Talking With Ehud Barak’s English Spokesman
Josh Hantman talks Operation Pillar of Defense and the life of a spokesman
As spokesperson for the Israeli Ministry of Defense, Josh Hantman is the face of Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the English world media. Which meant he spent last week alternating between giving dozens of interviews and running for his life.
“In the middle of a Sky News interview, a rocket was fired into Sderot, and I had fifteen seconds to get to the shelter,” he recalls. “It took me six seconds to realize that there was a Red Alert. It took me another three seconds to catch on that the producer and the cameraman had already run to hide beneath the car. Then it took me another two seconds to apologize to the viewers that I had to go because a rocket was coming—and by then it was too late.”
Needless to say, it was quite a week for the 27-year-old London-born spokesman, who’d been in Israel for less than four years and found himself in a war zone. (To get a sense of the chaos, check out his Twitter feed for the period.) “It was like being thrown into the deep end,” he says.
For a self-described “small fry masters student who’s ended up being a spokesperson,” Hantman has come a long way. He grew up in a Zionist home, where his mother was the chairwoman of the local branch of the British Friends of the Israeli War Disabled. He spent a year after high school volunteering in Israel, and had wanted to stay there, but it wasn’t a realistic possibility. “You try telling a Jewish mother that you’re not going to come back and study at Oxford,” he laughs.
At Oxford, Hantman got his degree in Oriental studies, then went on to Harvard on a fellowship, where he received a masters in Middle Eastern studies (and overlapped with this reporter for a year). That in hand, he finally made aliyah, and soon found himself being interviewed by Netanyahu’s right-hand man, Ron Dermer (profiled here by Tablet senior writer Allison Hoffman), for a position in the Prime Minister’s Office.
It did not go so smoothly. “Me and him are different politically. We had a big argument in my interview and I thought I hadn’t gotten the job,” he says. “And the fact that he gave me the position, despite–or maybe because–I sat and argued throughout, says a lot about him.” And it’s not like Hantman won the argument. “I could never beat him in a debate. I like to think of myself as quite a good debater, but he kills me every single time.” (Famed pollster and political operative Frank Luntz, who taught Dermer at the University of Pennsylvania, once made a similar observation.)
Then it was on to trial by fire. When the Mavi Marmara–one of the ships in the May 2010 Gaza flotilla–was intercepted by Israel and nine activists killed in armed clashes with the IDF, Hantman was working with Mark Regev, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson. He watched him give 30 to 40 punishing interviews a day, “like a robot, always on message.” Later, when Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made his first bid for statehood at the United Nations in September 2011, Hantman was on the ground as “the ultimate gopher” for both Dermer and Regev.
When the Ministry of Defense opened a public affairs bureau, Hantman applied. It was uncharted territory, and there was much work to do. “The Ministry of Defense had never had a public affairs bureau,” he says. “The website hadn’t been updated for like 8 years or something ridiculous. There was no new media. And there was no English spokesperson. I’m the first English-speaking spokesperson the Ministry of Defense ever had, or at least in the last 20 years.” Hantman worked closely with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, writing his English speeches, prepping him for interviews, and assisting with English correspondence. Then came Operation Pillar of Defense.
Even in peacetime, being a government spokesperson can be grueling. “In this field, if you screw up with one wrong word, that screw-up goes out to 20 million people,” says Hantman. Now try finessing that under fire. As Israel began its military campaign in Gaza, it simultaneously launched an unprecedented media campaign to explain the operation to the world. As part of the effort, Israel’s senior spokespeople were on hand in the studios, ready to do the primetime news shows, while Hantman and Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld were on the ground in southern Israel handling the swarm of international media.
Hantman heaps praise on his colleagues and their work during this trying time. “Often, Israel is criticized for not having a unified message. But this time we were completely coordinated. When I was talking, I could direct the viewer to the YouTube videos the IDF was putting out that would illustrate what I was saying.” He says he’s learned much from senior spokespeople like Mark Regev (“the king”), Yigal Palmor from the Foreign Ministry (“can get a message across in umpteen languages”), Avital Leibovitch from the IDF, and Micky Rosenfeld, his partner on the ground.
Of course, once the operation was over, Hantman was hit with another kind of bombshell: his boss, Ehud Barak, announced his retirement from politics. “I’ve had the honor to work really closely with this man, to learn from him, to see how his unbelievably complex mind works, to be in meetings with him, to debate him, to brief him before interviews,” says Hantman. “I’m just glad on a personal level that I had the opportunity to learn from someone with such incredible experience.”
As for what’s next, Hantman hopes to move to the somewhat less punishing world of policy. “I have far too little hair for someone of my age, and what little I do have is already going gray,” he says. “I made aliyah to contribute, to be a real active citizen and member of this society. In the future, if that could be in internal policy, who knows? I just have to wake up in the morning and feel–it sounds corny, but it’s true–that I’m contributing in some way.”