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Israel throws millions into new clandestine hasbara initiative

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 23: Demonstrators attend a Pro-Israel demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy on May 23, 2021 in London, England. The demonstration follows a large pro-Palestinian protest in London yesterday, and similar demonstrations in recent weeks, spurred by the fight between Israel and Hamas that erupted on May 10. The two sides reached a ceasefire agreement over the weekend, but activists and diasporic communities around the world remain roiled by the violence that left more than 200 Palestinians and 12 Israelis dead. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
Demonstrators attend a Pro-Israel demonstration outside the Israeli Embassy on May 23, 2021 in London, England [Hollie Adams/Getty Images]

Israel has long relied on its much-vaunted hasbara to conceal the reality of its domination of Palestine and subjugation of its people. Propaganda in short, the hasbara industry has been an invaluable tool in shaping the narrative and how it is viewed in the West, where the perception of Israel as a democracy facing a never-ending threat to its existence has been effectively used to justify all manner of human rights abuse and violations of international law.

Decades of occupation; subjugation of people who happen to be of a different race; acts of aggression that have become a matter of routine is, however, hard to sell as a permanent reality which the rest must accommodate in perpetuity. So, every now and then, when Israel feels that it is losing the battle for hearts and minds, the occupation state devises a new plan to counter what it calls "fighting the phenomenon of delegitimisation against the State of Israel."

Needless to say, the portrayal of the growing opposition to Israel as a "delegitimisation" campaign is itself a ploy to deflect, used by the hasbara industry to discredit and defame individuals, groups and organisations exposing its many war crimes and human rights violations. Of late, this tactic has been used to dismiss reports by prominent human rights group like B'Tselem and Human Rights Watch, both of which concluded that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid, that "promotes and perpetuates Jewish supremacy between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River."

The Israeli Ministry for Strategic Affairs has been spearheading its hasbara.  Established in 2006 for the role of coordinating security, intelligence and diplomatic initiatives regarding strategic threats faced by the occupation state, the Ministry directed its huge resource from confronting military threats to targeting human rights organisations and civil rights groups.  The global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) became its number one enemy while grass-root movements like Black Lives Matter were not far behind on the Ministry's list of foes that needed to be knee-capped before gaining momentum in the same as the campaign against apartheid South Africa did during the 80s.

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Despite throwing millions of dollars into the hasbara industry, there is a realisation in Israel that it is losing the battle for hearts and minds. Not only has Israel's status as a pariah state become cemented in the eyes of the global community, it is also losing the support of progressive Jews. Where, one time, they were willing to give Israel the benefit of doubt, believing that the occupation was temporary, they are no longer able to reconcile the tension between their progressive liberal beliefs and the policies of the occupation state. In truth, these tensions have existed from the beginning of Israel's birth but now that the occupation is widely accepted as a permanent reality along with apartheid, no amount of hasbara can bridge that gap.

Such anxieties have prompted a re-think in Israel over its hasbara strategy. According to +972 Magazine the Israeli cabinet recently approved a project that could inject $30 million toward covertly funding government propaganda in the US and other Western countries. The plan is to transfer money indirectly to foreign organisations that will spread Israeli propaganda in the countries in which they operate, all while hiding the fact that they are backed by the Israeli government.

The extra funding will be allocated to re-start a non-governmental organisation called "Concert" which operated as a joint venture with the Ministry for Strategic Affairs. Set up in 2017 with the goal of privatising hasbara, its mission was to recruit influencers and organisations to speak favourably about Israel in media channels, social media and conferences abroad and at home.

A report on Concert in Haaretz indicates that diplomats, former military and government officials, Amos Yadlin, Dore Gold, Yaakov Amidror and others were behind the initiative. A Ministry for Strategic Affairs official admitted that launching the initiative was, in practice, a way to transfer funds to pro-Israeli organisations working abroad, mainly in the US, without tainting them with governmental affiliation.

The thought was that it will "make it easier for them to engage with the public than it would be for a government backed initiative", the former Director of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, Ronen Manelis, is reported saying during a Knesset hearing. "At the end of the day, what you see is a financial transfer from a public utility company, rather than an official government transfer. That is the idea." Such transfers would be made through Public Benefit Corporation (PBC), which were controlled by government representatives.

Because half of the funding for the project was meant to come from wealthy individuals and foreign organisations, primarily in the US, the 2017 plan only raised $7 million. Wealthy American backers were put off as US law requires organisations to register as foreign agents if they received donations from state entities.

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Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, who recently said that Israel will face intense campaigns to label it an apartheid state in the coming months and urged to launch a campaign to discredit the UN ahead of any potential criticism, wants to renew the project and enable it to continue operating, at least until the end of 2025. A document distributed to the ministers ahead of the vote stated that "the continuation of the project will allow the Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Israeli government to plan and implement in a strategic and structured manner a policy of action for fighting the phenomenon of delegitimisation against the State of Israel and for building civil legitimacy in the world."

The document also stated that activities in the coming years will focus on significantly expanding the existing operational capabilities in the arena, initiating and building innovative tools and areas of action, and improving the effectiveness of the activities and efforts of pro-Israeli organisations and bodies in Israel and around the world.

"The Foreign Ministry intends to use the experience and lessons learned in the organisation and apply them to improve Israel's standing through connecting Israeli society with other societies, while promoting partnerships with civil society in Israel and around the world" Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Lior Hayat, is reported saying.

Sources in the Ministry are reported in the Haaretz saying: "the organisation's mission is to advance projects that tell the Israeli narrative around the world and to counter Israel's de-legitimisation, with joint funding from the Israeli government and other private sources. Some projects will begin in the coming month or two."

What this means in the real world is not hard to guess. The Cambridge Analytica affair revealed how foreign agents are able to utilise social media platforms through front groups in order to sway public opinion. Russia and China are often accused of being the main culprits of influence meddling, but will the same spotlight now fall on Israel?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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