No News Is Good News

IDF Spokesman Avi Benayahu is the man who introduced the concept of a silent army and a mute chief of staff - the new formula for victory in the battle for public opinion. But what happened to investigative journalism along the way?

Brigadier General Avi Benayahu, the IDF spokesman, likes to portray himself as a man of many contrasts and surprising angles. He marvels at the wide variety of people with whom he is able to connect. He has no trouble relating to kibbutzniks from Yagur, old ladies from Netivot, Likudniks from Petah Tikva and politicians in the Knesset. This ability to connect with people, he has said more than once, is his chief asset, what has made him what he is today and will propel him to future success. Benayahu, 51, is known for his modesty. He won't go overboard with self-praise, but will gladly quote others.

He is extremely cautious, and wary. He perceives any interlocutor, first and foremost, as someone who aims to trip him up. Benayahu declined to be interviewed for this article, and recommended that this fact not be noted. Why? Anyone who reads that will know right away that I was interviewed, he said. Here is one of those fine distinctions that illustrates wariness and caution, as well as a marvelous, almost magical, understanding of the press. Even his most bitter rivals credit him with such understanding.

Benayahu (r) with Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, while both were still in uniform.
IDF Spokesman's Unit

He is not seen as vengeful or resentful, but he is known for his prodigious memory. In Benayahu, this long memory combines with countless connections and a knack for manipulation - a blend that makes for a very powerful figure, one that intimidates rivals and attracts friends. Those who foresee big things for him stick around and talk. Rivals maintain a wary silence. They have plenty to say about him, but are leery of doing so, fearing his extraordinary ability to identify even well-disguised fingerprints. He can identify a certain phrase you used 30 years ago, one journalist warned me. He'll track you down, target you, use it against you, make you regret it.

Even if he is a master manipulator of the press and champion promoter of connections, Benayahu would not have attained his position of power if the relationship between the press and the army were not perfectly tailor-made for him. Ever since the concept of "the battle for public consciousness" was added to the military lexicon, the status of the IDF Spokesman's Unit has grown - to the point where a public relations victory is nearly on a par with a military victory. At the same time, an almost childish belief in hasbara (public diplomacy ) has evolved. The faithful believe that proper hasbara can fix everything the politicians and military officers have screwed up. The officer commanding the hasbara formations is Brigadier General Benayahu, confidant of politicians and army officers and renowned expert on the local media. Without him, it would be impossible to even conceive of embarking on a media campaign.

Star reporter

Brigadier General Miri Regev, the IDF spokeswoman during the Second Lebanon War, believed that victory in the battle for public opinion could be achieved by opening the army to the media. Regev's openness turned into chaos, and three years ago this chaos led to her resignation and Benayahu's appointment. The lesson was quickly taken to heart. Openness was discontinued. During Operation Cast Lead, Benayahu placed the military analysts on hilltops he selected, where they stood and read his briefing before the cameras. No one really knew what was going on in Gaza, but the IDF applauded him and the newspapers ate it up. Everyone thought that the army, with its efficient spokesman, had indeed found the formula for victory over public opinion. The lessons of previous wars were quickly forgotten. Past mistakes sprouted again as if never before identified as being in need of uprooting. Nowadays, who still recalls the press's slavish submission to the haughtiness of the army during the Yom Kippur War? Certainly not Benayahu.

When the Yom Kippur War broke out, Benayahu was 14 years old. A frustrated and not particularly brilliant vocational student from the Yad Eliyahu neighborhood in Tel Aviv. A thousand times since then, he has told the story of the blue-eyed (or long-braided ) female Hashomer Hatza'ir counselor who enchanted him and convinced him to try the kibbutz framework. He took his poor report card and applied to a number of kibbutz schools. Only Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva, where he is still a member, was ready to accept him.

He began his journalistic career at Maariv, sending in regional items along the lines of "Two-headed calf born at Mishmar Ha'emek." Later on he expanded his activity and sent to Al Hamishmar, the Mapam daily, reports that originated with his reserve duty in Lebanon. He impressed his bosses at the paper and they came up with a three-part reporting job for him: local news, military news and crime. They were amazed at how quickly the kibbutznik from Lehavot Haviva found his feet reporting on the Tel Aviv crime scene.

Alex Fishman, the military reporter who left Al Hamishmar for Hadashot, bequeathed to Benayahu his weekly column on military and security matters. Benayahu's column wasn't as stylistically sharp, but it was biting and oppositionist. Al Hamishmar old-timers remember Benayahu as "an outstanding reporter, eager for his talents to be recognized and gifted with the ability to extract information in all sorts of ways." Ron Ben-Yishai, the long-time Yedioth Ahronoth military reporter, described the column as "a mixture of coverage, reports and gossip." Al Hamishmar was on the verge of financial collapse at the time, but the esteemed Benayahu asked for, and received, a company Subaru and cell phone.

The macher's macher

Benayahu's journalistic achievements revealed another trait of his. There is no debate as to its existence, just as to how it is best described. This is the quality that makes Benayahu a "super-producer" or "bulldozer," but also a "shady dealer" or "macher."

Benayahu became a wheeler-dealer among journalists and headed the cell of military reporters. The wheeling and dealing hurt the journalism, and the column he maintained for seven years grew weaker. At the same time, the various ties he had fostered grew stronger and he apparently became more eager to make use of them. It's hard to point precisely to the connection between weariness with the column and his transition from journalist to spokesman. He didn't become just any spokesman - he became spokesman for the establishment he had criticized as a journalist. He was not the first to go this route. Before him there were Nahman Shai and Oded Ben-Ami, who were mediocre journalists and talented spokesmen. Every journalist, it seems, secretly itches to be a spokesman.

Benayahu joined the IDF Spokesman's Unit as head of the media branch. He was a lieutenant colonel. Friends were sure that nothing, not even a move like this, would blunt the sharp journalistic senses he had developed. "Benayahu will be more of the press's emissary in the IDF than an IDF representative in the press," said Israel Radio military correspondent Carmela Menashe at the time. She had known Benayahu since the days they worked together at Al Hamishmar. He himself promised: I shall return to journalism. After three years on the job, and a rocky relationship with IDF Spokesman Amos Gilad, Benayahu resigned. But he did not return to journalism.

What did journalism have left to offer him at that point? Exhausting competition, a salary that was nothing to write home about, and an uncertain future. Being a spokesman gave him a set work place, reasonable pay and a perfect platform for making the most of his acknowledged skills. Benayahu again showed himself to be excellent at creating ties, talented at production and familiar with all the ins and outs of the media. Beyond all of that, he also excelled in cleverness (according to his friends ) and wiliness (according to his detractors ).

Benayahu became a media consultant. This sort of position is usually one of much influence and little responsibility. Benayahu connected more to the person he advised than to that person's ideology. His power remained behind the scenes. He was never caught peeking out from behind his employer's shoulder. "What is a consultant?" he asked Avihai Beker in a Haaretz interview 10 years ago. "He can conceal or exaggerate, but only at the edges ... Basically you're a cosmetician."

He began advising Yitzhak Rabin just four days before the assassination. Later on, he advised Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Mordechai. "For two years, I lived and breathed Itzik Mordechai," he said in reference to those two years of his life. Although he failed in the end to help Mordechai become head of Kadima, they remain good friends. Benayahu used to refer to himself as "Mordechai's chief bodyguard." Others were less polite. One called him a "lowly adjutant" and another called him a "players' agent" - meaning someone who makes sure to obtain the best conditions for his employers, and has no qualms about making sure the laundry delivery, for example, arrives on time.

An emotional Yom Kippur

After rubbing elbows with politicians, Benayahu landed at Army Radio. No one would dare to say that it was only due to his connections, not his talents, that he became commander of the station. The story is simple: Benayahu was appointed by Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, who owed his position to Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, who owed Benayahu for his support and advice. There was nothing new here: The political world, like the army, is one of fortuitous connections and ongoing intrigues. Benayahu already had the connections, and he always knew how to manage the intrigues.

At the radio station, he reconnected to his traditional Mizrahi roots. Benayahu's father was a Palmahnik with a kibbutz background, but the family he came from, with roots in Damascus, was traditional. The youth from Yad Eliyahu who became the kibbutznik from Lehavot Haviva sought to wear two more hats: the traditional and the multicultural. Benayahu applied his usual energy here too. He soon added to his list of phone numbers that of Rabbi Yaakov Ifergan (the "X-Ray rabbi" ), with whom he often consults, as do other big shots. Nor has he let rabbis Yona Metzger and Yisrael Lau feel neglected.

When a children's choir sang Hasidic songs in Migdal Ha'emek, he nearly burst into tears. In an interview with YNet he confessed that he "really loves Rosh Hashanah" and in reply to another question, he said his dream was to pray at his grandfather's synagogue in Damascus. When asked directly whether he fasts on Yom Kippur, he replied in typical Benayahu fashion: " ... It's an emotional day, a day of soul-searching ... It's a day that expresses modesty and humility and I treat it with great significance." He forgot to say anything about fasting. Nor did his sudden interest in Jewish values make him forget the legacy of his youth in Hashomer Hatza'ir. As he said when addressing a convention marking the movement's 90th anniversary, it provided him with "a tremendous youthful experience, a way of life and a full set of values."

He came to Army Radio with his updated set of values and his skills as a superb manipulator and devoted lobbyist. He kept the constant threat to the station's existence at bay and fought off a highly critical report by the State Comptroller regarding his predecessors' conduct. Dr. Yossi Dahan, a leading activist on social justice issues, saw him during that period at the general meeting of the Israel Broadcasting Authority, of which he was a member. "The variety of positions Benayahu has held can tell us quite a bit about the lack of boundaries between the media and politics and the army in Israel," Dahan wrote on the Ha'oketz website. "I had the opportunity to observe from close up his virtuoso maneuvers in Israeli politics, the Israeli military and the Israeli media, to witness how the man's boundless energy is invested in calculating moves designed to block enemies and bring in potential allies, moves that would have left Machiavelli agape."

The Arutz Sheva (religious Zionist ) website was even more awed. It quotes officials at the station who called Benayahu a "shady dealer in the positive sense."

Even his rivals confirm that he improved the radio station's social basis. Prior to his arrival, it was known as a homogeneous place comprised almost exclusively of an Ashkenazi social elite. Benayahu brought in young people who were far from fitting that profile: religious folks, Mizrahim, settlers, even a token Druze. The empty slots on his dance card began filling up: Benayahu the kibbutznik also became the darling of the settlers and of rightist circles. Settler leader Pinhas Wallerstein dropped by for coffee and MK Uri Orbach (Habayit Hayehudi ) enthused: "During his time, Army Radio became more concerned with tradition. He was definitely attuned to the multicultural spirit."

We're not from the UN

The Arutz Sheva website called Army Radio "the only national media school" and Benayahu was proud of the station's journalist graduates. Young journalists did come out of this national school and were immediately snapped up by all the civilian media outlets, particularly television. They are one reason the media looks the way it does today.

Journalists who were trained at Army Radio, the government's journalism school, had difficulty distinguishing between their objectives and duties as journalists and those of the government. As Dr. Charles Mackay, the famous Victorian journalist, insisted some 150 years ago, "We cannot accept the premise that the press must share the concerns of the government. The aims and duties of the government and the press are always separate and sometimes opposed." "We're not from the UN," Benayahu used to say, and journalists clung to this notion as a way of excusing their lack of objectivity. "Let's see you be from the UN when rockets start falling on your house," he challenged a veteran journalist. A military correspondent who forgoes objectivity arrives at the real stronghold of subjectivity: the IDF Spokesman's Unit. And who awaits him there? Benayahu, the man who has no peer when it comes to exploiting weaknesses and pushing story lines. In the morning, he briefs reporters, and in the evening he sits down in front of the TV to hear how they recite his texts. There are some journalists who actually like it. Laziness isn't exactly foreign in the profession, and competition is for the diligent.

Journalistic competition leads to scoops. Benayahu himself has boasted on more than one occasion about the exclusives he published in his Al Hamishmar column. These days, there is no competition among military correspondents on television, and anyway they have no exclusive reports. But they have no complaints. Benayahu divides the crumbs he feeds them fairly and cleanly. Investigative reports about the army can only be found on Ilana Dayan's "Fact" program and Ofer Shelah's "The Source." Veteran reporters can still call a general: "Instead of two phone calls, I make four, but I get to the material," says Channel 10 commentator Alon Ben-David. The younger ones, who wouldn't get anywhere with 40 phone calls, can't manage without Benayahu.

The army is an organization that can lock itself up. During the Second Lebanon War, it was open to the point of recklessness; during Operation Cast Lead, it was almost hermetically sealed. The Gaza flotilla affair shook people's confidence in the closed approach, but did not completely undermine it. "The army is closed, the chief of staff doesn't speak," is how veteran military reporter Carmela Menashe describes the current situation. Transcripts of phone calls are reviewed, and polygraph tests are done to locate the sources of leaks.

Military correspondents, especially those who got their training at Army Radio, react with either a shrug or applause: "Avi Benayahu has really done the job. He enables his client to quietly carry out that which he is supposed to do," explained current Channel 1 news presenter and former Army Radio correspondent Yinon Magal to The Seventh Eye website. "I'm not just a journalist," he said, "but also a citizen, and as such, it's important to me to see the IDF win."

The IDF will win, Magal's comments appear to imply, if the media heeds the briefings of Benayahu's client. Carmela Menashe is more skeptical: "The public has a herd mentality," she says. "Our job is not to satisfy this herd. It didn't work in the Soviet Union."

Where was the press?

The Second Lebanon War taught the public that too much information can ruin one's peace of mind. The thicker the ambiguity, the better. And ambiguity that turns into a total blackout is best of all.

"Ambiguity also covers up the failures of the press, as in the flotilla affair, for example. Instead of asking, "Where was the hasbara?" or "Where was the naval intelligence?" the question should have been: "Where was the press?" In the past, journalists managed to infiltrate and report on organizations with a smaller appetite for publicity than that of the flotilla organizers. Today, journalists prefer to come up with headlines and not work on collecting material. Maariv and Yedioth did not invent tabloid journalism. Cheap patriotism is a well-known part of its marketing formula. Rather than produce news, they specialize in packaging. They take feelings, package them as headlines, and sell them as news reports. Benayahu himself once described the quality of journalism as follows: "It's constantly moving from scandal to festival, with nothing in the middle," as he told the IDF magazine Bamahane. "Journalism needs to be more thoughtful."

Twenty years ago, competition between military correspondents was fierce, but the news flowed in abundance. This abundance had its price: "We were court journalists," admits Eitan Haber, who was a military correspondent for Yedioth for 26 years. Each general had his journalist. The general leaked flattering reports about himself and hostile ones about his rivals. Haber would show up at editorial board meetings with "bated breath" - apprehensive that Uri Dan, Ariel Sharon's court journalist from Maariv, "was going to tear me apart again."

Today's military correspondents are professional, says Haber, but they still don't venture out of Kfar Shmaryahu. "I was a coward," he says, "but I went along on operations." Today, senior correspondents are connected by telephone or stand on hilltops at a safe distance.

Everybody has words of praise for Benayahu. The compliments are for publication, for the record and for attribution. He is said to be "a professional," "a tactician," "possessed of great verbal abilities" and "a top-caliber media man." Here, too, there are nuances, depending on who is speaking and his degree of neediness. To one person he's a "dictator," while to another he has a "very, very centralized" way of working.

With Benayahu, too much of a good thing can become negative. His toughness can sometimes come across as aggression, and from there it's not far to destructiveness. Benayahu is aware of his strength. He magnanimously forgoes television appearances. Once, when he deviated from his custom and was interviewed on camera, a military analyst reproached him for hurting his standing.

A street cat in the good sense

No one questions his integrity and credibility, but like many tough guys, he is vulnerable. Someone once remarked in admiration that he was "not corrupted." In response, Benayahu pounced on him, saying that if he weren't from Yad Eliyahu, nobody would ever think to suspect him of corruption. "He always tells the truth," one military correspondent told me, "but not always the whole truth." Says Haaretz reporter Amos Harel, "Fortunately, Benayahu was not IDF spokesman during the Second Lebanon War instead of Miri Regev. He would have managed to convince the Israeli media that this war was a success, too."

The Second Lebanon War was not a success. Brigadier General Miri Regev said it was not possible to keep the unpleasant sights from the public. She had no choice, she said. She had to balance these sights with information she put out there. Today Regev is a Likud MK and has warm words about Benayahu: "He is talented, a professional. He has experience and he has ability." Regev was appointed by then chief of staff Dan Halutz, and left the post when he left his, leaving Benayahu with the ruined conception of army openness. Benayahu began nurturing a conception of his own: a silent army and a mute chief of staff. In about six months, Gabi Ashkenazi will conclude his tenure as chief of staff. Must the IDF spokesman go, too? Will Benayahu also head home?

The personal connection between a spokesman and the chief of staff is not self-evident. Until 2002, the connection was not so clear. Spokesmen finished their tenures and quietly left. Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon brought in Ruth Yaron to serve as spokeswoman, and put the connection between that post and the chief of staff on a personal plane. Granted, Regev was appointed by Halutz, but before that she spent 15 years in the IDF Spokesman's Unit. Today she feels that the IDF spokesman should serve out a full term. But it's also clear, she says, that things cannot function if the spokesman and the chief of staff do not have a good relationship. Benayahu shares this view. An IDF spokesman needs a full term, maybe more than one.

Is Benayahu a good spokesman? It appears so. "He's unlike any spokesman who came before him," says Eitan Haber. Haber has been through about 15 spokesmen and adds that Benayahu introduced to the army a media savvy it was previously lacking. "He's a street cat in the good sense of the word," says Haber. Even reporters who admire his talent confirm that Benayahu is not a real "man of the world." His English is not that strong, but he is conscious of this and surrounds himself with people who can cover for him. He knows who Tom Friedman is and what he thinks, one of them told me, but he'd rather phone Ben Caspit at Maariv than Friedman at The New York Times.

Benayahu gets mad when his boss is disrespected. His admirers call this "loyalty"; critics prefer to call it "imperiousness." There are some who think Ashkenazi won't say a word unless Benayahu has approved it. Others feel that this view unjustly diminishes the chief of staff.

The boss's honor

Benayahu waged the most recent battle for the chief of staff's honor against Yoni Koren, Defense Minister Ehud Barak's bureau chief. Two months ago, about a year ahead of the chief of staff's planned retirement, Barak's bureau issued a statement announcing the end of Ashkenazi's tenure. It was a vexing and humiliating statement, whose timing was not explained. A well-publicized battle between the two bureaus ensued. At its height, Benayahu showed signs of real distress ("They're out to destroy me," he told friends ) and Eitan Haber was eventually called upon to try to make peace between the parties, but failed.

Analysts figured that the bureau chief and the spokesman were waging a personal battle on the backs of Ashkenazi and Barak. Relations between Barak and Benayahu these days are described as "chilly." In the past, Barak had offered Benayahu the chance to be his chief of staff. And he wasn't the only one competing for his services: Benjamin Netanyahu also made him a similar offer. Netanyahu met with Benayahu for three hours, praising him to his face and extolling his virtues.

This well-connected fellow seems to have a tempting job awaiting him at the end of every connection. Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert both offered him the position of director-general of the Israel Broadcasting Authority; in the future, Muzi Wertheim will probably offer him something at Keshet and Noni Mozes will probably offer something at Yedioth Ahronoth (Nimrodi is in the picture too ). All he has to do is choose. "For 30 years now I've been hearing from him about all the amazing jobs that are waiting for him," one military correspondent said to me sourly.

Stories about the job offers are enough to make anyone's head spin. Benayahu is wary of being tempted into making a naive choice in which he would find himself doing interesting work, but only making NIS 10,000. His upbringing in a family of little means and his kibbutz education has made him fairly indifferent to money, but still sensitive to financial security. After about 20 years of continuous service, he can look forward to a nice, if not very hefty, IDF pension. He also recently purchased a home in a neighborhood of IDF officers in Kfar Yona.

He sees his three children mostly on weekends. Other evenings are devoted to strengthening old ties and building new ones. Every Rosh Hodesh he takes part in the mass events organized by brothers Yossi and Shlomi Amar, owners of the Fresh Market chain. He likes ceremonies and is happy to be at the center. A year ago, he celebrated his 50th birthday with hundreds of guests at the Kidmat Eden banquet hall east of Netanya. Guests watched a short film about his life and leafed through a booklet about his life's work. The chief of staff attended and Ben Caspit gave a speech. The year before, he threw a similarly sized bat mitzvah party for his daughter.

Benayahu is a charming host, a tireless talker, an amusing conversationalist. He is skilled at planting tough questions amid a sea of small details. He is not a bookish sort, but a little superficial, delving into gossip and familiar with every detail of it. He recently discovered that he has attention-deficit disorder. Comrades in the general staff forum report on his restlessness at meetings. He is vivacious and agile in a way that plump people often are. It's said that on one of his trips to London with Yitzhak Mordechai, his pants tore. The embassy called for a tailor, because no pants in his size were to be found in the shops.

Although he doesn't yet know where he'll be headed next, some think they can easily envision his future. Benayahu discerns the vacuum in the Labor party, says one political analyst. He'll bring along Gabi Ashkenazi, who enjoys prestige and is commonly thought to be nurturing political ambitions of his own. This is certainly possible, agrees one veteran military correspondent, saying Benayahu needs an organizational framework and a strong figure by his side. Ashkenazi is an excellent candidate to fill the strongman role, and political strategist Eyal Arad is a friend of his. Everyone agrees that Benayahu will find himself a job that involves both power and money. He has already warned his friends back on the kibbutz: "I'm not going back to the cattle shed." W