News on a Platter

Tel Aviv.

Propaganda is part of every war, just like bombs and soldiers. Still, it’s remarkable how professionally Israel deals with foreign journalists, catering conscientiously to all their needs. Lunch included.

The phone rings at 9 a.m. — right on time. “Hello, this is the Government Press Office,” pipes a woman’s voice. “What are you planning to do today? Do you need an idea?” And then the suggestions just keep coming — interview partners; a tour to the houses in Haifa that were struck by Katyusha rockets, complete with victim interviews. An expert will come along too, one who explains the nature of the rockets — “in clean sound bites, if you want.”

There’s more on the plate. “The highlight is still to come,” says the lady from Israel’s press office, the GPO. “We can offer an interview in Naharya with the parents of the kidnapped soldiers,” she says. She explains that the parents of Ehud Goldwasser, who has been held by Hezbollah since July 12, are waiting in a hotel. An interpreter? No need. “They speak good English, don’t worry.”

Many journalists come along, most of them by GPO bus. About 15 camera teams have set up their equipment. Twenty radio and print journalists are enjoying their coffee and the specially prepared sandwiches. Then the parents arrive. The father self-consciously steps up to the microphone. The desk in front of him bristles with microphones — as if a politician were giving a press conference. He’s sweating slightly; the veins on his forehead are bulging.

Shlomo Goldwasser doesn’t have much to say — not much more than the banal phrases security officials often teach parents so they stay on message. “They, my son’s kidnappers, are responsible for Ehud’s safety,” Goldwasser says. “They are also responsible for returning him to us soon — and unscathed.” He says he can’t think of anything else to tell us. He’s a father, he says, not a politician.

“Please don’t smile”

Goldwasser has barely finished speaking when a journalistic scrum erupts and cameramen start to shout. “Mr. Goldwasser, over here,” one of them calls. “Please don’t smile.” Others want to hear childhood stories — “It tugs on the viewers’ heartstrings.” Elsewhere, the man’s wife has to leaf repeatedly through the family photo album. She responds to the orders given her like a robot and would presumably even start crying if she were told to do so. Fortunately no one makes such a request.

The disgraceful spectacle goes on for 90 minutes. The parents say they’ve got nothing to do with politics, nor with the war. They’ve been told appearances in public could save their son. And it’s all organized and choreographed by the Israeli government’s press office — organized for foreign journalists, so that one of the reasons for the current war, the suffering of parents and civilians, receives the public attention it is due. But the parents, in this story, somehow come off only as extras.

Propaganda is a part of war — especially when a state wants the world to see its decision to take up arms as justified and just. It’s no different than the run up to the first Gulf War or the more recent war in Afghanistan — or, more perfidiously, to the second US war against Iraq. Vast armies of public relations workers develop an emotionally charged image meant to provide media and public support for the conflict’s architects. It’s standard procedure — public relations for war.

Not all the information circulated in such a controlled atmosphere, of course, is to be believed. But it’s hard to criticize Israel for wanting to see victims of Hezbollah rockets — 17 killed since the beginning of the war against the militant group — in the media. Indeed it is precisely these victims that fuel the Israeli operations currently raging in southern Lebanon.

Still, Israel’s support and supervision of foreign journalists seems downright excessive. As soon as you’ve received your press credentials from the GPO, you’re bombarded with e-mails and phone calls. When covering other crisis regions, German reporters often have to make an effort to be extra nice and polite and have to search out interviewees and contacts themselves. Not here. In Israel, reporters are on an all-inclusive package trip — and are well looked after.

Well-thought-out story ideas including transportation, lunch and selected military experts — all these things are offered without ever having to be asked for. Many journalists happily accept the offer. For days, images of Israeli artillery units flickered on TV screens the world over — one reason of course being that the PR warriors always took the camera teams to the frontlines around sunset. The soft, warm twilight is favored by camera men and photographers.

An e-mail that arrived on Wednesday is a good example. It offers no less than 11 news stories. The Israeli refugees, perhaps. Or the problems with Arab Israelis? A feature about how an entire village has been dispersed across Israel? A report on people who had to leave their houses? Former hostages? Or a village that has been shot at for decades? It’s all available.

There’s no need to go anywhere. “The contacts can be reached by phone,” the woman from the press office says. “It’s better to do it that way, especially for the radio.” The organizers know exactly what the reporters want. Radio and TV journalists often have to go on air so often that they barely get a chance to leave the hotel. So when a Katyusha rocket strikes, an e-mail containing a list of eyewitnesses, complete with their mobile phone numbers, is more than welcome.

Language barriers are willingly breached as well. Every list includes eyewitnesses with different language profiles. There’s plenty to choose from in an immigrant country like Israel: English, French, Spanish, Russian and of course several German speakers in every city. Laborious simultaneous translations are rendered superfluous by the service.

The Israeli public relations experts, though, have their work cut out for them. With public opinion turning against the Israelis following the bombing of the UN outpost in southern Lebanon, the country’s use of excessive force is once again a major issue. And the war doesn’t seem as though it will come to an end any time soon.

MATTHIAS GEBAUER writes for Der Spiegel.