Rescuing Israel's image in the rubble of Haiti
"One day last week, while driving through Port-au-Prince, two people ran up to us," says Amos Radian, Israel's ambassador to the Dominican Republic, who has been coordinating Israeli aid to the earthquake-stricken island nation of Haiti. The security officer thought they were under attack, but the "assailants" turned out to be British correspondents from the Sun and the Mirror. They'd seen the Israeli flag on the car and having heard about the field hospital Israel had set up, wanted to be taken to it, Radian says.
It's a nice change for foreign correspondents to be chasing Israeli representatives for positive reasons.
For years Israel has been depicted as brutal and inhuman, but the tone changed last week, with media coverage focused on the hospital Israel had put up - enabling complex surgery under field conditions, and even sporting facilities for birthing and for premature babies. MSNBC for instance, which broadcasts to some 78 million households in the United States, sang the Israeli team's praise, noting the chaos and collapse of communications. The Israelis were the exception, MSNBC reported: Their 747 landed at the airport, with the Israelis immediately unloading equipment to set up a state-of-the-art field hospital. Exactly as one might expect of Israelis, the cable news channel gushed, their arrival was efficient, thorough and well-managed, and they got down to work straightaway.
When MSNBC's anchor wondered why the Israelis were more organized than the Americans, the reporter on the ground in Haiti answered that the Israelis had arrived far more prepared than the other rescue teams. Within hours they had operating theatres up and running, she said.
CNN reported much the same and even asked an American general how a tiny nation like Israel managed to do what no other delegation to Haiti had.
Radian himself trekked through the debris, from one improvised clinic to another, urging that the worst cases be sent to the Israeli hospital, as it had the best care available in Haiti, he explains. "It's gotten so reporters wandering between the camps come to me, telling me about tough cases in other camps - such as a woman needing an urgent Cesarean section. They ask if they can send Israeli teams in," he says.
The army estimates the cost of the Haiti operation for last week alone at NIS 30 million, three-quarters of what Jerusalem spent on its image in 2009. Of that, NIS 10 million went toward building and the use of satellite communications; the same was spent on sending over the Jumbo jets with the medical equipment. Each day the 230-man medical team is there costs more than NIS 1.5 million, not including communication costs.
As the army spokesman put it, cost becomes secondary on a humanitarian mission like this.
Beyond rescuing lives, the Israeli team in Haiti is also helping to rescue Israel's image in both the press and diplomatic circles. "I ran into the Japanese ambassador at one of the ruined sites and told him about the hospital," says Radian. "An hour later he'd brought the entire Japanese delegation over to come and learn. The Colombian army asked to append their operating theatre, with 16 surgeons, to our camp. Now our camp has the Israeli flag, the Red Cross flag and the Colombian flag. Israeli, Colombian and British teams are operating together at our camp, which has increased from 230 to 300 people."
No one at the airport could have missed the Israelis' arrival. "Two El Al jets with the Israeli flag on their tails landed... Two hundred and thirty Israeli soldiers disembarked, and who guarded them en route? Jordanian armored vehicles. It was surreal," says Radian.
One critic of the Israeli effort is Yoel Donchin, head of patient safety at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem in Jerusalem. In an article published on Ynet, he wrote that what the Haitians need most isn't a field hospital, but field toilets. More than they need doctors, he said, they need bulldozers to dig sewage lines.
"A country seeking to bring humanitarian aid, without thinking about its image, should send what the victims need, not what it wants to give," Donchin wrote. But would the news programs cover an Israeli commander next to a site with 500 chemical toilets? Hospitals with devoted doctors and nurses bearing the Star of David are sexier, he concluded.
Yossi Levy of the Foreign Ministry dismisses the charge that it's all a public relations stunt. "We sent the best of our people - not to get [good PR], but to save lives," he says. After years of bad images, he adds, the photographs of the Israeli hospital speak for themselves. Even the Guardian, not known for its pro-Israeli coverage, was adulatory.
After foreign journalists started to crowd the field hospital, the army set up procedures to handle them, says Matan Greenberg, soldier and spokesman for the delegation. They are met by a colonel who explains how Israel's Home Front Command and rescue teams work. They meet with the hospital commander, who reviews what happened that day events. They can tour the tents, says Greenberg, and are finally brought to a tent that offers satellite Internet communication, a precious commodity in the disaster zone. The army PR team in Haiti even has press kits ready to go.
Is the Arab press also covering the Israeli activity in Haiti?
"We tried to attract Arab papers. We invited them, but they didn't come," says Greenberg. "But there are a lot of [press] teams from Europe [covering our work]."
Israel has previously sent rescue teams to Turkey, Armenia, India, Kenya and Thailand - the latter after the 2004 tsunami. Coverage was adulatory in all cases, but the applause waned quickly. The chill in Israeli-Turkish relations these days demonstrates just how short that appreciation can last.
"We have no illusions," says Levy. They know the positive coverage won't last; Israel will again be portrayed as Goliath. But the Foreign Ministry is convinced that the positive reports will still help Israeli economic interests.
"The fact that [U.S. Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton mentioned us in her speech is of the utmost importance," says image consultant Roni Rimon. "As long as Israel leverages [the positive coverage], it will last."
His advice (long stated but never taken): Israel should buy ad space in the foreign press and on Web sites, where it could publish images and clips from its Haitian rescue mission. That said, "This is one of the few times I don't feel things should have been done differently," Rimon says. "As an adviser, I would advise them to keep doing exactly what they're doing."