After failing to prevent a boycott movement against the country, Israel is investing millions of dollars to reshape its image online.
In Israel, the term ‘Hasbara’, ‘explanation’ in Hebrew, has long gained another meaning: Explaining the Israeli state narrative through state sponsored propaganda initiatives aimed at creating a positive international image.
The country’s government just stepped up those efforts by approving a new major controversial initiative that could cost around $30 million to fund its propaganda in the United States and other Western countries, according to a report by Haaretz.
“...the 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,” the sources in the ministry explained the project.
Here’s a look at Tel Aviv’s latest Hasbara initiative and why it’s controversial.
Reviving an old project
The Israeli government’s project isn’t a completely new initiative. Once called the “Solomon’s Sling”, it was run as a ‘non-governmental organisation’ project that will now only be rebranded under a different name, “Concert”, but its mission remains the same. It looks to change the global discourse around the Israeli state and battle the boycott movement against Israel by providing tools to defend Israel, particularly online spheres.
In 2015, the now-defunct Ministry of Strategic Affairs started the project to the tune of $80 million where the state would raise half of the funds from wealthy individuals and foreign organisations.
The first project was a passionate one. The state launched a Hasbara app for those who want to defend Israel against the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement – a Palestinian-led movement that works to ‘end international support for Israel’s oppresion of Palestinians’.
The app suggested alternative comments on newspieces criticising Israel, reporting them in social media applications or sharing alternative news pieces online.
These pieces were also tailored, according to a 2017 report. It said, the ministry has secretly paid the Yedioth Group, publisher of Israel’s best-selling daily newspaper, to publish journalistic pieces in line with its mission, then spread those to pro-Israel networks around the world.
Solomon’s Sling, however, failed as it couldn’t amass the targeted $40 million it needed, while also being criticised for not being able to counter the pro-Palestine narrative that dominated social media during the Israeli assault on Gaza in 2021.
The Concert now aims to function differently to eliminate the factors that prevented Solomon's Sling from taking off.
The United States in 2020 announced a law requiring persons engaged in domestic political or advocacy work on behalf of foreign interests to register as foreign agents — a step that hampered the project’s funding efforts as individuals were hesitant to identify themselves as ‘agents.’
That’s why the Concert will transfer money to foreign organisations that are tasked with spreading pro-Israel propaganda. Israeli government's money transfers, however, won’t be public, the organisations' affiliation to the Israeli government will remain a secret.
“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,” Haaretz quoted the former Director of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, Ronen Manelis, saying during a Knesset hearing.
According to the plan, the government aims to dedicate 100 million shekels, $31 million, to the project by 2025. This time around too, the plan is outsourcing the same amount of the funds from civil organisations.
No public engagement
“This is not the way Israel should try to improve its global reputation – quite the contrary,” said Achiya Shatz, CEO of Fake Reporter, a civil society Israeli disinformation, hate speech and online incitement watchdog group. Shatz said the projects “incite mistrust in society and erode citizens’ ability” to participate in discussions.
A report that was written by the Justice Ministry also criticised the initiative in 2017, Haaretz said.
“We consider it crucial that public engagement with target audiences is seen to be independent and authentic and not as an inherent element of the government’s activity and policy, a factor that determines the effectiveness of the Hasbara,” the report raised concerns.
In 2018, an attorney challenged the state’s Hasbara campaigns in the High Court of Justice, demanding the Ministry of Strategic Affairs to halt its activities unaccountable to the public.