For Pete’s sake, media should give unbiased Israel coverage

IT may surprise some to discover that Peter Lerner is somewhat bashful. After all, this is the man who was Israel’s face to the world in the summer of 2014 during the Protective Edge military operation in Gaza.

The son of a former London cabbie may not be one for the limelight, but he knew he had a job to do during his time as the lead spokesman to the international media for the Israel Defence Forces.

“I am actually an introvert,” Peter told me from his home in Ramat Gan. “Every day during that conflict, for example, I was giving more than 50 interviews, most of them live on air.

“It added up to more than 700 interviews altogether. I didn’t really like doing it, but, of course, it was extremely important that I did do it.

“It is a bad thing if you become too in love with doing it. I prefer to be the person who has to think twice and make sure I was the right person to go in front of the television cameras.”

Perhaps it was Peter’s Britishness — he moved to Jerusalem with his family when he was 12 — which made him the perfect person to present Israel’s case to the world.

He was a calm and assured voice in front of the cameras, as opposed to the sometimes prickly and aggressive nature of some Israeli diplomats.

“I was able to hold myself and refrain from outbursts, which hasn’t always been Israel’s strongest trait,” the 45-year-old said.

“The only other person similar to me was Mark Regev, who is now Israel’s ambassador to the UK.

“When I was speaking on TV, I wanted to be the guy who people thought, ‘he is interesting — I would like to sit down for a beer with him’.

“As a country, we needed to be speaking to people who were either undecided or uninformed about the conflict.”

Raised in north London, he recalled a particularly poignant discussion when the family was sat around the Shabbat dinner table.

“My parents asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I am going to live in Israel,’” Peter explained.

“I couldn’t have been more than 10 at the time.”

Two years later, Peter, his parents, Ruth and Harold, and sister Julie (now Tzvibel), were settled in Jerusalem.

His mother’s maiden name was Orchant and her family were originally from Manchester.

It wasn’t difficult for Peter to settle into Israeli life, nor to fit in at school during his formative years.

“I had a good grasp of Hebrew and found life welcoming in Israel, so it wasn’t a struggle for me like it can be for a lot of olim,” he added.

After a short time in the military police on joining the IDF, he was moved to the civil administration desk in Judea and Samaria.

Because of his native English, he became a senior field liaison officer for co-ordinating and facilitating international humanitarian aid operations and economic development programmes in the Palestinian territories.

They included United Nations agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the European Union.

“I was a bridge between the defence establishment and them during military operations and conflicts,” Peter said.

“That bridge helped me try and find my way of communicating, which can solve lots of problems should they later arise.

“It gave me a lot of perspective on how people see Israel and what it meant for Judea and Samaria.

“I was one of only three or four soldiers, who were working out of a really small office, trying to convey Israel’s message.”

Many view non-governmental organisations such as the Red Cross as anti-Israel and, in some cases, as antisemitic.

But Peter said it was important to recognise the differences between various organisations.

“A lot of those who were on the ground were doing good for human beings, so it wasn’t a difficult task for me to help them,” he added.

“There was dissidence when it came to the political arena, but they were welcoming, understanding and, when we had differences, we were the military at the end of the day and we needed to be able to conduct our operations.”

He dealt with Palestinian Authority officials, sitting around the table with them, together with his Israeli colleagues.

“This was around the time of the Oslo years and the Hebron Agreement,” Peter said.

“The Israelis always came to the table with a practical mindset of solutions, while the Palestinians were disconnected to the practicabilities of life and more interested in the politics of things.

“As the years improved, the PA became more professional.

“It had a wake-up call in 2006 when it came to the conclusion that it had to work with Israel against Hamas to ensure what happened in Gaza did not happen in the West Bank.

“You got to know the Palestinians and realised things could be done, but the politics always overshadowed everything else.”

There were a few frightening moments when he was working in Judea and Samaria, and Gaza.

“I was deployed with officers on the ground in 2002 during Operation Defensive Shield,” Peter recalled.

“We mobilised in a white Jeep, rather than the usual green ones, and some of our forces didn’t know what this white Jeep was doing roaming around.

“It almost led to an Israeli tank targeting us in a case of friendly fire.

“I remember also being in Gaza when mortars were pounding our compound in Erez. A couple of our officers were injured during those attacks.”

He went on to become spokesman for the IDF’s Central Command, where he spent three years, before taking on the high-profile job, in February, 2013, as the lead spokesman for the IDF to the international media.

“My experience is that working with the foreign press is different from working with domestic Israelis,” he said.

“Obviously, the Israeli press gets the security threat and many of these foreign journalists are coming from a liberal perspective with human interest because it sells newspapers.

“That hasn’t changed much over the time.

“Israel is overexposed as far as Palestinian suffering is concerned — a lot of these journalists’ coverage is based on that.

“There was a Human Rights Watch report about how Palestinians are treated in Palestinian prisons, but I do not know of a single TV station which covered it.

“On the other hand, when a damning report was released about us, every station under the sun came to me looking for a comment.

“Of course, there are journalists whom deem it their job to be an advocate for the Palestinian ‘cause’, but good journalism is not about advocacy — it is about relating to the facts.”

No day was the same during his time as the IDF’s lead spokesman.

So eclectic was Peter and his 70-strong staff’s work, that one day they would be planning media outreach activities and pitching news items, while another was spent highlighting the challenges Israel faced on its border with Lebanon from Hezbollah.

Another day would involve highlighting the LGBT-friendly policies in the IDF.

Peter would also send out journalists with the IDF’s forces, where they would meet commanders and speak to soldiers.

He left his position 18 months ago and is now a freelance communications consultant, working with those involved in Israeli public diplomacy, fighting the BDS movement and with high-tech businesses.

“It is about looking at communicating better about their business and their mission,” explained Peter, whose replacement was Jonathan Conricus.

“After fulfilling such a post, nothing much in the army really appealed to me after that.

“It was time to do something else and I had also reached retirement age from the military, so everything seemed to fall in line.”

Peter, who has been married to Liat for 12 years, is also enjoying spending time with his seven-year-old daughter Noya.

“I still don’t think I have fulfilled my debt to the Jewish People,” he added.

“I want to continue to be a bridge between Israel and the world, whether that is through social media or public speaking.”

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