For the first time in Israel's intermittent wars with the Arabs in the past three decades, the government and nation believe they are not winning the battle for public opinion in the Western news media. This perception has left government officials feeling dazed, embittered and full of righteous indignation.
The government's own survey of world coverage of "Operation Peace for Galilee"--Israel's name for its campaign against Palestinian guerrillas in Lebanon--found only Latin American countries generally supporting Israel, according to Moshe Yegar, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' head of information. The U.S. press, he said, has been "one-third, one-third, one-third."
The coverage has been "bad" from Israel's viewpoint in Western Europe, "terribly bad" in Norway, "mixed" in other Scandinavian countries and outright "anti-Semitic" in Greece "in the crudest possible way," Yegar said. Only in Latin America did he rate it "excellent."
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has kept a close watch on press coverage of the war in every country that matters to it, particularly the United States, where the embassy even in normal times conducts its own private polls to keep track of any shift in American public opinion toward Israel.
In past wars, Israel was the clear winner in every propaganda battle, in part by default. Arab nations that practiced censorship in peacetime did not want to acknowledge their defeat, let alone have it recorded on nightly television news. In 1967, the Egyptian government ordered Western reporters trying to cover the war to stay in their hotels in Cairo the first few days.
Even when the Egyptians successfully stormed Israel's ramparts along the Suez Canal at the onset of the 1973 war, the need for extreme secrecy meant no Western media would be present to film or recount probably the Arab world's finest hour in battle against the Israeli war machine.
This time, the Palestinians, militarily the weakest Arab foe that Israel has fought, turned the tables on the Israelis. They welcomed cameramen and correspondents to report on their rout by the Israelis and Israeli bombings of civilian areas along the way.
The result was devastating to Israel. From the very start of the invasion, 200 to 300 Western media representatives based in Beirut reported on the war, giving readers and viewers the Arab view as well as the Israeli view. Moreover, this time Israel hesitated to let reporters observe the fighting, its Army having decided upon a news blackout for the first three or four days to wrap its military intentions in "the fog of war."
This meant that Israeli radio and newspapers had to quote the radio stations in Beirut about what their own Army was doing in Lebanon.
In that chaotic country, where there is no real central authority or tradition of censorship and where reporters roam freely at their own risk, it is impossible to imagine that news can be controlled or shaped to anyone's liking. But the Israelis seem to think it can be done.
Israeli officials have been upset not only by what they see as a strong anti-Israeli slant in the war coverage but also by suggestions of some American columnists and News Analysis News Analysis commentators that Israel is behaving in Lebanon as Nazi Germany did toward the Jews and is unleashing its own "holocaust" on the Palestinians there.
"I don't think we are overreacting," Zev Chafets, director of the government press office, said in an interview. "This is a motif that I have not seen before in the Western press. There is something very cruel about using this analogy as a political device. It trivializes the Holocaust. Nobody has taken 6 million Palestinians and turned them into bars of soap."
The issue of Israeli treatment of the civilian population, particularly the Palestinians, quickly became the crux of a controversy highlighted by the government's deliberate omission of Palestinians in its casualty count.
Unlike the wars of 1967 and 1973, this war has required the Israeli Army to fight its way through heavily populated areas to root out the guerrillas. It left a swath of destruction fully documented by cameramen and reporters and brought to the American viewer each night in living color.
Evidence of a high toll among civilians, although hotly disputed by the Israelis, became a central part of the picture the world had of the war and raised disturbing questions about Israel's mission in Lebanon.
Once the pattern of news coverage was established, it never really changed. After Israel encircled the Palestinian guerrillas in West Beirut, its dramatic land, sea and air bombardments of the city, with the Western media watching and taking pictures, made it certain the Beirut dateline and image would prevail.
Israelis are not blaming the public relations fiasco solely on a pro-Palestinian bias in the war coverage. In their lively debate about Israel's "image crisis," the government itself is one focus of attack.
For example, an editorial in Thursday's Jerusalem Post noted that "for weeks now it has been apparent that there is something fundamentally wrong with Israel's information effort in the Lebanese war."
It criticized the government for trying to control the flow of news out of Lebanon and the "studied attempt by Israel at partial cover-up, notably of conditions in the largely ruined Palestinian refugees' camps." The daily paper added:
"Little wonder, then, that the image of Israel that emerged from the war in Lebanon has not been that of plucky little David rising to defend himself against his enemies, but that of giant Goliath, immensely powerful but also crude and somewhat mindless."
Israeli information officials emphasize the obstacles they faced in portraying the war to the world. While it was difficult for cameramen to find pictures symbolizing Israel's pent-up frustration and grievances against the Palestinian guerrillas, one remarked, it was easy to find ones that portrayed the effects of Israeli bombings and shelling on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, their homes and property.
"Pictures act viscerally on people," Chafets said, "and pictures of civilians suffering move you."
One of the sharpest collisions of government and press occurred when Israel allowed Beirut-based American network teams to transmit satellite coverage through Tel Aviv, a decision Chafets says he now regrets. As the government began censoring the film, the networks retaliated by showing blank spaces on the screen to alert the viewer.
Israelis are consoling themselves with the idea that perhaps the coverage does not make much difference anyway. They cite polls that show American opinion is more in favor of Israel today than before the invasion of Lebanon.
"I agree there has been erosion among U.S. foreign policy experts," said one official who asked to remain anonymous. "But I don't think this is reflected in the country . . . . All the polls show Israel more popular in America than at any time since 1967. The evidence seems to be overwhelming and universal."