Benjamin Joffe-Walt
The Media Line (Analysis)
January 20, 2010 - 1:00am

It's been a tough year for Israeli public diplomacy.

In the aftermath of the Gaza war, for over 12 months the Jewish state has been slammed by international media, think tanks, rights organizations and the United Nations.

Ambassadors have been recalled from Tel Aviv, arrest warrants have been issued for senior Israeli politicians and leaders, a Holocaust survivor led a fast for Gaza, dozens of human rights reports on Israel's conduct in the war have been widely distributed and the international campaigns to launch boycotts and sanctions against Israel have seen measured success.

Israel has without question been in dire need of an image makeover.

They got it: for better or worse, Israel has received its public relations knight in shining armor in the form of an earthquake in Haiti.

Israel sent more than 200 Israeli doctors, nurses, soldiers and volunteers to Haiti soon after the gravity of the damage in Haiti became apparent. Within two days of arriving, the Israeli delegation had set up a field hospital, administered emergency medical aid from the Port-au-Prince stadium and rescued over a dozen living survivors from collapsed buildings.

Jewish state's rapid and extensive response has hardly gone unnoticed by the country's media, diplomats and foreign advocates. Updates from Israel's delegation in Haiti have been sent regularly to hundreds of Israeli and foreign journalists via email, video, blogs and social networking sites.

Journalists were even sent a video of ZAKA volunteers somewhat unsuccessfully leading a group of Haitians in singing the Jewish song "Heveinu Shalom Aleichem", literally meaning "We have brought peace upon you."

Israeli newspapers and TV news programs have dedicated extensive space to coverage of the Israeli delegation in Haiti. Former President Bill Clinton's thanks to Israel made the front page of Israel's leading daily on Wednesday, followed by an article on the effects of Israel's aid entitled "Now They Love Us." When a Haitian mother who gave birth in the Israeli field hospital decided to name her child Israel it was the leading news item in most news outlets.

"Israel sent a very large delegation and we were one of the first to arrive," Mati Goldstein, head of the ZAKA Israeli rescue delegation, told The Media Line on the phone from Haiti. "We built a hospital, are treating 300 to 400 people a day, and rescued 19 people from the rubble, more than any other delegation."

Yuli Edelstein, Israel's Diaspora Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister, said rescue operations were one of Israel's shining lights.

"Whenever there is a disaster happening in any part of the world, Israel is reacting," he told The Media Line. "We unfortunately have a lot of experience and well trained personnel that can help a civilian population suffering the consequences of earthquakes, floods, any kind of disaster. Israeli forces, rescue teams and medical teams operated in Armenia, in Mexico, in certain parts of Africa, all over the world."

"The response in Haiti was very quick," Edelstein said. "Before most of the countries managed to prepare their field hospitals for action, the Israeli doctors and nurses were already practically saving peoples lives... at this stage we are talking about hundreds of lives saved in Haiti by the Israeli team... From the reactions we are getting from different crews, delegations, teams from all over the world in Haiti, they basically all admire the work of the Israeli team."

But while praising Israel's response, critics say Israeli attempts to accent their aid to Haiti have been over-the-top, and accuse Israeli public relations officials of exploiting the disaster for political ends.

"The extreme right wing in Israel is using the Haiti operation to reframe the fallout from the Goldstone report in the eyes of the world," Dr Yoel Donchin, an Israeli anesthesiologist and a veteran of Israeli rescue operations told The Media Line. "They know the Haitians are not part of the agenda and this is just for propaganda. But if it's good for Israel they don't care.”

"You can't save everyone, and anyone who has studied mass casualty situations knows that the first thing you have to do is not rush in but to send a small team to evaluate what is the best way to help in the long run," he said. "So the fact that Israel wants to race to be the first to be there means nothing in the big picture, because Israel is usually the first to arrive but also the first to leave.”

"If, for example, Israel were to bring water purification systems and chemical toilets it would be much more helpful," Dr Donchin said. "But their logic is that then it wouldn't get on the news."

Dr Donchin told of an incident in which the head of one of the delegations to a disaster area was asked to move oxygen tanks and doctors to make room for an additional TV crew, and argued that Israel had become a state that "insists on performing a good deed each day and helping the old lady cross the road, even against her will.

"Like Everest climbers, Israel places her national flag at the peak to prove that the site has been conquered," Dr Donchin wrote in a Tuesday opinion piece in Israel's leading Hebrew news site YNet. "To publicize this physical achievement, media representatives, photographers, Israeli Defense Forces Spokespeople and others are brought along with the delegation."

"Are we going to see the commander of the Israeli delegation on the evening news beside a compound with 500 chemical toilets? Unlikely," he wrote. "It is much more "media friendly" to show an Israeli hospital, Stars of David and of course the staff of dedicated doctors and nurses wearing their uniforms with an Israeli flag on the lapel."

600 readers responded to the article in its first 24 hours online and a number of other Israeli publications ran opinion pieces Monday and Tuesday accusing Israel of using the disaster for publicity points or of ignoring a humanitarian disaster on the country's front step in Gaza.

Shlomo Aronson, professor of politics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, took issue with such assessments.

"Yes, it gives another image of Israel to those thinking about the rubble of Gaza," he told The Media Line. "Here Israel is lending help to people who have been victims of natural disaster.”
“But it's not a matter of political benefit nor a deliberate response to Gaza because Israel did similar operations before Gaza," Aronson said. "We are simply better equipped and better trained than most of the others."

"They say salvaging a few people from the rubble is not necessarily worth it," he said of Donchin's argument. "But Donchin deliberately omitted the fact that we don't have the ability to do what he wanted to do and we need to acknowledge what we can and can't do."

Minister Edelstein said that while Israel was not offering aid as a tactic of public diplomacy, he hoped the positive images would change perceptions of Israel.

"Israeli is not assisting the Haitian population in order to get some brownie points," he told The Media Line. "We are doing that because we are Jews, we are Israelis, and because we were brought up with this famous Talmudic perception 'Saving one life is like saving the entire world'."

"But definitely I wouldn't deny that pictures of Israeli teams, uniformed Israeli doctors and soldiers helping, saving, rescuing, are positive pictures," he said. "I sincerely hope that for people with open minds a question will at least appear: 'How come the same people who have been portrayed as cold-hearted murderers are right now risking their own lives and definitely their living standards in order to save people and to help people they don't know and people basically that are thousands of miles from our country?'"

Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli public opinion researcher and political strategist, argued that the reaction to Dr Donchin's criticisms was born of a long standing Israeli sensitivity to their perception in the outside world.

"What I have learned over many years of public opinion research is that Israelis are quite sensitive to their image abroad," she told The Media Line. "Israelis hate when they are seen only in light of the conflict, especially when they are seen as aggressors, and they feel that most of the world is against them, with the possible exception of America."

"As a result, Israelis are extremely supportive of anything that shows them in a better light because it's so rare that they get any good news about how they are viewed in the rest of the world," Scheindlin said. "We see this whenever there is global attention towards Israel for anything other than the conflict. This happened recently, for example, when an Israeli won the windsurfing gold medal or when an Israeli astronaut died."

"That said, do I think the government participated in this aid effort for publicity? Absolutely not," she said. "I don't think it was a cynical move. Israel would have participated anyway. But Israelis do try to use these things to try to leverage a better image for themselves around the world."


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