“For the first time in history, Jews can take part in war from home”

|Published July 21, 2015

‘For the first time in history, Jews can take part in war from home’

Avi Benayahu, who served as IDF Spokesperson during both Operation Cast Lead and the Mavi Marmara incident, explains his worldview and tactics in a lecture obtained by +972 Magazine.

Benayahu revealed how he planted army officers as civilian commentators in foreign networks; called the IDF’s willingness to hit civilians ‘the surprise of war’; explained how he used Hillel and Chabad envoys to promote the army’s talking points, and praised the Israeli media for its ‘discipline’ during Operation Protective Edge. ‘The IDF Spokesperson’s unit is a combat unit with more influence than two divisions,’ he concluded. 

Avi Benayahu (right) stands next to former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz (center) and Major-General Yoav Mordechai (right). (photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Before Brigadier-General (ret.) Avi Benayahu began serving as IDF Spokesperson in 2007, the unit did little more than send photos of soldiers celebrating Passover to Israeli newspapers. But between 2007 and 2011, Benayahu — the right-hand man of then-Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi — revolutionized the old unit, transforming it into one of Israel’s leading “hasbara” (propaganda, or “public diplomacy”) outfits. The unit’s methods and aims still lie heavily on his work.

Benayahu, a self-described technophobe, opened a “new media” division, which included an active, multilingual presence on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The project did so well that he was asked to lead another new media initiative after his term ended. During his term, Benayahu led the army’s public relations effort surrounding Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, as well as the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. In 2011 he was elected Media Man of the Year by the Israel Public Relations Association.

But Benayahu was known not only for his initiative, but also for his aggressive approach to the media and journalists who were not his close associates, not to mention his often controversial methods of work. He didn’t hesitate, for example, to order IDF soldiers to confiscate work from journalists, only to release bits and pieces that served senior officers at the appropriate moment.

It was his relationship with Ashkenazi and his inner circle that led to Benayahu’s fall from grace. From 2011 on, his name was linked to the “Harpaz Affair,” which saw leading IDF officers interrogated for trying to discredit then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his candidate who was vying to become the next chief of staff. Benayahu was even arrested at one point.

Today Benayahu works as a private consultant. His public image has yet to recover from the Harpaz Affair, but in the current climate, his methods and ideas are more dominant than ever. In a country that has given up on diplomacy and long-term policy thinking, Benayahu represents the only viable alternative: a combination of military power and propaganda. “I don’t like when we apologize during war,” he recently said. And nowadays, Israel sees itself as a country that is always at war.

Recently, Benayahu gave a lecture at Tel Aviv University on his experiences as IDF Spokesperson. He told the students how he used Israeli envoys and Jewish institutions to promote his talking points, discussed the manipulation of the international media, praised the local media for its discipline during war time, and explained how he views the role of his unit: “I finished my role in the General Staff [of the IDF] with the knowledge that the IDF Spokesperson is a combat unit with more influence than two divisions.”

I obtained a recording of the lecture, here are some of the interesting bits:

Hasbara is a very complicated issue. The media in Israel was very disciplined during Protective Edge, in comparison to the Second Lebanon War. The media in Israel during the Second Lebanon War developed a reporting model that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world […] the war began, and every media outlet wants to be the first to present the investigative committee, already [asking] difficult questions.

In Cast Lead we tried to restore order, we took the cellphones from the all the soldiers and we didn’t let journalists go in, go out, all sorts of things like this. We wanted to redeem ourselves; I say this as clearly as possible, okay? During Cast Lead, one of the main missions for myself and for the army was to redeem ourselves from the bad feeling from the Second Lebanon War.

The main role of IDF Spokesperson, Benayahu told the students, is to preserve both local and international legitimacy for the IDF’s actions. The challenge is that the world expects the IDF to operate according to certain morals and rules of engagement. The IDF, however, has changed its policies, and would now rather kill uninvolved Palestinian civilians than risk its own troops.

When it comes to hasbara you need to align your expectations with that of the public. […] the world says to us: ’The Bible is your book, the Jewish People’s morals are yours, the Declaration of Independence is yours, the IDF’s code of engagement, which you wrote. Everything you hang on the walls [The Declaration of Independence and the IDF’s moral code are shown in every army classroom – N.S.]. we [the world] won’t tolerate a gap between what you wrote and what is happening on the ground.

Therefore, we need to change the wall. What is important today is to explain to the world that are our civilians come first, our soldiers come second, their civilians come third, and in fourth place are their terrorists.

Because the world has gotten confused. The world is used to a situation where some will die here in order to save some of them.

In the past, one or two or three Hamas battalion commanders would travel to a meeting with a Hamas division commander — putting a woman on the left side window and a young girl on the right side window as they traveled would guaranty their safety. You don’t open fire, right? Today, we fire. The woman and the kid – gone. This is the surprise of Cast Lead.

Israeli protesters interrupt Avi Benayahu during a talk in 2008. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Benayahu explained how in order to increase the effect of his messages, he used to place military officers as civilian commentators for foreign media consumption, without ever letting the networks know. Messages by eloquent civilians, he said, will be far better received by the audience than a field officer with broken English:

A 58-year-old American man who comes back from work in Albuquerque or in St. Louis, relaxes on his chair with a Budweiser and turns on the TV and sees that three kids were killed in the West Bank, and some colonel explains this to him in basic English — that’s not good. Often times, this is what we get.

As the IDF Spokesperson, I came with a lot more knowledge, experience and authority, because of my previous roles. I wasn’t afraid to make difficult, unpopular decisions. For example, I took the Ambassador Zalman Shoval, a former lieutenant colonel in Hasbara — he finished his reserve duty in the First Lebanon War.

I took the field uniform, ironed it for him, and said ’put this on in the back of the car, you’re going to do your reserves in the IDF Spokesperson, and in your civilian [clothing] on the networks […]

Some of the IDF Spokesperson reservists, the lesser-known ones, were on American and European television and not by accident — without the title “colonel” or “general.” This isn’t really okay — it is sort of fraudulent, because this guy is a general or a colonel and so on, but these are the sort of things you do in war.”

Another important initiative Benayahu implemented was using Israeli envoys belonging to religious institutions such as Chabad, as well as Jewish community centers abroad, for pushing the army’s talking points. This strategy also falls in line with the new approach in Israel, which views the diaspora and all of its institutions as a vessel for promoting and lobbying for Israeli policies. Benayahu explicitly refers to organizations such as Hillel as agents of the army’s PR machine, with Jews being asked to “participate in the war effort from home.” In fact, he even oversaw the development of a software dedicated to this purpose:

The most influential front is on social media. In Cast Lead I built a tool — in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit it was called “global distribution.” […] We mapped hundreds of organizations […] Israeli, Jewish and Christian that love Israel, church organizations, we did all this leg work.

And the method works like this: If I have a message from the IDF Spokesperson, a message that I am also publishing in Israel, and I translate it to English — a photo, video, map, or document, I pass these onward with a single click through “global distribution” […] to hundreds of headquarters on every continent.

For instance, let’s take one example, Chabad. [They have] thousands of emissaries — do you know what those are? The Chabad emissaries that you all know from from East Asia, but also in France, Manhattan, New York, Los Angeles…

With a single click, he transfers it to thousands of locations. Now, there is discipline there. The guy in New York gets it and sends it to thousands of people on his mailing list, and the same thing in Kathmandu and China. I send it to Hillel, and Hillel sends it to every Hillel house in universities all over the world […] viral distribution. This wins over everything. We built this system, it works, the way we distribute our newsletter videos, pictures…

[…]

In every war, all the Jewish communities around the world identify with the IDF. They raise and send us money and packages, they hold rallies in support of the army. [Now], for the first time in history, they can really take part in the war from their homes. With the tip of their fingers, they can contribute enormously to Israel’s hasbara.

+972 Magazine contacted IDF Spokesperson with questions regarding the practice of placing army officers to pretend being Israeli civilians on foreign networks. They declined comment.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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