It's the Policy, Not How It's Explained Away

The war for public opinion - be it Israeli, Palestinian, or American - is less important to ministers and senior civil servants than the war for the press release. They want to share in the fame that comes with success, but to shirk all responsibility for failure.

An Egged ticket inspector gets on the bus, walks down the aisle and checks the passengers' tickets to see if they're current and not counterfeit. It is not his job to ask why the bus is heading toward a particular destination, or how often it runs, or if the passengers are happy or unhappy.

The report on "Deployment of Official Information Sources on Foreign Affairs and Security Issues" that the State Comptroller issued yesterday is a triumph of procedure over substance. The comptroller is not happy with the way various organizations - mainly the Foreign Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces - explain Israel's side in the conflict with the Palestinians. The comptroller is least pleased with the lack of coordination between them and the absence of any oversight body to direct information policy - preferably someone with a seat in the cabinet and in the political-security cabinet."

The examples the comptroller cites are instructive, although it is unclear just what sort of "propaganda warfare" he wants (as he calls it). Is it possible that retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg could suggest that lies and deceit should be part of information dissemination?

There is in fact no correctable failure of the system here. There is just politics - personal, party and institutional politics. Ministers and senior civil servants, whether in khaki or in suits, simply will not release their grip on information and its dissemination.

They need air time like they need air itself - it doesn't matter that when the portfolios are handed out, air is nominally the exclusive province of the minister of the environment. The war for public opinion - be it Israeli, Palestinian, or American - is less important to them than the war for the press release. They want to share in the fame that comes with success, but to shirk all responsibility for failure - and they want the freedom to decide retroactively which of the two they prefer.

That's just how it is, especially in this two-headed and multi-limbed government that is at war with itself on even the most fundamental issues of interpreting reality and determining policy. Trying to shove the media advisors of the prime minister and the defense minister, the deputy director general for information at the Foreign Ministry, and the IDF Spokesman into the same meat grinder - from which a uniform sausage would emerge - is unrealistic when these people represent Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Shimon Peres, Avi Gil, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya'alon.

Now, a little late, Peres has said the opposite of what he said two years ago, when he was closer to the views of Yasser Arafat than their common rival Ehud Barak. Even so there is still no one capable of devising a formula that will incorporate Peres' belief in a renewed future with Arafat, Sharon's objections to the very idea, the chief of staff's military objections, and the comme ci, comme ca of Ben-Eliezer.

In the Six-Day War, the coordination of information between prime minister Levy Eshkol, his rival and defense minister Moshe Dayan, foreign minister Abba Eban, the depressed chief of staff Yitzhak Rabin, and advisor-minister Yisrael Galili was far from perfect. But of course victory is the finest spokesman of all.

In the Yom Kippur War, with the same Eban and Dayan and Galili running the show with Golda, there was a overly focused message - bad Arabs suddenly attacked but we will soon triumph. Nonetheless, spokesmen were being replaced like ammunition clips - and it was not they who had failed, but the army and the government.

Should a single infinitesimal germ fly in here on board an Iraqi missile, the greatest explainer in the world would not remain standing. In army general staff exercises, faux news programs are screened to give the commanders an idea of how the war is developing on the various fronts. This format is worthy of pre-emptive imitation.

When there is a discussion on killing a Hamas leader in the heart of Gaza, or paying another visit to Arafat, the ministers and officers could watch a prophetic video clip featuring scenes of destruction, angry responses of the American president, or wide-angle shots of a UN Security Council vote.

This might put a damper on the enthusiasm - but only for a few minutes - because, if the producer sticks to a reality screenplay, Benjamin Netanyahu will have to appear later in the same clip and attack Ariel Sharon for being far too soft.