Don't Blame the Messenger

Israel's premier warrior in the battle for public opinion in America is Alon Pinkas, the consul general in New York. He is often invited to six or seven television programs in a single day, usually to confront Palestinians. What has he learned along the way?

NEW YORK - There is little love lost between Alon Pinkas and Hasan Abdel Rahman. Nor do Pinkas, who is Israel's consul general in New York, and Abdel Rahman, the representative of the Palestinian Authority in Washington, make a secret of their mutual antipathy. Abdel Rahman has more than once labeled Pinkas a liar and a colonialist, and once even declared that he should be hauled before the international court for war criminals in The Hague. Pinkas, in contrast, keeps his true opinion of Abdel Rahman to himself, making do in public with broadsides such as: "Before you speak, you should go and learn a little history."

The two do not know each other personally, but in recent months, they have become a permanent duo on television current events programs in the United States. A prime example of the clashes between them occurred in mid-April on Larry King's popular interview program on CNN, which was devoted to the fighting in the Jenin refugee camp. King asked Pinkas if Israel would allow humanitarian aid workers into Jenin, and Pinkas replied that Israel had so far kept foreign groups away from the camp because the Palestinians had booby-trapped buildings there.

Abdel Rahman was incensed and branded Pinkas a complete liar. The Israeli diplomat, he said, was accusing the Palestinians of killing their own people. The terrorism in the region, he continued, was caused years ago by Israeli prime ministers. Pinkas retorted that Abdel Rahman was the only person he knew who had turned ignorance into an art form and suggested that he take some history lessons. Larry King cut in and stopped the exchange. Time had run out. Pinkas and Abdel Rahman went their separate ways. A few days later, they met again - and they will continue to meet. But the relations between them are frosty behind the scenes, too.

In the past few months, Alon Pinkas, 41, an Ehud Barak appointee, has become the embodiment of Israel in the United States. He has many advocates among Israel's supporters in America, who say that his English is good, that he comes across well on television and is convincing, credible and friendly. His critics - whose numbers are far smaller - maintain that he sometimes wastes precious time on ultra-clever but empty phraseology before he gets to the message that he should be getting across to the general public.

Senior staff members in the consulate have mainly good things to say about their boss. True, there are some who say that "he has a short fuse" and that "he can be very blunt," but overall, he is on good terms with his subordinates. He is far from lazy, makes many public appearances and gives the impression that he enjoys what he is doing.

To hone his skills, Pinkas took lessons from Lilian Wilder, who was Benjamin Netanyahu's television tutor. A veteran in the profession, Wilder worked with Richard Nixon and prepared him for his television debates. She is an ardent supporter of Israel and is constantly appalled at the unprofessional manner and wordiness that Israelis display on television. So she teaches them for free. Nearly every new consul general in New York becomes her pupil. Pinkas started off seeing Wilder every week or two. He still meets with her, but less frequently - no more than once every two or three weeks. The work consists mainly of analyzing videotapes and practical training.

"She is a sharp but businesslike critic," Pinkas relates. "I am usually not satisfied with my appearances, so we sit together to analyze things and see where I can improve. I learn a lot of technique and get plenty of advice - such as to be calm, not to butt in, to assume that people will remember only the first thing and the last thing I say - which helps me prepare for my next appearance."

Into the breach

How did Pinkas come to be a center of media interest? Israel's senior representative in the United States, Ambassador David Ivri - who has just completed his tour of duty - did not come across well on the small screen. Foreign diplomats here say that he did not feel comfortable in front of the camera. The ambassador to the United Nations, Moroccan-born Yehuda Lancry, speaks French well, and his English, too, is laced with a French accent, which does not make a good impression on American audiences. Three members of the Israeli diplomatic corps stepped into the breach: Mark Regev, the spokesman of the embassy in Washington; Ido Aharoni, the spokesman of the consulate in New York; and Yuval Rotem, the consul general in San Francisco. However, the bulk of the day-to-day burden falls on the shoulders of Alon Pinkas. And he seems to be loving every minute.

"There have been days when I was in six or seven different television studios," Pinkas says, "and even on slower days, I did at least two or three programs. The people I spend the most time with are the makeup women. It was a crazy time - and it's still going on - because of the intensive events in the Middle East."

Alon Pinkas who, with his wife, Revital, has two daughters, ages five and two, was born in Rehovot. During his childhood, his parents were Jewish Agency emissaries in New York. He managed to retain the English he picked up then by reading sports magazines. He served in the Armored Corps and was a tank commander in the eastern sector during the 1982 Lebanon War. After getting a B.A. in political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he did his M.A. at Georgetown University in Washington, where one of his lecturers was Madeleine Albright, who would afterward become secretary of state in the Clinton administration. One student in a course on the Middle East and the U.S. in which Pinkas was a teaching assistant was Abdullah, now the king of Jordan. Pinkas also served as assistant military attache in the Israeli embassy at the time.

Returning to Israel in 1990, he worked as the military correspondent of The Jerusalem Post and also wrote for Davar, the now-defunct daily of the Histadrut federation of labor. At the end of 1991, he became a policy adviser to Shimon Peres, who was then the leader of the opposition. When Peres became foreign minister, in the government of Yitzhak Rabin, Pinkas retained his position.

"Two universities didn't teach me what I learned during the period I worked with Peres in regard to planning, formulating and implementing foreign policy," Pinkas recalls. He left Peres' bureau in 1993 because he felt out of place there, he says. For a short time, he was a diplomatic correspondent for the daily Ma'ariv - a particularly unsuccessful experience, he recalls - and then returned to The Jerusalem Post as a military correspondent and commentator. During his period as Peres' aide, Pinkas became friendly with Ehud Barak, then the army chief of staff. When Barak became foreign minister following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, he asked Pinkas to serve as his policy adviser. A few months later, the Labor Party was defeated in the elections; Pinkas stayed with Barak, who was elected chairman of the party, and was responsible for the foreign media until Barak's victory over Netanyahu in 1999.

In the Barak government, Pinkas became bureau chief for the foreign minister, David Levy, and was involved in talks with the Syrians and in the process leading to an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. After Levy's resignation, his successor, Shlomo Ben-Ami, asked Pinkas to stay on. He became consul general in New York in December 2000, following delays stemming from the refusal of the previous consul general, Shmuel Siso, to leave the post.

Pinkas' term was recently extended for another year, meaning that he will have served for three years when he leaves the post. His ties with Ehud Barak remain strong and he says he has "good relations" with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Asked whether he has encountered a subject he was unable to handle because of his political views, which are not those of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Pinkas replies: "So far that hasn't happened."

Cacophony of messages

Criticism of Israel's publicity efforts abroad sounds almost as familiar and platitudinous as the complaints about the anti-Israeli bias of the international media. Andrea Levin, the executive director of the Jewish organization CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), says Israel has a problem.

"Israel has good spokesmen, such as Pinkas and Regev, which is a good thing, but its publicity is still not being handled seriously. The story that Israel is telling is credible, but it is also a very complicated story to tell. On top of that, there is the fact that a cacophony of opinions and messages comes from the Israeli side, which makes it very difficult to understand what, exactly, Israel wants to say."

CAMERA last month demanded the removal of Loren Jenkins, the foreign editor of National Public Radio in the United States. According to the organization, Jenkins "has a long record in favor of Palestinian views, has referred to Israel as a "colonizer" and "has linked Israel to Nazis in his writing." An analysis conducted by the organization of 57 reports and items about the Middle East between March 27 and April 27, 2002, showed that 16 Israeli spokesmen had been interviewed, along with 43 Arabs, 12 "neutrals" (many of whom expressed anti-Israeli views) and six pro-Arab speakers.

Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), thinks that it is always possible to do a lot more in the realm of hasbara, or "information": "Israel has a problem with its message," he explains. "Israel has a unity government with 24 opinions and each has its own nuance. That is the price of democracy. The problem is that in a period of war, it's not productive."

Pinkas is well aware of the criticism, and does not accept it: "Many times people tell me that I came over well on television - but why doesn't Israeli hasbara work the way it should? But if you look at the support for Israel in the U.S., you will find that it's very strong. Support for Israel is consistently around 50 percent. Support for the Palestinians is in the 12 to 13 percent range. A few months ago, the ADL published the results of a survey it conducted, according to which most of the articles in the 50 largest newspapers in the U.S. ultimately side with the Israeli position or with positions that are close to it."

So how does Pinkas explain the fact that so many people are unhappy with the Israeli publicity effort?

"The criticism in this sphere is emotional, not substantive," he says. "It reflects an uncomfortable psychological state. I think that in the battle over publicity in the U.S., we are winning. The same person who claims that the Israeli information effort is poor is constantly exposed to images and words that make him uncomfortable. He doesn't want to see [Palestinian spokeswoman] Hanan Ashrawi on television. These critics believe that the Israeli case is right and just, but then they see unpleasant images from the field, and that generates dissonance. So they blame both Israeli hasbara and the fact that the media are against Israel.

"`CNN hates Israel. It's well known that [ABC TV News anchor] Peter Jennings has always hated Israel. The New York Times is no more than a collection of self-hating Jewish liberals.' That is all nonsense."

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the media picture of Israel in the U.S. is hardly flattering. To this, Pinkas responds: "If Israel decides that it has to launch a military campaign against terrorism, it has to take into account that it won't come across well in the media. Entering Jenin is not figure skating. A military operation never looks good, especially when you are tens times stronger than the Palestinians. When television shows a tank crushing a car, you won't be able to explain that the car was threatening the tank. Anyone who thinks that can be done doesn't understand advocacy. It is hard to expect that, after television news programs show terrorist attacks in Israel with dozens of people killed, a wave of tourism will flock to the country. I cannot make those images go away. I cannot force CBS not to interview Ashrawi."

As for the big question - whether the American media are "for us or against us" - Pinkas comments: "Despite all the complaints, I think that overall, the American press is balanced and fair. Since September 11, there has been much more of a pro-Israel than anti-Israel tendency in the American media. I don't see any increase in pro-Palestinian tendencies. What I do see is cumulative weariness and frustration at what is reflected in the American press - namely that the situation in the Middle East is not moving toward a solution. And since September 11, more and more people are asking how the events in the Middle East are affecting the U.S. Weariness can lead to apathy, and that is not good for Israel."

Pinkas says that the consulate has analyzed the editorials and op-ed articles in The New York Times since September 11: "Sixty percent were pro-Israel or balanced, and 40 percent were pro-Palestinian or balanced with a tilt toward the Palestinians. The situation is more complex in the news coverage department. I don't think the news is biased against Israel. There is sometimes criticism of Israel. In some cases, the correspondent is not sufficiently informed in terms of nuances and history for the balance to be reflected in his report. But overall, the paper is balanced. That doesn't mean they never make blunders.

"For example, there was a report about the solidarity march for Israel by the Jewish community in New York, and what the Times put on its front page was a photo of a poster supporting the Palestinians, with the marchers in the background. That was an example of faulty judgment, and the paper apologized for it."

As regards CNN, Pinkas says, "the picture is not black and white. CNN has different stations. There were certain coverage problems with CNN International, which is what people in Israel see. The American CNN, in contrast, is balanced, and so is CNN Headline News, which is more informative. I ran into Walter Isaacson, the president of CNN, at a social event, and he told me that they are aware of the criticism and are trying to keep things balanced, and he asked for my opinion. I monitor the programs of Aaron Brown, Paula Zahn, Larry King and `Crossfire.' No one can tell me that there is a pro-Palestinian bias on those programs.

"But with all respect to the cable networks, including CNN, they are watched by about three million people a day, while the three major networks have 40 million viewers. Their three senior news anchors were sent to Israel during the siege of [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah and the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I know all three of them - Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. I have an open line to them. Of course, I do not use it often. Just two weeks ago, ABC asked me to give a two-hour briefing to the senior staff of its news department. Jennings was there, along with George Stephanopoulos, who was President Clinton's spokesman [and is now an ABC News analyst), and David Stein, the president of ABC News. I think that ABC News also wants to do good work."

In reply to a question about Jennings, Pinkas notes that "there is criticism about his style ... He is not only the anchor, but also the editor of the evening news, and he makes editorial comments. I don't like some of his language. When it accumulates, there is a feeling, which I think is exaggerated, that he is anti-Israeli. The way he builds his sentence, his body language - there is definitely an element of cynicism in his commentaries about events. In the case of Jennings, I think he favors the underdog, and he is very critical of Israel for not doing enough to resolve the conflict."

No `message discipline'

According to Pinkas, the problem with Israeli publicity stems from the complexity of the situation in Israel.

"The foreign correspondents have two minutes to cover a story, during which they have to build an interesting story, supply interesting images and be balanced. The reporter's natural inclination is to take the side of the weaker party. Our challenge is to show that if the specific story is placed in its proper historical context, the conclusion will be that I am not the strong side here; that I am in fact a small democracy that is under threat.

"The foreign correspondents say: `You have F-15 fighters, Merkava tanks and Dolphin-class submarines, and you are fighting against a refugee camp in Jenin, so how does that make you the weak side?' And that's a problem. Besides, from my position in New York, I can't influence a correspondent who is preparing his report in Israel. That has to be done in Israel. What I can do, after the report is broadcast, is to place the material in the right context from the Israeli point of view."

Asked to elaborate about the location of the problem in Israel, Pinkas says: "There are a number of problems. We don't have message discipline or unity of message. When did you last hear the American health or tourism secretary expressing an opinion about global policy, or the secretary of the treasury praising the CIA? You hear that kind of thing in Israel and the result is a confused message. We have a problem of a multiplicity of speakers, which is due to a lack of discipline. Everyone allows himself to speak.

"When you have so many spokespeople, the gap between the messages gets wider. One says we have to expel Arafat; another says, no, we have to safeguard him. A third proposes unilateral separation. A fourth urges that we conquer all the territories of the Palestinian Authority. Someone is in favor of the Saudi initiative and someone else is against it. That creates a problem and it confuses the public in the U.S. It's true that public relations there is not everything, but the fact that there is more than one Israeli spokesman is problematic. But maybe that is a cheap price to pay for a unity government, compared with the advantages a unity government offers in a period of war.

"Second, the structure of decision-making in the media sphere is quite bizarre and not properly coordinated. So what happens is that a lot of journalists and a lot of their stories are not handled properly, and then we claim that the media are against us. We have to work in closer cooperation with the foreign press. The Foreign Ministry, with all its shortcomings and limitations, has the best grasp of the international media. I would propose that in a time of crisis, the foreign media unit of the IDF Spokesman's Office be placed under the Foreign Ministry.

"There is a whole series of bodies that deal with the foreign press - the Foreign Ministry, the IDF Spokesman, the police, the Government Press Office, the cabinet ministers' spokespeople - and to them we have to add talented media advisers and others. They will have to decide, in coordination with the army commanders, if and when to allow the media into the arena of battle. There was military logic in the decision not to allow the media into Jenin, but it was ruinous in terms of Israel's public relations. It engendered the massacre myth, and it brought about the establishment of an international commission of inquiry, which would have caused Israel a lot of grief."

If Israel had a central media body, Pinkas says, and if there were understanding of how events influence world public opinion, "it would have been possible, perhaps, to allow an armored personnel carrier with journalists into Jenin a day or two after the event. In that case, it would have been possible to say that there was a great deal of destruction in Jenin, but certainly not a massacre. I also don't want to say that the media consideration should be the overriding factor in planning a military operation, but it has to be taken into account. If the consideration were only a media one, the siege of Arafat was misconceived, because it made Arafat the focus of events. Instead of dealing with Palestinian terrorism, everyone was busy calculating how much hummus Arafat received."

`Pinkas was clearly lying'

In an interview, Hasan Abdel Rahman, the representative of the Palestinian Authority in Washington, sounds a lot more moderate than he does in face-offs with Alon Pinkas on television.

"I don't know Pinkas personally," he says. "I know him only from television. There is no doubt that he is an articulate speaker. But the feeling I get from him is that he is a bit arrogant. I don't think he shows enough respect for me, and I say this on the basis of things he said and also on the basis of his body language and his behavior. But when all is said and done, he represents his government, and I think he does it well from its point of view."

How do you reconcile this attitude with the fact that you have called him a liar more than once?

Abdel Rahman: "When I called him a liar, he was clearly lying. Sometimes his statements verge on racism. He attacked Arab and Muslim culture, and in my opinion those comments undermine his credibility. You cannot make peace with the Palestinians if you do not respect them and say that they have a culture of violence."

Pinkas: "I never attacked Muslims or Islam. What I do say, and repeat, is that the political culture of the Palestinian national movement is a culture of violence that has no respect for life and exalts death."

Abdel Rahman has been in the U.S. for seven years. Like Pinkas, he too works hard. He sometimes gives 10 or more interviews in a day. The reason is that he has a very small staff and most of the work falls on his shoulders.

Who do you think is winning the publicity battle?

"In the past few weeks, I traveled all around the United States and visited ten cities and many campuses. I can tell you that the brutality of the Israeli army disturbed a great many Americans. They think that Israel's behavior was excessive. For the first time, we have activism on campuses, with students organizing and coming out in favor of justice in Palestine. Of course, we did not win the information battle in the White House or in the Capitol, but I am convinced that this is the first time that the average American has begun to ask himself questions about Israeli policy. I see it in the huge number of e-mails I get from people who were never involved politically in this subject."

How do you explain this?

"In the past, we did not have access to American television. Today we are seen everywhere and people understand that there are two sides to the story. I don't want to say that we are winning the battle for publicity and the media, but we have made a great deal of progress." H.H.

What says the Times?

Asked to respond to comments made in this article with respect to The New York Times' Middle East coverage, Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications, answered: "We are always sorry to hear that we have disappointed a reader, and we are constantly reexamining our performance. But we believe that our greatest usefulness, to readers and to our society, lies in adhering to the pledge of Adolph S. Ochs, founding member of the family that still leads the Times: `To give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of any party, sect or interest involved.'

"We are highly conscious of sensitivities surrounding coverage of the Middle East. Our determination and our staff's assignment, as always, is to cover all sides thoroughly, dispassionately and with scrupulous impartiality. Our correspondents and editors are chosen for their demonstrated ability to carry out that mission; they are the most experienced and fair-minded journalists in our business. If occasionally the facts of a particular news situation seem likely to provide more satisfaction to one side than to others, our policy is to restore the balance promptly in our overall coverage." H.H.