Israel has instructed its embassies in 10 European countries, including the UK, each to recruit 1,000 members of the public to act as advocates for its policies in a new public relations offensive.
A cable from the foreign affairs ministry was sent to embassies last week, with instructions from Avigdor Lieberman, the controversial and extreme right-wing foreign minister, to adopt a range of measures aimed at improving Israel’s standing in Europe.
The most unusual was the order to identify up to 1,000 people by mid-January to act as “allies” to Israel. One source described them as “friends who are willing not just to receive messages but to actively promote these messages”. These individuals – likely to be drawn from Jewish or Christian activists, academics, journalists and students – will be briefed regularly by Israeli officials and encouraged to speak up for Israel at public meetings or write letters or articles for the press.
Five European capitals have also been identified for a more conventional PR push. Israeli embassies in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Rome will receive funds to hire professional PR firms and lobbyists.
PR companies will be asked to focus on political messages, such as: Israel’s position on talks with the Palestinians; subjects which can help “brand” Israel, such as tourism and technology; and regional issues to which Israel wishes to draw attention, such as human rights in Iran or Arab countries.
The foreign affairs ministry also suggested that embassies across Europe organise monthly high-profile public events to promote Israel and its government’s policies, and visits to Israel for influential individuals. Lieberman is planning to meet ambassadors to European countries next month to push the new PR offensive.
An Israeli official refused to comment on the disclosure but said: “Obviously we are always looking for ways to improve our communications, there’s nothing unusual in that,” adding: “There is anxiety about the way Israel is perceived abroad, and there is particular worry about certain countries in western Europe.”
Israel has previously launched drives to improve its image through hasbara – literally meaning explanation, although alternatively interpreted as public diplomacy, spin or propaganda. During its three-week war on Gaza, which began in December 2008, Israel launched a PR strategy through its national information directorate to co-ordinate key messages on a daily basis.
The Israeli government, military and various embassies are adept at using social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to promote material. Organisations such as Bicom, the Britain Israel Communications Research Centre, in the UK and the Israel Project in the US, which describe themselves as independent, are dedicated to promoting Israeli policies. Both organisations offer regular briefings, contacts and tours to foreign correspondents based in Israel and Palestine, and all-expenses paid trips to Israel for journalists, including from the Guardian, based elsewhere.
Other countries undertake similar PR drives. Rwanda hired the London-based company Racepoint to feed positive stories to the media. Bell Pottinger, headed by Lord Bell, a former adviser to Lady Thatcher, represents Sri Lanka and Madagascar.
Meanwhile, the Israeli cabinet today approved a plan to build a huge detention centre capable of holding up to 10,000 illegal immigrants and refugees near its border with Egypt. Israel began building a fence along the border earlier this month. The population and immigration authority has said between 1,200 and 1,500 people, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, have crossed the border each month this year, compared to 300 per month last year. “There is a swelling wave threatening Israeli jobs, a wave of illegal migrants that we must stop because of the harsh implications for Israel’s character,” Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, told the cabinet today.
Also today, Major-General Uri Bar-Lev, the top policeman being investigated for alleged sexual assault and rape, said he was withdrawing his candidacy to become Israel’s police commissioner and taking an unspecified time of leave.