Mark Regev, World's Best Known Spinner, In An Unwinnable War Of Words

World's Best Known Spinner In An Unwinnable War Of Words

When a 22-year-old Mark Regev finished his exams at Melbourne University, he didn't even wait to graduate. He got on a plane to Israel as soon as his last essay was filed, leaving his mother to pick up his degree certificate in absentia.

Back then, before he was the prime minister's spokesman and most ubiquitous Israeli face on your TV screen, he was Mark Freiberg, but the name sounded too German for the ambitious Zionist. Once he had officially emigrated, he chose the name Regev, a Hebrew surname meaning 'a small clod of earth', fitting for a man who would come to embody, at least to nightly news watchers, a small piece of the Middle East.

Even from his critics, the perpetually sharp-suited Regev inspires some praise for his brazenness. "If the men from Mars ever wanted to manufacture a PR man, they would model their robot on Regev," wrote Ruth Sutherland in the Guardian, when Regev was on TV defending the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) killing of pro-Palestinian protesters aboard the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010.

"No matter how formidable the interviewer, or how aggressive the questioning, he never buckles under pressure. Viewers are reduced to a trance of slack-jawed amazement at what he is prepared to say with a straight face. He is unlikely to win sceptics to Israel's cause, but as a PR performer he is horribly compelling."

Sutherland's analysis is kind compared to much on the internet. 'Propagandist', 'apologist', a 'masochist' spouting 'verbal pornography' and 'poisonous bile'. There is even a Facebook group 'I want to punch Mark Regev very hard'.

An Aussie Laid-Back Quality

For Regev, famed for having the thickest skin in Israeli politics, it is all part of the job. His mission is to turn up on every media channel that asks him to defend the Israeli government and to be the face of its policies. He has made it plain he would find it unacceptable to be credited as an anonymous 'Prime Minister's spokesman', like a British advisor. And he is never bullish, calls his interviewers 'Sir' or 'Madam', and makes his points slowly and softly.

That refusal to be riled is something Australian Jewish leader Colin Rubenstein attributes to Regev's upbringing, which helped him develop “a pretty Aussie laid-back quality.”

"Nothing flusters him," says Mark Leibler, a lawyer who is one of the key Jewish lay leaders in Australia, and who has known Regev for many years. "I have seen interviews where he has really been treated outrageously. He takes it in his stride. I have never seen him lose his temper.

"I have seen him let off steam about how he is treated sometimes by the media, privately, but he would certainly never express anything like that in public. He's been the target of some terrible things. I don't know if the general hate fazes him that much though. He copes with it extremely well, that's my impression. If you couldn't, if you didn't, you couldn't hold on to that job. He is up there, receiving the butt of it all, directly. "

A former Israeli ambassador told HuffPost UK that Regev was just as polite in private. But he attributes some of Regev's success to the fact that English is his mother tongue. "His ability to express himself is superb, but ultimately his role is one of 'his master's voice'. I would hate to do the job that he does. The hatred is levelled against the messenger. They [his detractors] don't like to confront the message.

"He's exceptionally polite, very low-key in private. He's always charming and pleasant to engage with. He's had a fantastic education, he learns very quickly and that comes across. It's a nice package, sure, it works well. But sometimes that still won't affect whether people want to hear what he has to say."

No Media Strategy Before Regev

Stephanie Guttman, author of The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, told HuffPost that Israel had had little real media strategy before Regev was on the scene. "When there is an uptick in conflict, a virtual United Nations of news crews from all the ends of the earth, places like Mexico, China, Argentina, pile in. They arrive demanding interviews, 'Get me Netanyahu!', press credentials, and help getting their equipment through customs. The growth of the internet and flowering of a gazillion blogs has only complicated matters because along with 'regular' reporters come piles of bloggers all demanding press cards, briefings, interview time and border control help.

"Very few reporters have much background. They arrive - parachuting in - filled with half-knowledge and cliches like 'Israel stole land from Palestinians'. In 2000, Israel's undernourished press departments didn't realise that they had to start virtually from the beginning with nearly every reporter, explaining basic history.

"There has been a very steep learning curve for the Israeli government. People like Mark Regev represent Israel's growing sophistication about the importance of 'hasbara' [Israeli public relations]. Regev, after all, is a natural English speaker! That's actually quite an advance from 15 years ago."

One of Regev's tactics when he is in front of the cameras is to rarely criticise the media, he is aware of how important it is for him to maintain good relationships with the foreign press, however hostile they may be to the Israeli message.

"I don't see myself as a theatre critic for the British media," he told Total Politics in 2009. "It's my job to work with them."

Not Invincible

Diana Buttu, a Palestinian activist and former legal advisor to the PLO who knew Regev when they both worked in the US, has said that Regev's image of being the PR man is not completely true.

"Interviewers who are prepared, can make sure that they challenge him - and when they do he crumbles," she said. Regev, she added, is "peddling a bad product" but those who interview him "rarely push back."

Regev, who is nicknamed 'Cyril' by his friends, was born in Melbourne to Freda and Martin Freiberg, the latter a Holocaust survivor. He attended the Mount Scopus Memorial College, a Jewish day school in the suburb of Burwood. As a teenager he was a Zionist but also a lefty. He joined the socialist Jewish youth movement Habonim Dror and once told a journalist he had been the only kid in his school who had read the New Statesmen. The worldwide youth movement has an impressive, if not entirely staunchly pro-Israel alumni, including Mike Leigh, Sacha Baron Cohen and Seth Rogen.

Regev stayed in his home country just long enough to get his degree in Political Science and History at Melbourne University, before leaving for Israel in 1982.

That was not quite the beginning of his diplomatic career. His life in Israel began the way of many left-leaning young immigrants — on a Kibbutz. His was Tel Katzir, a tiny commune at the crossroads of the southern reaches of the Golan Heights and the eastern Jordanian border, close to the Sea of Galilee.

The work of the Kibbutz was agricultural, growing bananas, grapefruit, mangoes and avocados, and running an ostrich farm with 20,000 birds . The kibbutz life is one of a self-sustaining community, with its own library, school and post office. Regev was a teacher in a local high school and loved the pace of kibbutz life. Had his wife also "fallen in love" with the kibbutz way of living, he may have never left, he admitted to the Jewish Chronicle in 2008.

The Rise And Rise

Regev completed military service and a masters and, after seeing an advert in the paper, joined the civil service in 1990, rising quickly through the ranks as a career diplomat. It was then that he changed his name. Prestigious postings followed at the Foreign Ministry. He was deputy chief of mission at the Hong Kong consulate, and acted as government spokesmen at embassies in Beijing and Washington.

It was back home in Israel that Regev got to play his most challenging role yet. He was spokesman for the ministry of foreign affairs when the 2006 Lebanon War broke out under then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The month-long conflict killed up to 1,300 Lebanese, 165 Israelis and displaced more than a million people in both countries. Regev was broadcast across the globe putting forward the Israeli perspective that its citizens were under fire from terrorists with rockets. It was a conflict aimed at destroying Hezbollah, but one that the Winograd Committee, appointed to examine Israel's conduct during the war, would dub a "severe failure".

Regev was quietly approached to become the chief spokesman for Olmert, a role that is also not party-political, but a permanent civil service job. By then, Regev was familiar face on international talk shows and news channels. But when Olmert stepped down due to swirling corruption allegations, Regev is thought to have considered moving on. It was at the insistence of new prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he stayed, though one source told HuffPost that he privately preferred Olmert's political style.

"He's not a party man. He's much more of a diplomat," Mark Leibler told HuffPost. "He sees himself very much as a professional. His profession is to explain government policy in the best possible way. You won't see him start to push his own views, no matter what they happen to be. He's much more candid and open in private, we've had very interesting discussion and debate. He opens up in private, and though on TV he comes across very clear and logical, but he does have feelings."

Regev was on television and radio almost nightly during 2009's Operation Cast Lead, Israel's bloodiest incursions into Gaza, and the 2012 Pillar of Defence operation in the same territory.

A Viral Hit

His interviews on major news channels like CNN and Channel 4 have often become viral YouTube hits, often from angry pro-Palestinians sharing what they see as a defence of the Israeli killing of civilians. One of those hits has been 'Jon Snow "annihilates" Israeli spokesperson Mark Regev', receiving 440,000 views in a little over a week.

But they are also shared by pro-Israelis who feel there is no one more articulate than Regev to make the case for Israel's right to self-preservation.

Regev is married with three children, but keeps his family very much out of the spotlight. When a crisis hits he is relentlessly focused on work. He will go on channels across the political spectrum, from Fox News to MSNBC, on the BBC and Channel 4, to Russia Today and Al Jazeera. Jokes have widely circulated on Twitter that Regev must sleep in the TV studios.

Responding to his brother, who remarked in 2008 that he had not seen him on Australian TV recently, Regev said he joked that that could only be a good thing for peace in the region. He is known to sit in on almost every cabinet meeting and once estimated that 400 journalists in Israel alone have his personal mobile number.

"You have to be a certain kind of personality to do that job, to stand the heat in the kitchen, and also to enjoy it," one Israeli diplomat told HuffPost. "He has done it for a long time and he doesn't seem to be tired of it.

"He could have left years ago, but he didn't. So what does that tell you? It tells you he completely associates himself with that message. He does it around the clock, during these difficult times. He feels he has to do it. And if you feel that calling, you answer every call."

No Empathy With Palestinian Victims

Regev's role as a conduit for the views of the government, rather than as an adviser mean his talent could be being wasted, said Margalit Toledano, an Israeli academic who has authored a book on Israel's PR tactics. "Effective professional spokespeople should also advise governments, not just deliver their messages. Regev doesn't seem to provide good advice about the content of the message. There is rarely a credible apology or expression of empathy with Palestinian victims. Nor is there any mention of an alternative way for dealing with the conflict."

Palestinians have often bemoaned the fact that Israel has a 'Mark Regev', a spokesman who is briefed to the eyeballs and who is always available to put the country's point of view across. But Diana Buttu says that the Palestinian cause does not need its own version.

"We don't need a Mark Regev because we don't need someone to lie or peddle a bad product. That said, the Palestinian Authority has completely and utterly failed to comprehend the power of the media and the need for a media strategy.

"The same faces appear on TV today as did when I was a child. What is needed is a complete revamping of the way that they view and address the media."

Still, for all Israel's press co-ordination, Regev is not the only primed spokesman ready to appear on any TV news station that asks. It is hard for any slick spinner to sway public opinion when the other side has heart-rending pictures of dying children and bombed out homes. Israelis rarely show their the bodies of the dead or dying on camera and there are far less of them, leaving the spokesman to make the arguments verbally.

Regev, for all his persuasive qualities and polished prose, has found himself during his decades in the spotlight becoming a more and more famous figure of hate, an image it will now be hard to shake. If Israel needs a spokesman for the many years of conflict to come, questions will start to be asked about whether their main man is an asset or a lightning rod.


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