David Bedein has run the Jerusalem-based Israel Resource News Agency, which provides news services for the foreign media, since 1987. He has also worked on special assignment for BBC, CNN Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and the weekly Israel news magazine Makor Rishon. He was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.
Do you agree with those who say that “the Palestinians have been doing a better job than the Israelis on the public relations front”?
Yes. For the past twenty years, the Palestinians have outmaneuvered the Israelis in framing the conflict for the world media. The turning point came during the 1982 Lebanon War, when the Palestinians initiated a propaganda campaign to cast themselves as the defenders of human rights and the Israelis as the violators of human rights. At the same time, Yasser Arafat’s brother, Dr. Fatchi Arafat, exploited his position as director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society to release grossly inflated casualty figures. On June 10, 1982, for example, Dr. Arafat issued a statement declaring that “10,000 Palestinians have died and 600,000 have become homeless in the first few days of the war”–a lie calculated to portray the Palestinians as the victims of a genocidal assault in Lebanon. In fact, the total population in the war zone numbered fewer than 300,000. Yet the International Red Cross and Middle East Action Committee of the American Friends Service Committee spread the 10,000/600,000 figure to every media outlet in the world, and the major American networks picked up the story. NBC’s Jessica Savitch reported, “It is now estimated that 600,000 refugees in south Lebanon are without sufficient food or medical supplies.”
Palestinian media professionals have no qualms about deceiving the media for political advantage. In their attempt to convince the world that the IDF massacred hundreds of civilians in the Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield, they used animal carcasses to fill the air with the stench of rotting flesh in places where reporters and UN officials were likely to visit. The IDF caught that ploy on video, as they did a staged funeral in which “the body” jumped out of the coffin and ran for cover when an Israeli surveillance plane flew over the site.
Are you suggesting that such tactics have been counterproductive?
Not at all. Such bloopers are the exception. The Palestinians have an excellent track record in manipulating images that appear in the world media. They achieved an enormous propaganda windfall at the beginning of the second intifada, when a Palestinian film crew working for a French television network recorded the shooting of eleven-year-old Mohammed al-Dura as his father tried in vain to shield him during a battle at a road junction near Gaza. The video, edited to portray the IDF as heartless child killers, fit the Palestinian story line perfectly. The Israeli government fell into the trap, issuing an apology even before investigating the incident. Mohammed al-Dura, the “poster boy” of the second intifada, will go down in history as a celebrated martyr of the Palestinian people–and yet, the Palestinian version of al-Dura’s death is a lie, an invention of Palestinian P.R. professionals. A thorough IDF investigation, which was issued three weeks after the incident and confirmed by a German TV crew, showed that the bullets fired at the boy had come from the direction of Palestinian gunmen who had attacked an Israeli guard post. But the world had “witnessed” the shooting of al-Dura, as the media scripted it–an atrocity committed by Israeli troops–and the damage could not be undone. It is impossible to put the toothpaste back in the tube.
When did these Palestinian P.R. professionals first come onto the scene?
Back in March 1984, Ramonda Tawill, a media professional (who six years later would become Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law), helped the PLO establish the Palestinian Press Service (PPS) to provide assistance to visiting journalists and conduct training seminars in media relations. The PPS then joined forces with the Palestine Human Rights Information Center (PHRIC) to change the image of the PLO from that of a sixties-style liberation movement to an organization fighting to protect the victims of Israeli human rights abuses. PHRIC seminars instructed their “students” to steer every media interview to the same themes–Israeli occupation, illegal settlements, human rights abuses, and the right of the Palestinian refugees to go home. Regardless of the question, these themes were to be repeated over and over again. I know this firsthand, because our agency made it a policy to assign our journalist interns to take Tawill’s courses.
One of her great “accomplishments” came in May 1985, after Israel released more than a thousand convicted PLO terrorists in exchange for seven Israeli soldiers. As a way of diverting media attention from their crimes, Tawill coached these freed terrorists to stress that they were tortured in Israel jails for “political activism” and “support of Palestinian nationalism.” I learned about this tactic from several of Tawill’s students in a media course I took in May 1986. They explained that by monopolizing the reporters’ time with stories of torture, the journalists would invariably have to complete the interview before they had time to ask the terrorists about the actions that had led to their capture and imprisonment. At the time, Israeli intelligence did not allow reporters to look at the prison files of security detainees, so the crimes of these terrorists went virtually unreported.
Was the PHRIC widely perceived as a credible human rights organization?
Absolutely. By mid-1989, international human rights organizations routinely reproduced information developed by the PHRIC, which by then had secured funding from the Ford Foundation and had established offices in Chicago and Washington. Addressing the media in Jerusalem in November 1989, Amnesty International spokesman Richard Reoch acknowledged that his organization regarded the PLO, which works with the PHRIC, as an objective information source. “Since the PLO is not a government body,” he said, “we feel comfortable with Amnesty using them as a source.” And a U.S. embassy spokesman told me in February 1989 that the PHRIC had “impeccable” credentials.
How do Palestinian P.R. professionals get their training today, and who funds it?
The Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) provides courses and more than thirty how-to manuals on public relations, media relations, fundraising, communications, lobbying, and public speaking. PASSIA trains Palestinian academics who will be teaching abroad on how to promote their cause on university campuses; in addition, Palestinians in the U.S. are taught how to seek out the Arab constituencies in each congressional district and how to lobby members of Congress for political and financial support of the Palestinian cause. And who picks up the tab for PASSIA? The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a program of the U.S. State Department, grants PASSIA and eighteen other Palestinian media relations firms in Jerusalem more than $1 million annually. It was only this past March, after a U.S. House International Relations Committee staffer discovered that USAID was providing allocations for Palestinian media relations, that members of Congress became aware of this aid. A surprised Congressman Eliot Engel (D-NY) looked at PASSIA’s advocacy manual and said incredulously: “Here we are in Congress paying them to lobby us.”
How have the Israelis countered this Palestinian strategy of portraying them as human rights violators?
The Israelis constantly find themselves on the defensive. They can’t seem to get out of the box into which the Palestinians have put them. By framing the conflict as a human rights issue, the Palestinians have succeeded in convincing many journalists, on some level at least, that every act of terrorism against Israeli civilians is not a crime, but a legitimate response to human rights abuses.
What is the organizational structure of the Palestinian public relations program, and how does it differ from Israel’s?
The major Palestinian media organization, known as the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC), is heavily subsidized by the European Union and the Ford Foundation. Headed by Dr. Ghassan Khatib, a close associate of Yasser Arafat, JMCC provides the foreign media with topnotch professional services–affordable camera crews, translators, photographers, and transportation, as well as daily press bulletins, briefing papers, and people to interview.
The Israeli government provides the visiting press with bushels of bulletins, but leaves the provision of camera crews and translation services to the private sector. No Israeli TV crew can compete with the heavily subsidized JMCC, which essentially has cornered the market on media services for the foreign press. The foreign press is totally dependent on Palestinian technical support personnel, who have a strong influence on the narrative and images that appear in the Western media.
Do the Palestinians have a P.R. presence in Washington, DC?
Their man in Washington is Edward Abington, who served as U.S. consul in Jerusalem when USAID began to finance PASSIA in the ’90s and is now registered as a paid foreign agent for the PLO in Washington. Abington coordinates information from JMCC, PASSIA, and other Palestinian information agencies and puts a moderate face on the Palestinian cause, which often means damage control. For example, each time one of Arafat’s militias takes credit for a terror attack, Abington’s office quickly issues a statement to the media denying Arafat’s involvement. A case in point: on November 20, 2000, the PLO’s Fatah was quoted on official PBC radio and PBC TV as taking credit for an attack on a school bus near Cfar Darom, where two schoolteachers were murdered and three siblings were maimed for life. Yet CNN reported that the PLO had condemned the attack. I called the international desk of CNN in Atlanta to inquire about the contradictory statements. The person on the desk, a nineteen-year-old intern, told me that she had received a call from Abington’s office in Washington, followed by a fax, denying PLO involvement.
Abington also provides the press and the U.S. government with “translations” of Arafat’s speeches. On May 15, 2002, Arafat delivered a speech to the Palestine Legislative Council in which he compared the Oslo accords to the ten-year peace treaty between Mohammed and the Jewish tribe of Qureish, a treaty the founder of Islam tore up two years later, when his forces had the power to slaughter the Jewish tribe. President Bush declared that Arafat had been speaking the “right words.” When our news agency asked the U.S. embassy in Israel if the entire speech had been sent to Bush, embassy officials responded that Bush had not yet received any of the speech. We then called Abington’s office, which told us that they had supplied the translated speech to the president. Clearly, the text supplied by Abington’s office arrived before any official dispatch from the ambassador’s information office. The “right words” conveniently excluded Arafat’s bellicose message.
Are Palestinian medical and relief organizations involved in the “media war”?
Like the so-called Palestinian human rights organizations, the Union of Palestine Medical Relief Committees (UPMRC), run by Dr. Mustafa Al-Bargouti (brother of jailed Fatah Tanzim leader Marwan Al-Bargouti), coordinates its strategies with Dr. Fatchi Arafat’s Palestinian Red Crescent Society in disseminating wild reports of Israeli medicalneglect and torture of Palestinians. There have also been numerous incidents in which false information issued by UPMRC sources has been picked up by U.S. media. On July 11, 2001, for example, the Associated Press reported that a pregnant Palestinian woman was shot to death at an Israeli roadblock. In fact, she didn’t die, and the doctor who had told the AP reporter she’d been shot and killed hadn’t even seen her. He was in a different town at the time. AP reversed itself the next day, reporting that “Israeli soldiers did not bar a Palestinian woman in labor from passing an Israeli checkpoint, refuting initial claims by two Palestinian doctors.” Another incident: in late May, National Public Radio aired a parallel report of a Palestinian suicide bombing at an outdoor restaurant near Tel Aviv that killed a toddler and her grandmother, and the shooting of a Palestinian grandmother and child that the IDF mistook for terrorist infiltrators. Palestinian doctors told the NPR reporter that the Palestinian victims’ bodies were burned, dismembered, and crushed by an Israeli tank. NPR included these unsubstantiated accusations in its coverage. When I asked the IDF spokesman about these accusations, he laughed with disbelief that mainstream reporters would give credibility to such outrageous inventions–but they did.
How is the UPMRC funded?
It receives $300,000 annually from the United States for P.R. And Dr. Arafat’s Palestinian Red Crescent Society receives $215,000 a year in U.S. assistance. Both agencies are on the list of the fifty-nine non-government Palestinian organizations that have shared $100 million in U.S. aid since 1997.
Do you believe the United Nations plays a role in advancing the Palestinian P.R. agenda?
Definitely. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) maintains a professional media relations department and a news service called the UNRWA television network, both based in the Ain el-Helweh UNRWA refugee camp in Lebanon. UNRWA cooperates with the media services of the PLO and the Palestine Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) to provide the visiting press with information and services. Its literature focuses largely on the plight of the refugees who are being housed in camps until they can “return to their homeland”–which, according to their literature, includes not only the territories captured by Israel in 1967, but also all the areas that Israel annexed after Israel’s War of Independence in 1948.
The UN’s agenda is to present the Palestinian Arabs as victims. In Witness to History: The Plight of the Palestinian Refugees, one of several primers distributed by UNRWA and published by MIFTAH, the Palestinian media agency run by well-known Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi and commissioned by the Canadian government, the UN asserts, on page 13, that all “refugees and their descendants have a right to compensation and repatriation to their original homes and land…. “
How do the Palestinians and Israelis different in their methods of media relations?
Professionally trained and disciplined Palestinian spokespeople usually present themselves as a ragtag bunch of amateurs. They meet Western reporters in modest Jerusalem or Ramallah hotels or against the backdrop of refugee camps. This tactic has been very successful in reinforcing the stereotype of their side as the aggrieved underdog. An interview with a Palestinian in an alleyway with burning tires and bullets flying overhead captures the imagination of editors who place a premium on entertainment value–the human drama unfolding.
In contrast, when foreign correspondents meet with Israeli officials, they are often greeted by slick government spokespeople at fancy hotels, state-of-the-art media centers, or modern offices. Israeli spokespeople labor under three false notions: first, that formal, professionally packaged P.R. is persuasive; second, that lengthy explanations of the history of the conflict will be more effective than sound bytes in convincing the public of the rightness of their cause; and third, that the moral correctness of their action and cause is self-evident to any rational, fair-minded human being. Along these lines, Israel’s Foreign Minister Shimon Peres once said: “Good policies are good P.R.; they speak for themselves.” Unfortunately, Peres was wrong. A lie can be more powerful than the truth, if you market your lie well enough for people to believe it.
Another problem with Israeli P.R. is that it is woefully uncoordinated and sometimes contradictory. News originates from at least four different offices–the IDF, the Foreign Ministry, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, and the Defense Ministry–and at times each conveys a different message. On October 28, 2001, for example, Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres gave numerous interviews to Israeli and foreign news bureaus stating that Arafat was not responsible for the current wave of terror, and produced as proof the fact that the PA had recently arrested several Hamas terrorists. Yet on that same day, IDF intelligence met with more than a hundred journalists to present evidence linking Arafat and his Fatah organization to Hamas terror activity. Explaining how Hamas terror groups train and operate in the full view of the Palestinian Authority security services, an Israeli military spokesman furnished the media with documentation that the Hamas wing operates as an official, integral part of Arafat’s Palestinian Authority security forces in Gaza; he also pointed out that two wanted Hamas terrorists working for the Palestinian security services had murdered four women and wounded fifty civilians at the Hadera bus station that very morning.
In contrast to the seemingly uncoordinated messages coming from Israel, spokespeople of the autocratic Palestinian Authority adhere to a party line with practiced discipline, simply reciting the standard litany of complaints about their “oppression,” the “occupation,” “human rights abuses,” “racism,” etc.
Why do you think the Israel government has had such difficulty in recent years getting its point of view across to the Western media?
I think Israel made a major mistake in 1986, when Israel Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and his deputy Dr. Yossi Beilin revised the way in which the government would relate to the PLO. They asked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cease distribution of the PLO covenant, which has never officially changed the provision calling for the destruction of the State of Israel. They also asked that the ministry stop defining the PLO as an enemy. In countless briefings that the ministry held in the late 1980s, both Peres and Beilin explained that the time had come to put the fight with the PLO in the past. The 1986 Peres/Beilin policy change paved the way two years later for the U.S. government to recognize the PLO.
The Israeli government also gave the Palestinians a free ride from 1993- 2000, during the seven-year Oslo process, by downplaying terrorist attacks and the two-faced message of the Palestinian leadership, which presented a message of peace in English and a message of war in Arabic. To keep the Oslo process from collapsing, both Israeli and U.S. leaders decided in 1993 to ignore the PA’s daily radio and TV calls for a renewed war against Israel. Indeed, in 1995, when the Institute for Peace Education Ltd., which our agency helped to facilitate, produced videos of Arafat’s speeches promoting jihad (holy war), then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres asked Israel TV not to air any of Arafat’s speeches in Arabic. In September 1995, Peres went so far as to ask Representative Ben Gilman, the chairman of the U.S. House International Relations Committee, not to hold a special hearing in which these videos of Arafat’s speeches were to be screened. The House committee ignored the request.
The “don’t tell” policy continued during the Netanyahu administration from 1996 to 1999. While Netanyahu’s office churned out weekly reports on PA incitement for Likud Party members, a senior official of the Netanyahu administration confirmed to me that the reports were deliberately withheld from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Israeli media. In October 1998, during my coverage of the Wye conference, I asked the Israeli embassy why they did not distribute this material. They answered, “The Israeli government downplays the reality of Arafat’s PA in order to not alienate the U.S. government.” The Barak government, which assumed power in May 1999, went so far as to quietly eliminate the clause in the Oslo accords that required the PA to cease incitement against Israel.
How do the Palestinians and Israelis compare in their treatment of foreign journalists?
The Israeli army often declares areas to be off limits to the media, which is like flashing a red flag before a bull. The first thing a reporter assumes is that Israel is trying to hide something. One foreign reporter, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me that Israel had made a “horrible mistake” when “the IDF closed the whole West Bank to reporters during Operation Defensive Shield and left the area wide open to wild rumors planted skillfully by Palestinian spokesmen. We had no way to check out the rumors, and so many of us had to report it in a he-said, she-said format. And, of course, when TV networks put Palestinian spokesmen on live to make their charges, then it’s out there and we have to deal with it.”
In contrast, the PA rarely engages in confrontation with the foreign press. A rare exception occurred in October 2002 when two IDF soldiers were lynched in the Ramallah police station. The gruesome scene was captured by an Italian TV crew and sent abroad without going through PA censors. The PA demanded an apology and a promise never to do it again–or lose permission to cover Palestinian territory. The Italians said mea culpa and promised never again to embarrass their hosts. We asked our staffer to fly to Rome to interview this Italian crew, who told us, on the record, how they had been browbeaten by PA security officials into providing a letter of apology.
What advice would you give the Israeli government to improve its image in the Western media?
Instead of barring reporters from “closed military places,” the IDF and the Israeli government should facilitate press coverage of every event, no matter how delicate or dangerous. Preventing journalists from doing their jobs, in some rare cases even shooting in their direction, does little to win friends in the media.
I think the best way for Israel to improve its public relations is to improve its human relations. On the positive side, Israel has finally begun to provide correspondents with more concise and useful background information, such as kits, CD roms, and profiles of Israel’s enemies. But rather than providing reporters with the means to get to the scene of an attack, Israel still prefers to keep them away. In short, Israel needs to treat journalists with less suspicion and more respect.
Do you believe that many Western journalists harbor an anti-Israel bias, or are there other factors which work in favor of the Palestinian point of view?
I agree with the assessment of Dr. Mike Cohen, a Jerusalem-based strategic communications analyst and IDF reserve officer, who says that most foreign journalists are not inherently anti-Israel, antisemitic, or pro-Palestinian. They are, however, easily swayed by Palestinian manipulation, which relies on the reporters’ and editors’ lack of background knowledge, combined with the lack of time and desire to take a deep look at the facts. Another factor is the fear of losing access to Palestinian sources and logistical support if their stories are perceived as hostile. Moreover, non-Palestinian reporters are deliberately impeded and intimidated when trying to cover news that may embarrass the PA. I know of several foreign journalists who had reported incidents of Palestinian incitement and were thereafter barred from PA briefings.
Are there dissenting Palestinian voices in the Palestinian media?
One rarely hears a dissenting voice among the Palestinians because anyone who publicly criticizes the PA can be imprisoned or even executed. The foreign media is told, and dutifully reports, that the person in question was a “collaborator.” A case in point: in early March 2002, BBC reported the execution of two Palestinians who had been accused by the PA of collaboration. When the BBC crew met with the families of the two victims, they discovered that both had a history of opposition to the PA and that both had openly criticized Arafat. The BBC correspondent told me that these were dissidents, not collaborators, but BBC World Service chose not to report the story.
In the final analysis, how important is the P.R. factor in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Absolutely crucial. So long as Western journalists project an image of the PA as a defender of human rights and Israel as a brutal occupier, development funds from the United States and the European Union will continue to flow into the PA’s coffers with little public protest about some of that money being used to bankroll the intifada, including suicide bombers, as documents seized from Arafat’s office during Operation Defensive Shield prove. So long as Palestinian P.R. professionals continue to dictate the story line to the media, Israelis will continue to be portrayed as the villains and the Palestinians the victims. It’s time to change the script.
This interview ran in the Summer 2002 Issue of Reform Judaism Magazine