Battle of the Minds

In a special retirement interview with IsraelDefense, former IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis speaks about the era of new wars on the web, the IDF's influence on the Arab world, and the decision to "communicate" with the enemy


Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis. Photo: Meir Azulay

By Shai Rubin

The last decade, and the period since Operation Protective Edge (2014) in particular, were characterized by a different type of warfare: fewer kinetic operations, more clandestine operational and intelligence activities. Over the last few years, the decision by the political echelon, based on the recommendations of the IDF and the defense establishment, to engage in a more extensive activity, which included a confrontation – at times direct – opposite Iran, evolved into the prevailing policy. This activity, known as the war-between-wars, has been characterized by operations conducted in several sectors simultaneously – Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip.

As a derivative of the war-between-wars, a decision was made to promote various tools in the realm of public consciousness, awareness, and influence. Some of these tools, both overt and secret, included a more extensive employment of the IDF Spokesperson Unit, which was headed by Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis until September 2019. In an interview with IsraelDefense, he explains that the decision to expand the activity of the IDF Spokesperson Unit from the realms of spokesmanship to the realms of public consciousness and influence was not a matter of choice, but rather a matter of necessity. This move, ordered by the previous IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, and the current Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, was initiated mainly owing to an operational need, but also because of the enemy's activity on the web and the major changes that had taken place in this field over the last few years.

"The last few years have been characterized by a war-between-wars. In other words – a relatively quiet situation outwardly, and at the same time – intensive activity of which the general public is not fully aware," said the former IDF Spokesperson. "In all of these events, the mission assigned to the military was to improve the security and strategic position of the State of Israel, without leading it into a full-scale war. Through a perspective of two years and more – we have accomplished this mission."

"The war-between-wars raises the question of our role as the IDF Spokesperson Unit within the over-all situation. I think that this type of warfare produces a tremendous potential for the use of non-kinetic tools, like consciousness, spokesmanship, and information. A unit like the IDF Spokesperson Unit can find tools to support the operational activity specified by the commanders. This is what I have been doing over the last two and a half years," says Manelis.


Likes as a New War Tool

During the war-between-wars, an interesting development took place: social media has come of age, increased in number, and completely changed society as a whole. This development, Manelis says, also led to a revision of military thinking: "A war evolved that employed new tools. The manner in which news is consumed changed, the exploitation of social media for influence purposes changed dramatically. In fact, a war possessing new characteristics is constantly underway, in an arena that is not the usual battlefield – in one's media feed, on the telephone, and through the computer."

"For years, the enemy had exploited that arena more effectively than we had," explains the former IDF Spokesperson. "Let me remind you of the sense of concern that runs through the Israeli public every time they hear Nasrallah. His statements always make headlines in Israel. Our enemies, both Hamas and Hezbollah, invested substantial funds in this activity. I think that over a long period of time, Israel engaged in a covert consciousness effort, which – with all due respect – cannot influence the masses.

"These tools enable us to influence a specific decision-maker on the other side. We had not addressed large audiences, the general public, the significance of what it means to witness a crisis between Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and the Lebanese public; what it means that not all of the Lebanese public supports Hezbollah; what it means that in the Gaza Strip, a public surge will emerge that says: 'stop wasting our money and invest it in us,'" explains the senior officer.


Fighting the Neighborhood Bully

In the context of the war-between-wars, the primary objective to focus on was evidently Iran. The consciousness tools were activated, alongside kinetic operational activity, directly against the Iranian Quds Force, under the command of Qasem Soleimani. "The concept of a war-between-wars says that Israel will use force under the threshold of a full-scale war, not under the response threshold. The Iranians are currently located far away from the place they had wanted to be at, among other things – in terms of their force build-up process, owing to a series of operations, some of which were attributed to Israel," says Manelis.

"The vector of the Iranian presence and the exportation of terrorism out of Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon – is a vector Soleimani has not relinquished," states the senior officer. "Soleimani tried several times to launch operations against Israel – in February 2019, in May 2018, in January 2019, and in September 2019. Some of these operations were prevented; for some he paid a steep price."

Qasem soleimani. Photo: AP

"Over the last three or four years, Israel chose to fight the neighborhood bully instead of the neighborhood wimp," notes Brig. Gen. Manelis. "Israel chose to do so consciously, at the recommendation of the IDF and with the approval of the political echelon – to scuffle with Iran. We could not accept the fact that Qasem Soleimani does whatever he wants. Owing to this decision, he is not where he wants to be. His capabilities were curbed, his force build-up plan did not materialize, and he has encountered a very serious opponent."


Communicating with Miss Lebanon

One of the challenges in the realm of social media is the thin line between ethical and unethical, between allowed and forbidden, between legal and criminal. Manelis drew the red lines specified by the IDF: "One – as a military organization, you deal with the legitimacy of your military activity. Two – stick to the facts. There would be no alternative facts or false facts in the messages of the IDF Spokesperson. Three – operate differently opposite different target audiences.

"I think that for the Israeli public, it is not necessary to produce a campaign in the style of 'Look, we have won!' But that does not apply to the international public or to the Arab public, to whom you can convey information through legitimate channels. In Lebanon, for example, following the accounts of the IDF Spokesperson is forbidden. However, all of the correspondents in Lebanon have Twitter, and if you provide them with interesting information, they will take it."

"Some say that the things we are doing are too soft," states Manelis in reference to the criticism regarding the alleged "low level" products the IDF Spokesperson Unit produced. "You produce games intended to expose the names of terrorists, you tag Miss Lebanon and communicate with her. These are the rules of the web. A report on the front page of the major newspapers of Israel will not necessarily be an item on the agenda in Lebanon, nor will it influence the agenda in England or the US.

"The Lebanese citizen wants to know what Avichai Edrei (IDF Spokesperson in Arabic) says," explains Brig. Gen. Manelis. "I do not care what the scope of exposure is, I am interested in the fact that ten reporters with a 'blue tick' (verified account) in Lebanon shared it, and that heads of state retweet one of our posts."


"The Messages are Sinking in"

If we were to examine the recent events in the Middle East, it would be impossible to escape the question of whether the activity really helps. Eventually, this activity by the IDF Spokesperson Unit is planned and intended to have some influence. Demonstrations in Iraq or in Lebanon and various protests in countries across the region – does any of that have anything to do with the consciousness activities of the IDF?

"I am unable to tell you how many people in Lebanon went out to the streets because of the IDF. I can definitely tell you that the issues raised by the demonstrators in Lebanon were issues that we, too, had presented over the last few months. For example, where does the money go to, who takes care of the people and who takes care of himself as a terrorist organization, corruption, or what happens in the Lebanese health system," explains the former IDF Spokesperson.

When we asked Manelis whether one of the objectives of the IDF through the use of these tools is to influence a regime, he had a clear answer: "We decided that we do not deal with internal elections and with local leadership, even if that may benefit our operational interests. I can speak about subjects that pertain to terrorism, the price of the war in Lebanon, the Iranian money. I am confident that our activity led to a situation where these messages sink into the public awareness – in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Iran, and in the Gaza Strip. Is that what gets them out to the streets? I do not know."

Beyond the influence on civilian consciousness, Manelis claims that this activity also has an influence on the enemy's deployment. "Terrorists change their conduct pursuant to the exposure of their names in the media, and terrorist sites are vacated or change their operational routine."

The former IDF Spokesperson stresses that these tools are a real operational necessity. As a derivative, if the matter at hand is, indeed, the force build-up process of a military organization, then the necessary preparations should be made to develop these tools accordingly. "We have to build a mechanism strong enough that at a time of war, when everyone is preoccupied with the bombs, it will continue to operate. We have to specify it as a vector in the build-up of a substantial force."


"I Never Lied to Anyone"

One of the events that best symbolize the manner in which the IDF uses the spokesmanship setup as a consciousness tool is the Hezbollah anti-tank missile incident in September 2019. After the missile attack, reports started to surface of IDF casualties, which never happened and later turned out to be a part of a publicity stunt the IDF played on Hezbollah. Numerous questions arose following that incident, which pertained mainly to the line between a military spokesmanship organ and an intelligence organ that takes part in a deception operation.

"The credibility of the IDF Spokesperson Unit must never be undermined," stresses Manelis. "The State of Israel must realize that the IDF Spokesperson Unit deals with hard facts. In those moments, we wanted to establish a 'fog of war' situation for a specific period of time, of about two hours. We realized that if we managed to create a 'fog of war' situation for that interval, the other side would make the decisions we wanted it to make, based on the picture formed on their side," reveals Manelis.

"During that incident," he stresses, "I never issued an announcement regarding casualties. I never lied to anyone. The only thing I did was not explicitly state that there were no casualties. There are those who try to describe that event as an undermining of the delicate agreement (the credibility of the IDF Spokesperson), but the IDF Spokesperson Unit was very strict about all of its 'red lines.'

"The IDF Spokesperson Unit was a part of an operational activity, one of the aspects of which was the creation of a 'fog of war' situation vis-à-vis the enemy. Such a situation cannot be established without the IDF Spokesperson. There were people who wanted the 'fog of war' to last for eight hours, but we said it would be an unreasonable time interval," adds Manelis. To the critics he says: "If the only difference between an additional attack by Hezbollah and bringing the event to a conclusion was that two-hour interval (of the intentional media 'fogging') – was it worth it? Absolutely."

"It is my estimate that if the other side had realized right away that there were no casualties on the Israeli side, they were prepared for another attack. We were very lucky that their missile had missed the target. It could have ended very differently."


Making Headlines in London

Another major event that was accompanied by the media activity of the IDF Spokesperson Unit was Operation Northern Shield, intended to locate and destroy Hezbollah's cross-border tunnels in the north. "Through an intelligence-operational-technological effort, Israel developed the ability to locate and destroy these tunnels, and to the best of our understanding, there are no more tunnels of the Hezbollah organization running from Lebanon into Israel," says Manelis.

"When you embark on such an operation, you do not know what the other side would do. Imagine us reaching the last period of tension with Hezbollah with six terror tunnels all ready to use. The toolbox at Nasrallah's disposal would have been much more substantial. Nasrallah started talking, back in 2013 as I recall, about his plan to capture the Galilee, and the tunnels were one of the elements of this plan. In fact, we took away the element he had endeavored to keep most secret. I do not think that if he had completed the tunnels he would have embarked on an operation straight away, but it would have provided him with a more extensive toolbox. We initiated the operation when we realized that the optimal situation had emerged between our operational preparedness and the imminent commissioning of the tunnels," explains Manelis.

Hassan nasrallah. Photo: AP

"The Israeli audience is not my only audience," he clarifies. "I want it to make the headlines in London or China. That is why I got CNN to enter the tunnel first. The Israeli media went berserk. In my view, the media mission serves an operational concept. The concept is that the UN and the White House would not be able to ignore the fact that there are tunnels. Eventually, it was the conduct of a media operation that paralleled the military operation, which was intended precisely for this purpose."


Alone at the Front Line

Throughout Manelis' term as IDF Spokesperson, his unit sustained harsh criticism on the part of the inhabitants of the Gaza Envelope area. Among other things, the local inhabitants claimed that some events were not reported, and that regarding some events, the reports issued by the IDF were radically different from the actual events. "This is a complex event on two levels. On the one hand, one must bear in mind the fact that the military does not make the policy. On the other hand, in the situation that developed in the Gaza Strip, I found myself, many times, as the only official spokesperson out there. So on the one hand you do not make the policy, while on the other hand you remain at the front line of spokesmanship alone. The State of Israel must have a formal state institution that possesses executive capabilities as well as the responsibility for the execution," stresses the former IDF Spokesperson.

"I think that in that situation, we paid a price as a military organization. The considerations were translated into operational considerations – more attention to the northern sector and to the Iranian threat. Every event we knew about in the Gaza Strip was reported," clarifies Manelis. "Did we issue an announcement for each and every incident? No. Do we issue an announcement for each and every incident in the Judea and Samaria district? No. I have the responsibility to decide what the reporting level for every incident will be. We would never hide any event."

"I can drive the country nuts with the number of incidents that take place. I do not want that. I would like the country to maintain a normal routine. That is the duty of the military – to deal with those problems. As I see it, those events damaged the perspective of the inhabitants of the Gaza Envelope, and the manner in which the IDF provides the information," he says.


"We did not Attack Sand Dunes"

Another criticism voiced against the IDF during the various rounds of fighting over the years was that the military sometimes fired at "sand dunes" in response to the rocket fire of the terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip. "In the past, I served as the intelligence officer of the Gaza Strip, and in the more distant past, I had served as a target officer. There is no such thing as the IDF attacking sand dunes. The IDF attacks Intelligence Directorate targets – each target had been identified as an enemy target by two different intelligence sources and contains infrastructure. It could be a building, a floor of a building, a warehouse, a hothouse – but not a sand dune. The impression had stemmed from the fact that no people had been killed in those attacks," Manelis clarifies.

"The Gaza Strip is a tragedy," says the senior officer. "The people there are governed by a terrorist organization. Additionally, that organization holds the bodies of two IDF soldiers plus two civilians in captivity. I am not optimistic regarding the Gaza Strip, but look how much the strategic situation of the State of Israel has improved since Operation Protective Edge. The operation provided a quiet period. The IDF took advantage of that time to locate the tunnels, complete the construction of the fence system, address the various threats in the Gaza Strip, and handle other sectors, like the northern one."

There is no doubt that the tools the IDF developed in recent years for the realms of consciousness in social media digress slightly from the traditional definition of spokesmanship. However, one must bear in mind the fact that "the whole world" is there. As Manelis himself says, our enemies excel in these fields. The challenge facing anyone operating in these realms is substantial, among other things – because Israel has certain ethical standards that its enemies lack, but mainly because it takes many years to establish a position of real influence on public opinion, especially on the opinion of the Arab public.

"I think the train has already left the station," Manelis claims in reference to the activities of the IDF in the realms of consciousness and influence. "There is no going back. We must push forward, subject to the same limitations I specified earlier. I think that as long as the other side continues to exploit it, you must be there, too. We proved that it works. This is a new era and it will accompany the conflicts in the coming years. I hope it evolves into something systematic, an element of the force build-up process. I would define it as 'the era of new wars on the web.'"

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