Home > Diplomacy > Israeli media provides a glimpse of how spin drives Israeli diplomacy

Israeli media provides a glimpse of how spin drives Israeli diplomacy

On the front page of this morning’s Maariv, senior columnist Ben Caspit reports [full translation at the bottom of the post; Hebrew original here]:

At least three top Likud figures who were briefed recently by officials very close to Netanyahu on the talks with the Americans, on the letter that has not (yet) been written, on the promises that were not made and the stealth bombers that stole away, say that the prevalent view in the Prime Minister’s Bureau about the US administration is that it is “not a credible administration.” That is the reason, these sources say, for Netanyahu’s insistence on receiving the promises in writing. And that is the reason, say these sources, that some of the promises that Netanyahu heard from the Americans evaporated shortly afterwards.

Caspit agrees with the analysis but is astounded that the Prime Minister’s Bureau should actually say express it, pouring “oil” instead of “water” on the fires of the Israeli-American relationship when it’s “at an unprecedented nadir.”

The ‘moratorium extension deal‘ has created a rare agreement between Maariv and it’s arch-rival Yediot: Netanyahu’s government is diplomatically incompetent. In his Friday column, Nahum Barnea, explains how the deal morphed from an achievement into an embarrassment. as a result of creative communications at the Prime Minister’s Bureau [full translation at bottom of post]:

Netanyahu’s bureau has an original technique for marketing its messages: Briefings are emailed every few hours to reporters and commentators.  The condition is that the information not be attributed to Netanyahu, his advisers, his “surroundings” or his “associates.”  This way, the Prime Minister’s Bureau achieves broad circulation for its messages without having to answer questions and without taking responsibility for the facts.  It is a wonderfully convenient technique.

The problem is that in the absence of a father, the facts tend to run wild.  The impression that was created upon Netanyahu’s return from the United States was that he had obtained a commitment from the administration to accept Israeli construction in East Jerusalem.  It later became apparent that there was no such agreement.  The impression that was created was that after a 90-day freeze, construction would be resumed everywhere, with the blessing of the US administration.  Such an agreement was not reached.  The impression that was created was that the administration consented to support the continued Israeli control of the Jordan Valley.  Such consent was not reached.

The speed with which the list of American commitments shrank is reminiscent of the classic story about the Jew who wished to send a telegram to his relative in America.  The cost of the telegram was based on a charge per word.  Each word cost a fortune.  The man decided to omit every unnecessary word from the telegram.  By the time he reached the mail counter, his telegram had no words left.

Against this background, attacking Obama’s credibility is the logical next step. One spin creates problem A, which a second spin attempts to solve, creating problem B. If short-term image issues, compounded by media amateurism, guides management of the ’strategic relationship’. We can only hope that’s not the case when decisions are made on if and when to go to war. Just in case, it might be a good idea for pundits to stop making fun of Netanyahu over Iran.

—-

A matter of credibility

Ben Caspit, Maariv, November 21 2010 [page 6 with front-page teaser; Hebrew original here and below this translation]

National Security Adviser Uzi Arad sat in the “Meet the Press” studio and handed out grades to the Americans. Obama’s administration, Arad said, began its battle against the Iranian nuclear program with a “policy of smiles” and believed the Iranians’ talk, “but then sobered up.” In principle, Arad is right. In practice, he isn’t supposed to say that on television. After all, even without this, the Americans don’t much like us.

International diplomacy is built on lies and half truths and in the delicate relationship between Israel and the US this week, there was no reason to give the Americans another reason to get annoyed at us. But every time that it seems to us that we’ve reached the bottom of the barrel, something happens and proves that we’ve still a long way to go before we get there. This something was the decision yesterday to send Arad to the studio. Perhaps because there was nobody else left to send.

Arad’s candid remarks are the tip of a much bigger iceberg. At least three top Likud figures who were briefed recently by officials very close to Netanyahu on the talks with the Americans, on the letter that has not (yet) been written, on the promises that were not made and the stealth bombers that stole away, say that the prevalent view in the Prime Minister’s Bureau about the US administration is that it is “not a credible administration.” That is the reason, these sources say, for Netanyahu’s insistence on receiving the promises in writing. And that is the reason, say these sources, that some of the promises that Netanyahu heard from the Americans evaporated shortly afterwards.

Again, at issue is a big mistake. What the press or ordinary people are permitted, is absolutely forbidden to the prime minister or his close associates. True, the current US administration has shown ineptitude, poor decision-making and problematic behavior. The fact that it has refused to stand behind Bush’s letters to Sharon from April 2004 undermines the basis for any discussions with them. But you don’t say this to politicians. You think this, you take this into account, but you’re careful that it not get out. As it is, the strategic relationship between Israel and the US is at an unprecedented nadir. The level of trust between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Bureau is scraping the bottom of the barrel from below. Automatic matters, such as a veto in the UN Security Council, are now promised as a freeze bribe, and even that for a pre-allotted time period. Cold water must be poured on this, not oil.

One needs to read the article by Dan Kurtzer, the former American ambassador to Israel and Obama’s adviser, which was published yesterday in the Washington Post, to understand how big a deal this is. Kurtzer warns against the deal being cooked up between the Obama administration and Netanyahu. He calls this bribery, he says that this is a mistake both for the Americans, but mainly for Israel, he points out that such a deal would even further rock the strategic basis of the relationship between the two countries. Kurtzer knows what he’s talking about.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, knows less what he’s doing. He’s now stuck with this deal, he can’t accept it or reject it, because now there is no choice. If he doesn’t pass it, he is a lame duck, a dead horse limping toward the edge of the cliff. And if he passes it? Better not to think about that now. It seems that the edge of this cliff is waiting for him on the horizon. These are the kind of impossible situations that only Netanyahu knows how to get into. Now let’s see him get out of it.

—-

The peace restaurant

Nahum Barnea, Yediot Friday Political Supplement, November 19 2010

Binyamin Netanyahu convened the ministerial forum of seven on Saturday night to report on the package of understandings that he brought from the United States.  He rallied all of his powers of persuasion to prove that the 20 planes that President Obama promised him would be given for free — a gift worth USD 3 billion.  The ministers — those who are familiar with historical precedents, the working norms of US administrations and the restrictions that apply to the president — found it difficult to believe.  Afterwards they set the matter aside.  In any case, this is a deal that is supposed to start being implemented in seven years.  In 2017, Obama will be a bored pensioner in Chicago, and the question of whether or not Iran will have a nuclear bomb will long since be a thing of the past.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who is convinced that Netanyahu’s initiative is endangering the country’s future, was appalled.  He recalled a proposal that was put to Menahem Begin on the eve of signing the peace agreement with Egypt.  If America is so interested in an agreement, the person raising the proposal said, let it erase Israel’s external debt.

Rivlin says that the debt stood at USD 42 billion at the time.

Begin rejected the proposal out of hand.  His listeners were surprised.  They were enthusiastic about the proposal: It had both big money and a tangible achievement that would be easy to market to the public.  “From a historic perspective, you will understand,” Begin said to them.

Rivlin is convinced that Begin was right.

Netanyahu is not a crook.  Those who accuse him of fraud do him an injustice.  But he has a certain tendency towards what the Americans call “talking out of both sides of his mouth”: Everyone hears from his words the version that they want to hear, and no one is certain that they have heard the final version.  Netanyahu is the oracle of Delphi.

Therefore, even the ministers belonging to the forum of seven, who are supposed to know exactly what Ahmadinejad is thinking at the moment and what Nasrallah is plotting, what is happening in the presidential palace in Cairo and who is whispering in Abu Mazen’s ear — do not know where their prime minister is headed.  He is taking them on a navigation trek without a compass, without a map, without coordinates.  The main thing is that we’re moving, the left wing elements of the forum of seven comfort themselves.  The main thing is that we’re not getting there, the right elements comfort themselves.

Netanyahu’s bureau has an original technique for marketing its messages: Briefings are emailed every few hours to reporters and commentators.  The condition is that the information not be attributed to Netanyahu, his advisers, his “surroundings” or his “associates.”  This way, the Prime Minister’s Bureau achieves broad circulation for its messages without having to answer questions and without taking responsibility for the facts.  It is a wonderfully convenient technique.

The problem is that in the absence of a father, the facts tend to run wild.  The impression that was created upon Netanyahu’s return from the United States was that he had obtained a commitment from the administration to accept Israeli construction in East Jerusalem.  It later became apparent that there was no such agreement.  The impression that was created was that after a 90-day freeze, construction would be resumed everywhere, with the blessing of the US administration.  Such an agreement was not reached.  The impression that was created was that the administration consented to support the continued Israeli control of the Jordan Valley.  Such consent was not reached.

The speed with which the list of American commitments shrank is reminiscent of the classic story about the Jew who wished to send a telegram to his relative in America.  The cost of the telegram was based on a charge per word.  Each word cost a fortune.  The man decided to omit every unnecessary word from the telegram.  By the time he reached the mail counter, his telegram had no words left.

“There is no deal,” one of Obama’s senior advisers clarified this week in closed conversations.  “Nothing is sewn up.”

In his distress, Netanyahu demanded from the Americans that they put down their commitments in writing.  This was a fine demand.  The trouble is that the fulfillment of his demand closes the door to secret understandings between the two governments, invites a parallel demand on the part of the Palestinians and requires Netanyahu to detail in writing the commitments that he gave to the US president.

Netanyahu said to one of the leading Likud right wingers, who reminded him of his father’s opposition to any concession to the Palestinians, that his opinions were the same as his father’s.  This is not the impression that King Abdullah of Jordan received from his conversations with Netanyahu, it is not the impression that Mubarak received, and it is not the impression that Hillary Clinton received.  Their impression was that Netanyahu had crossed the Rubicon: He had accepted the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders.  His battle was over the blocs and the holy basin in Jerusalem.

The difference is between strategy and tactics.  He led the world, and primarily the Americans, to believe that his initiative is a strategic one: His goal is to resolve the conflict conclusively; he led his colleagues on the right to believe that his initiative was tactical: His goal is to make the Palestinians take the blame and convince Obama that we are in the right.

The truth is that he has succeeded.  He celebrated a belated honeymoon with Obama, after a year and a half of clashes.  In Israel, he succeeded in preserving a right wing coalition whose policy on the ground is left wing, including a complete construction freeze for ten months, without demonstrations, without rebels.

The possibility cannot be discounted that this success will continue.  In the Likud, despite the voices of protest, no one is planning a real rebellion at present.  There is no alternative to Netanyahu in the Likud at the moment.  The ministers sign a petition and lull to sleep the settler bloc in the Central Committee.  If Benny Begin is not resigning—and where exactly would he resign to?—no one is resigning.  And the coalition is also in no rush to dissolve.  Netanyahu waves Tzippi Livni before the coalition members, and they calm down.

And the Americans will also calm down.  He doesn’t keep his word, they will grumble in closed conversations, but if he brings them another freeze, they will praise him to the skies.

Netanyahu has a very important ally, which his predecessors did not have: The utter indifference of the public to what is happening in the foreign policy realm.  The sense is that the Palestinians live beyond the hills of darkness.  They are of interest only to two sectors in Israel: The Israeli Arabs, who go to visit Palestine on weekends, and the religious settlers, who live there.  Coincidentally or not, there are no Netanyahu voters in these two sectors.

Moshe Arens, who brought Netanyahu into politics, met Ruby Rivlin this week.  “What do you say about your friend Bibi,” Arens asked.

“He’s not my friend,” Rivlin said, “he’s your boy.”

“I think he has fallen in love with the peace process,” Arens said sorrowfully.

Perhaps with the process, but not with its price.  Netanyahu still believes that in the peace restaurant, they are giving away free lunches.

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Categories: Diplomacy
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  1. November 21, 2010 at 19:56

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