Monthly Archives: June 2009

How to argue Israel’s case: lessons from a media guru

From The Jewish Chronicle
Alex Kasriel
June 11, 2009
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The country’s representatives in the UK called in a top spin doctor for advice on getting their viewpoint across to an increasingly hostile media. Alex Kasriel went along to see what they learned

Linda Lovitch teaches delegates in London how to survive media questioning. She recommends “branching” — changing the subject
A spokesman for Israel is staring into a television camera answering questions about why the country acts in a disproportionate manner in its treatment of Palestinians.

The spokesman, Richard Millett, knows his stuff — he has a master’s degree on the Israeli-Arab conflict — but is visibly feeling the pressure. At one stage, he thinks his interviewer is accusing Israel of committing war crimes, and says so, adding: “A solider has got to decide whether the importance of the military target outweighs the risk of civilian casualties.” From the audience, the sound of tutting is heard.

But the audience is not outraged at the mention of Israeli soldiers shooting civilians, but by the spokesman’s decision to bring up the fact that Israel is accused of committing war crimes.

This is because the audience is on Israel’s side. This is actually a mock interview, the questioner is Alan Aziz, director of the Zionist Federation, and the tutters are fellow delegates on a ZF training course for British spokesmen who talk to the UK media about Israeli issues. Leading the workshop is media guru Linda Lovitch, who has trained, among others, the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesman Mark Regev to spin with skill.

Lovitch tells Millet that he should never raise an issue or accusation against Israel that has not been put to him.

This is just one of the many pointers, the American Israeli — who has degrees in psychology, theatre and communications — has up her sleeve for defending Israel against a hostile media.

She has many others: “Don’t attack the other person. The minute you get angry and upset, people think: ‘Those oppressive Israelis’.
Also: “Nobody likes a history lesson. Remember ‘Kiss’ — keep it simple, stupid!”

She insists: “You have to prepare for every interview. Know the basic thread, get across two or three messages. Do not be afraid of acknowledging that Israel doesn’t always do the right thing.”
And she adds: “Do not always jump to the defence. Sometimes, we think we are being attacked when we are not.”

A favourite technique is what she calls “branching”. Lovitch shows a video in which Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu avoids answering a question by cleverly changing the subject and sticking to his own agenda. She also mentions that British spokespersons should never say “we” when they are talking about Israel. It makes the argument sound less objective.

Millet is often called upon to speak for Israel on the Iranian television channel Press TV and is one of 18 people selected from 150 applicants to attend the course.

When lawyer Barbara Pontecorvo — who has come especially from Italy to attend the course — takes the seat in front of the camera, Lovitch reminds everyone that women often come across better as they are less aggressive than men.

Pontecorvo is nervous because English is not her first language. But when she does her piece in her native Italian, her posture relaxes and she uses her hands more — all of which Lovitch says is good, even though she cannot understand a word of what is being said.

Before the mock interviews, Lovitch spends some time analysing news reports from Sky, BBC, CNN and Press TV. In her view, most of the material is biased against Israel, focusing on the plight of the Palestinian victims rather than those on the Israeli side. Israelis in the main are portrayed as aggressors with large tanks.

She says later: “I remember one piece by Brent Sadler on CNN in which he covered a refugee camp in Lebanon. The Palestinians there showed him the deeds to their houses in Palestine and even coins. I believe this causes confusion for the general public.

They think that there was a state of Palestine before the Jews moved there in ’48 and took over. I’ve also been bothered by the BBC reports when they follow suicide bombers preparing for their missions. This means they are hanging out with known terrorists who are planning specific attacks and don’t inform Israel about it.” She argues that many of the European channels are biased against Israel because they reflect their countries shame about their colonial past.

“In Europe and Britain it’s a whole different story compared to the USA,” she says. “They have a difficult relationship with Israel. They see it as the same thing they did as colonists. They have got their own guilt about colonies.”

Lovitch admits, however, that Israel could do more to advance its case by playing the media game. “We don’t see Arabs and Jews sitting together, for example, in Israeli hospitals — being treated equally,” she says.

“And we have a dilemma — we want to show two conflicting messages. One, we’re victims; two, we’re a lovely place to visit. There’s a need for better co-ordination between the different government

After more gruelling rounds of interviews, and on-the-spot Q&As in mock demo zones, Richard Millet reflects on what he has learned from the two-day course. What has impressed him most is discovering that the key to getting your message across is not only about what you say, but how you look.

“Apparently, the body language is 55 per cent of it, he says: “How to sit, learning to stay still, being attentive when other people are talking. It is quite dispiriting, after doing a two-year master’s degree that it all comes down to body language.”
Another delegate, Keith Fraser, is a Zionist Federation representative often interviewed on radio shows. He was recently pitted against Lauren Booth, Cherie Blair’s sister and prominent critic of Israel on a Talk Sport phone-in.

“What I took away from the course is that it is important to keep the message simple for the people out there,” he says. “I shouldn’t try to over complicate things. We have to understand that most people don’t have this in-depth knowledge.”

Staying on Message

In media interviews, Israel’s representatives aim to get
across seven key points:

– Israel wants peace

– Israel is under constant threat and has no margin of error on security issues

– Israel must protect its citizens

– Everything Israel does is reactive/defensive

– Israel believes in the two-state solution

– Israel is prepared to live side-by-side in peace and security with a Palestinian state

– Israelis didn’t want the security fence, only after two years of people being slaughtered was it built out of necessity.


2009 versus 1979

This week I was expecting to be writing about the second round of the Iranian Presidential election that should have taken place this friday between President Ahmadinejad and Mir Hossein Moussavi, his reformist opponent. As Ahmadinejad received more than the 50% of the vote, he got 63% to Moussavi’s 34%, the second round became redundant. Turnout this time was a record 85%. Comparing this election to that of 2005 explains a lot about what has just occurred. In 2005 Ahmadinejad received a paltry 19%, only some 5.7 million votes, in the first round on a turnout of just 63% although he went on to trounce Rafsanjani in the second round. Many Iranians used to be reticent to vote fearing lending legitimacy to the Orwellian regime that controls many aspects of their own lives while riding roughshod over the human rights of many of their fellow citizens. However, on 12th June the Iranians came out en masse for change but expediently saw their votes appropriated by the incumbent Ahmadinejad who managed to tally an astonishing 24.5 million votes this time round. A private poll conducted for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, seen by the Sunday Times, suggested Moussavi would actually win 58% of the vote. The seemingly manipulated final 29% disparity between the two main protagonists left no doubt as to Khamenei’s preferred president, despite his own private poll, but has not dissipated calls for a recount. As Khamenei calls the main shots the election seems like a fait accomplit and the Iranian people might now be subject to four more years of oppression against their will. That’s four more years of women and others treated as second-class citizens. Indeed, Iran is split between the rural poor, who would have voted for Ahmadinejad’s continuation of state handouts, and urbanite business people and intellectuals, who want reform and an end to worldwide isolation. But Ahmadinejad mysteriously “won” all the major cities except Tehran. And considering that 70% o f Iranians are under thirty the underlying tensions might now be too difficult to contain. At the time of writing the first set of live bullets have just been fired into crowds of Moussavi supporters with tragic consequences. The first confirmed death has come almost three days after the rigged polls closed. For almost three days Moussavi supporters were allowed the freedom to vent their rage and the usual protests against America were incredibly replaced with protests against Khamenei. In the weeks before the election a carnival atmosphere was in vogue in parts of Iran but it seems the mullahs have finally had enough and the iron fist of the Islamic Revolution will descend once more. It would be trite to see in one death the start of a Green, Moussavi’s political colours, Revolution some 30 years after the Islamic one but the mullahs must be cognisant that the people that helped them to overthrow the Shah could try to overthrow them. In 1978 the wavering Shah made the mistake of allowing the Iranian people the freedom to protest hoping that peaceful demonstrations would burn themselves out. He also lifted media restrictions. In contrast the mullahs are taking no chances and have blocked Facebook, text messaging and closed down reform-minded newspapers. In 1978 it was the tragic death of 500 people in the Cinema Rex fire in Abadan combined with riot deaths, whether caused by the Shah’s policies or not, that gave the charismatic Ayatollah Khomeini the ability to rally the people to his revolutionary banner. Moussavi is no Khomeini but sentiment in Iran seems the same as it was thirty years ago: Iranians want their Iran back.

30 years later and another debacle in Iran

I feel sorry for Iranians after today’s debacle of an election. Not only will tensions be prolonged for another 4 years in the Middle East with the re-election of Ahmadinejad but the fate of, inter alia, women, homosexuals and Bahais will be uncertain to say the least. The vote of 63% for Ahmadinejad and 34% for Mousavi was enough to ensure there would be no friday run off between the two protagonists. The closer the gap the higher the tensions there would have been with many Iranians demanding a recount. Now we are seeing a re-occurrence of the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979 when the leftists were mercilessly crushed by the Islamist radicals. Once again the leftists are no match for volunteers and soldiers of the Revolution.

The sham of Iranian democracy

Whenever I hear British Jews criticising Israel for defending its citizens from Kassam rockets I am deeply suspicious of their motives. I sometimes wonder if they want revenge after having had some sort of emotional conflagration with their pro-Zionist family. Roger Cohen recently wrote an article for the New York Times where he described a banner above a synagogue in Iran saying: “Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution from the Jewish community of Esfahan”. He also quotes an Iranian Jew who said20that Gaza showed the Israeli government to be “criminal”. Mr Cohen goes on to praise Iranian warmth and civility towards Iran’s remaining 25000 Jews. Indeed, the Iranian people I have met have always been very warm and polite which makes it more of a conundrum for me that Iranian politics is generally so brutal.

This sophisticated and cultured nation stands by and watches the oppression of many of its own people while consoling itself that it is more democratic than its Arab neighbours. In Iran women can be s toned to death for committing adultery whereas men can have up to four wives. The Guardian Council, which chooses presidential candidates based on their dedication to Islam, has proclaimed a woman cannot become President as they lack “the intellectual capacity and understanding to stand”. The Pet Shop Boys dedicated an album to two teenage boys hanged in 2005 for being homosexual and an Iranian leader has stated that homosexuals deserve to be executed. Human Rights Watch recently reported on the oppression of Iran’s Kurds. Many of Iran’s three hundred thousand adherents to Baha’ism, considered heretical to Shi’ism, have been executed since 1979. Evangelical churches and the printing of Christian literature are banned. There can only be one Jewish MP o ut of 290. Jews can vote for anyone while Muslims cannot vote for Jews.

On 12th June the Iranian people go to the polls for the 10th Presidential election since their 1979 Revolution that deposed the Shah. These Presidential elections, and the eight Parliamentary elections since 1979, give the people the false sense that the Islam of the Islamic Republic of Iran is democratic. Iranians never wished to have their lives so fully controlled by Islam. Initially the 1979 revolution was a workers’ one but soon afterwards the Mullahs brutally repressed the left once it had done its job of helping to oust the Shah. Then the Mullahs set about infusing every level of society with Islamic tenets. The imposition of Sharia law has been so complete that thirty years on many Iranians have forgotten that back in 1979 they just wanted less corruption and an end to autocracy, not a theocracy.

President Ahmadinejad and three others will contest the election o n June 12th. One disqualified presidential candidate proposed moving Israel to Hawaii. But whoever wins may well be irrelevant due to the man right at the top, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Past reformist presidents have had legislation blocked by the all-powerful Guardian Council, which is appointed by the Supreme Leader, and supporters imprisoned. Of the two reformists now standing Mehdi Karroubi states that questioning the Holocaust should not concern Iran and both he and Mir Hossein Mousavi want better relations with the west. But “democratic” Iran is likely to continue involving itself in the internal politics of other countries with continued support for Hamas and Hizbollah. Hizbollah’s deadly bombing of the Jewish community cent re in Argentina in 1994 happened on the watch of the reformist President Rafsanjani. So all in all Iran’s Jews have a solid reason for condemning Israel and for raising that congratulatory banner in Esfahan. It’s called self-survival.

RSY-Netzer/Press TV

I spent an enjoyable morning at Sinclair House in Ilford discussing with RSY-Netzer whether British Jews should support Israel. I was debating with Dr. Brian Klug who would like to see more diverse discussion among British Jews about Israel. I came away with the feeling that there needs to be more discussion per se. The debate was short but important and more of these kinds of calm debates need to take place without the usual kind of mud-flinging that can accompany them. I will publish the text of my debate in the next few days.

And so to tomorrow where I will be on Press TV’s Forum show hosted by Andrew Gilligan where the welcome from the studio audience might not be as warm. The topic of the panel discussion is, “Obama, Isreal & Palestine: the beginning of a new era?”. I will be debating with Kamal el-Helbawy – Chairman, Centre for the Study of Terrorism, Richard Stone – President of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, Simon Tisdall – Foreign Affairs Columnist & Assistant Editor, The Guardian.

Tomorrow is one of those momentous days in history. The European elections that could topple the Labour Government and Obama’s speech in Cairo where all the idealism attached to Obama could begin to fade.

Obama’s trip

With Obama about to touch down in Saudi before the big speech in Cairo on Thursday i am off to speak at RSY-Netzer in Redbridge. With me will be the revered Dr. Brian Klug.