For the past decade Mark Regev has become Israel’s preeminent government mouthpiece. Now, as the world prepares to mark 50 years of occupation, Netanyahu appoints a hasbara heavyweight to represent him in the UK.
By Yoni Mendel
I’m not sure Mark Regev is a name Israelis are too familiar with. But around the world he seems to be one of the people most closely identified with this country, and certainly with its recent governments. A Google News search for “Mark Regev” produces only 180 results in Hebrew, but roughly 12,000 in English. Pretty bizarre for a man who worked so closely with Israeli governments over the last decade, yet not too surprising considering the focus of his work.
Regev began serving as a foreign media adviser to the prime minister in 2007 under Ehud Olmert. A year later he was already appearing all over international television. It was during Operation Cast Lead, which ended with 1,417 Palestinians and 13 Israelis killed, that Regev gave interview after interview to all the international media outlets, managing to rationalize the horrible death toll while emphasizing that Israel did not use excessive force.
Regev was in effect Israel’s chief “hasbarist,” its executive spokesman to the world. When it came to anything regarding hasbara, propaganda, spin, conveying messages and everything in between – it seemed there was no one else better for the job, certainly not in English. In his countless interviews to the international media, Regev always kept his cool and did – at least as far as he was concerned – a credible job.
Time after time in the last decade – during which Israel provided plenty of fodder for criticism (i.e. the siege on Gaza, the offensives against it, and excessive use of force; the Mavi Marmara incident; shooting Palestinians in the occupied territories; home demolitions, continued settlement building, encouraging Jews to pray on the Temple Mount and changing the status quo there, and on and on) – through all this, Regev has gone in front of the cameras and calmly relayed his message. I’m not sure Regev succeeded at convincing the foreign journalists who interviewed him, but he said what Israelis wanted to hear, and he consistently managed to turn criticism of Israel around on the Palestinians.
I’m not sure if Regev should be seen as the designer of Israel’s hasbara line of last decade — Israel always just “responds” to Palestinian violence, it is a victim of course, the Palestinians don’t want peace, there is no siege on Gaza and the only kind of “occupation” happening is the employment of Palestinian laborers — or just its most talented mouthpiece. Regev excelled, and he did so in English.
I wouldn’t have needed such a long intro if Regev hadn’t just begun serving in what is probably the second-most important Israeli diplomatic posting — as ambassador to the UK. He was appointed after faithfully serving Netanyahu, a politician who also knows a thing or two about propaganda in general, and in English in particular. Netanyahu was apparently the first to identify that someone who was so good at hasbara work would also excel at deceiving hundreds and thousands of journalists around the world – and no one is more fitting for the role.
— Mark Regev (@AmbMarkRegev) April 4, 2016
It would seem that Regev’s appointment is a response to increasing criticism in the UK of Israel’s occupation, criticism that Netanyahu knows will only grow next year — when all the countries in the world except for Israel will mark 50 years of military occupation in the West Bank. It is because of the challenging task awaiting all Israeli representatives abroad in 2017 that Regev skipped a few classes and was promoted from media adviser to ambassador.
As far as Netanyahu is concerned it is a genius move. Mr. Hasbara is now in the most important and possibly the most difficult diplomatic posting when it comes to criticism of Israel. On the other hand, the fact that Israel is working on the story it tells itself, honing its messaging, won’t change a thing about the facts on the ground. In short, words cannot change Israeli actions.
It seems like Israel’s foreign service has become a sophisticated hasbara machine that operates according to the prime minister’s whims and phobias. Take four recent important international postings: Washington, New York, Rome and London. In New York, former settler leader Dani Dayan was appointed consul general after Brazil refused to accept him as ambassador due to its opposition to Israel’s continued control of territories it never annexed, and the occupation. Not far from Israel’s consulate in New York, Danny Danon is representing Israel in the United Nations – he previously served as a minister and was fired as deputy defense minister for criticizing Netanyahu because the latter did not strike Gaza even harder.
In the U.S. capital, Netanyahu’s good friend and former senior adviser Ron Dermer is serving as ambassador to the U.S. despite American opposition. Meanwhile, the Italians are still trying to cope with the crisis over Israel’s decision to send an ambassador to Rome who less than a decade again was a member of parliament in Berlusconi’s party.
The March of Folly did not begin here. Israel is trying to find cures for its problems by concealing its disasters — it is doing everything except actually coping with and solving the political issues at hand.
For example, when criticism grew in Norway over, among other things, discrimination against Arabs in Israel, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman was quick to pull a rabbit out of his hat: he sent a Druze ambassador there. Or when the UN grew increasingly critical of the siege on Gaza, Israel responded with cartoons of bombs and recordings of sirens and even 40 seconds of scolding silence. And now, the same in London. Netanyahu was quick to pull out Mark Regev, the superstar of Israeli hasbara.
But the sleazy talk, eye rolling and deflecting blame will not help Israel; it will only further entrench the illusion the government is trying to sell us. The well-oiled hasbara machine, the tricks and shticks, only achieve one thing: they distance Israel from being able to cope with reality, and increase the gap between real life and the imagined one that public officials sell us.
Yoni Mendel is the projects manager of the Mediterranean Unit at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and co-editor of the book review section of the Journal of Levantine Studies (JLS). This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call, where he is a blogger. Read it here.