Analysis

In Crisis With Russia, Israeli Government Again Goes Silent, Throws Army to the Frontlines

The downing of the Russian plane in Syria forced Israel's military to return to the PR front. This is a deliberate policy

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot.
David Bachar

The downing of the Russian plane in Syria forced the Israel Defense Forces to return to the PR front to deal with the crisis with Moscow, even though it's a political issue.

The IDF spokesman, Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, and his team have handled the exchange with Russian officials and dictated Israel’s position. Similar experiences in the past point to a worrying trend: the army being forced to represent Israel’s failures and security crises. The politicians tend to represent Israel only after its successes.

Immediately after the incident in Syria, the IDF announced that "Israel sees Iran and Hezbollah as jointly responsible for this unfortunate event." The following day, in a statement announcing the departure of an Israeli military delegation to Russia, the military said: "The IDF will continue to act according to the political echelon's directives in the face of Iran's constant attempts to entrench in Syria and arm the Hezbollah terror organization with lethal precision weapons."

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The Russians, blaming Israel, say the downing of the plane wasn't an  isolated incident, but rather a political event with the potential to affect the relationship between Jerusalem and the Kremlin. But even after the Russian findings were presented, Israel's political leaders insisted on remaining behind the scenes, making way for the IDF spokesman to reject the claims.

It took three days for political leaders to publicly respond to the crisis, with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressing his condolences on Israel Radio. True, two days after the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but  he only spoke meaningfully a week or so later — on Tuesday before leaving for the UN General Assembly meetings in New York.

Netanyahu emphasized Israel's success in preventing Iran's entrenchment in Syria and stressed the importance of the security coordination. The security cabinet issued its own statement, expressing regret for "the loss of life of the aircrew of the Russian plane that was downed by irresponsible Syrian fire."

Not Israel's mouthpiece

In November 2007, referring to the Second Lebanon War, the State Comptroller’s Office said "a considerable part of the official information provided to the foreign media during the war was carried out by the IDF, according to its approach and not from a comprehensive national perspective." The IDF chief of staff during the war, Dan Halutz, was quoted in the report as saying that "the IDF spokesman is not Israel's mouthpiece; he must only address IDF issues. Once the IDF delves into other topics, it must be stopped."

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Giora Eiland, who investigated the IDF's handling of the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla incident in 2010, wrote in his report on the issue: "Even though the responsibility for explaining the incident is shared by multiple bodies, the IDF and its spokesman became the main source of Israel's hasbara," using a Hebrew word often translated as PR or public diplomacy.

He said  the IDF spokesman "acted within his range of powers, stretching them to the extreme and even beyond by discussing activities external to the army."

Today, appraising the handling of the situation by the Foreign Ministry, the Prime Minister's Office and other agencies, Eiland believes that the IDF had no choice but to enter the hasbara arena.

"The IDF spokesman did what he did in this to fill a vacuum. The spokesman's offices of the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office are weak," Eiland told Haaretz.

"Netanyahu doesn't like to give any minister a role with political influence, so there's no foreign minister or other minister who can deal with these issues. The army's operational mechanism is strong, so it's very convenient for the prime minister that the army will lead the hasbara campaign."

MK Nachman Shai (Zionist Union), who was the IDF spokesman during the 1991 Gulf War, believes that the decision to place the IDF on the front lines of PR efforts regarding the Russian plane was right for a day or two. But the job should have been taken on by the politicians once the crisis turned political.

"The IDF has the largest hasbara system, and there's a tendency in serious crises to impose the responsibility on the IDF, but this is a grave mistake. This isn't a military campaign, it's a political one," Shai said.

"There was an attempt in the first phase to designate the incident as a technical glitch, but the Russians immediately transferred the conversation to a completely different place. Now it's at the level of heads of state, and with all due respect, it’s not for the IDF spokesman to deal with the implications of this event. They're a national issue, but when there's no public diplomacy system, everything falls on the IDF."

In 2007, following the state comptroller's report, the Prime Minister's Office set up its National Information Office to coordinate Israel's PR efforts.

In June 2012, the state comptroller published a report on the Mavi Marmara flotilla, where he wrote: "The IDF spokesman and his representatives, appearing in uniform before the media to present the IDF's positions and explain its actions, may be perceived among the target audience in the international arena ... as spokespeople who represent Israel for all intents and purposes, not only in the military sphere. But this does not conform with Israel's democratic approach. 

"The spokesman's office exceeded its responsibilities in that the contents of its messages, detailing the reason for the military action and the background, discuss security-political ties."

A mix-up of interests

One of Israel's most senior media advisers, who has worked with prime ministers and senior ministers, believes the decision to place the army at the forefront isn't just deliberate — it conforms with Netanyahu and Lieberman's conduct during crises.

The relationship in the current government between the defense and the  political branches is unprecedented, he said, citing the example of Iran's intelligence documents seized by the Mossad. That, he said, was a case of the Mossad's operations being used for political needs.

"There's a mix-up of interests here," the media adviser said. "When there's a failure or crisis, the military is pushed forward to explain, whereas operational achievements are used for diplomatic gains."

He also warned: "There's a great risk here, because the more you place [the army] at the center of events perceived to be failures or crises, both its standing and the public's trust in it can be harmed."

As the media adviser put it, even if the Russian report isn't credible, the  government sold it to the people better than the Israelis did. "The Russians gave their public and the world better visual materials," he said. "The Russians showed a lot more sophistication than the Israelis."

Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Gilead believes that it's the right decision to leave the PR with the IDF; he says this lets the politicians maneuver if the crisis continues. "Imagine Netanyahu and Putin exchanging blows," Gilead told Haaretz.

"It may be unpleasant for the army, but at the military level, it leaves us room to escalate the issue to the prime minister and more options to end this crisis."

As he put it, "I'm not seeing an attempt to pass this hot potato to the army."