Muzzle the Ministers, Make Way for Miri

Miri Eisen is part of a new breed of Israeli spokesmen, whose perfect English is not all that sets them apart from their forerunners.

Israel's public relations are improving, says Miri Eisen, advisor to the prime minister on foreign press and public affairs.

"There has been a gradual, but big change over the last few years," American-born Eisen told the audience at an Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA) event in Herzliya Pituach last Thursday evening. "We are much more aware of the impact [of public relations]. One of the biggest challenges has been to try and limit ministers who talk in the media. I can't give them any orders. I can talk to their advisors, but I can't say to them, 'Please don't go on and talk horribly.' The prime minister can tell them, but they are independent politicians, and this is a democratic state."

Eisen, a retired colonel who served for 20 years in Israeli army intelligence, took up her post in the Prime Minister's Office last summer. Born in Marin County, California and having immigrated to Israel with her family at the age of nine, Eisen is cited along with Australian-born Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Mark Regev as heralding a new generation of foreign media-friendly Israeli government representatives, who bear little resemblance to Israeli spokesmen of the past with their heavy accents and broken English.

But Eisen, who spoke about international and domestic challenges facing the government before taking questions from the audience, emphasized that speaking English with a native accent can only get you so far. "Someone who has perfect English and is boring is not necessarily better than someone with an accent who has something to say," she said, adding that she views herself as a better spokeswoman with the American media, rather than European outlets.

"With Americans, I know how to talk to them. I know their TV channels, their sports, their cultural terms. When someone talks to the British, I want them to be able to use examples from [popular British soap opera] 'EastEnders' and I've never watched it. Plus, for a lot of British people, an American accent puts them off before they even hear what I have to say. If I had an Israeli accent, it wouldn't bother them as much."

Eisen said that when she talks to Europeans about Israel's right to defend itself, they say: Yes, yes, but why do you use so much force? "You have to talk more about your interest in dialogue. They have a completely different perspective and culture. It's very different from America. When you talk in America about your right to defend yourself, they understand."

Eisen, who confessed she has little experience in addressing Israelis, told the 100-plus audience she would answer questions on any topic except for the government's conduct during the second Lebanon war, due to the ongoing investigations.

But she did talk about her experiences trying to represent the country's position during the 34-day conflict. "I felt like I had an alternative existence in July and August when I lived here. In Israel I watched one war on Channel 1, Channel 2 and Channel 10, where they interviewed grieving and uprooted families. It was all about us. Then there was version number two [in the international media]. For the first four days it was all about Israel. Then it changed to being about the use of force and whether Israel responded proportionally. It was a very surreal experience. I'd be standing with my earpiece next to a bombed building and they - especially Al Jazeera - would say [assuming an Arabic accent] 'Israel is committing war crimes against Lebanon. What do you say about that?'"

She added: "The Anglo-Saxon community was probably in a similar position, as you watch more international news than your average Israeli."

Eisen also revealed something of her strategy when dealing with foreign media. "I don't try and show that the Israeli position is the right [one] and I don't expect everyone to accept the Israeli position. But I want to be sure that everybody hears it."

This was crowd-pleasing stuff for an audience of native English-speaking Israelis, who are indeed keen viewers - and frequent critics - of the international news channels. But Eisen also defended the foreign correspondents she works with.

"I know everyone in Israel complains about 'unbalanced coverage' but you have to take into account what the foreign correspondents do here: They go into the Palestinian Authority and see the friction the Palestinians live in that a lot of Israelis don't see." She added that the Palestinians promote a David and Goliath picture of the conflict, using images which are difficult to counter: "We send satellites into the sky, we have one of the top 20 economies in the world, we invented the cellphone. The picture will always show them as David and us as strong. Believe me you don't want to swap places with someone in Ramallah."

Eisen also reminded the audience that Palestinians see the media's portrayal of the conflict very differently than most Israelis. "They are positive that we rule the media. Their sense is that they don't get the coverage they deserve. Of course I'm not objective and I believe strongly in what I do. But that's what they say - that our narrative dominates."

Eisen, a mother of three young children who lives in Tel Aviv and is married to a career officer in the IDF, appears once or twice a week on Al Jazeera's English-language channel, which was launched last year. "I'm trying to be there and not to be there. I don't like to be on," she said. "It's bizarre, speaking to someone in perfect English with a very Arab narrative."

Eisen offered other insights into her day-to-day work, describing the government's Sunday morning cabinet meeting as her "anthropological enjoyment" of the week. "I like sitting there, like a fly on the wall, and watching the dynamics. Because we're the only country to have [a cabinet meeting] on Sunday morning. It is reported all around the world and you get some very different perspectives with [Arab Minister Raleb] Majadele and [rightist Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor] Lieberman."

The rise of news consumption through the Internet presents the government with one of its biggest public relations challenges, she said. "This change, whereby we only see what we choose to see, is a big challenge, which we're trying to step up to."