating Palestinians at the Hawara roadblock.
After completing his service as spokesman, Schoenfeld removed his ranks and proceeded to join a Paratroops unit for a few days at Hawara, south of Nablus, in the same battalion in which he had served as a company commander. His conclusions: "The soldiers are less worn down than what you might think from afar, though a truly immense burden is placed on them. I found a high level of identification with the mission: They understood that their presence there prevents the passage of suicide bombers from Nablus to the home front in Israel. On the other hand, we met the challenge on the roadblocks too late. It's incredible how a simple logistic solution like installing a carousel at the crossing point can alleviate pressure at a roadblock and reduce violent incidents."
Schoenfeld identifies the relationship of trust with the GOC as a key factor in his performance. Kaplinski gave him full access to all of the meetings held in the regional command, even the most classified sessions, and in so doing raised Schoenfeld's status in the eyes of the other senior officers, and enabled him to brief the journalists in a more substantive manner. On the other hand, he identifies a weak point in the relationship with the foreign press. Not only because of the foreigners' starting point vis-a-vis the conflict in the territories, but for decidedly prosaic reasons, as well. "We don't have enough officers who speak a reasonable English. And when you finally do bring an officer together with a foreign correspondent, its usually very hard to keep tabs on the results. Usually, the article is published without us having been able to show it to the officer and demonstrate to him the value of the time he devoted."
Yoni Schoenfeld will now complete his law studies, and will then decide on which direction to take: the combat command route or the spokesmans' role - or perhaps he will hop over the fence and join the media. Kaplinski, who termed his tenure as spokesman a great success, chose to replace Schoenfeld with a company commander from the Nahal brigade. This time, several outstanding combat officers competed for the post. And GOC Southern Command Dan Harel has also appointed a new spokesman - a company commander from the Givati brigade.