Foreign Ministry to Use Front Groups for PR Efforts in Europe

The Foreign Ministry is planning to use front groups to transmit hasbara (public relations ) messages in order to influence senior politicians, opinion shapers and journalists in Europe, ministry sources said.

Tthe goal is to create a public diplomacy track parallel to the one used by the Foreign Ministry, whose message does not bear the "fingerprints" of the Israeli government, the source said.

Last Thursday dozens of Israeli embassies in Europe received an urgent telegram from Jerusalem, entitled, "Mapping of European personalities with influence - by Monday, May 31." The correspondence was signed by a number of senior ministry officials, including Alon Ushpiz, the coordination chief in the director general's office.

The document asked all embassies and consulates to submit a list of people who are considered to be influential in their countries. The diplomats were surprised at the request for the individuals' telephone numbers, mailing addresses and e-mail addresses.

"Please fill in the list of the names of the most influential people in the following fields," the document read. "State leaders - president and/or prime minister and staff, parliament speaker, 10-15 prominent members of parliament, up to five heads of important nongovernment organizations, and up to 10 key journalists."

The Israeli embassy to the European Union in Brussels was asked to provide a similar list of EU parliament members, as well as of senior officials in other European institutions.

The telegram did not include an explanation for request. Initially, some ambassadors were concerned that the foreign minister's bureau and the director general intended to "bypass" the embassies and forge direct contacts with important figures in the various countries.

"There was a sense that [the ministry] was trying to go over our heads," said one ambassador stationed in a European capital.

Other envoys were fearful that Jerusalem planned to enlist the services of private European lobbying firms that would shoulder some of the public relations responsibilities normally reserved for the embassies.

"For a while now there has been a feeling that [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman is dissatisfied with the diplomats, and there was speculation that he wants to privatize Israel's hasbara [public relations efforts]," said one ambassador.

A few of the diplomats actually felt that entrusting the work to private firms could improve Israel's ability to explain its positions in Europe. Haaretz has learned, however, that the ministry's intent is to create a semi-official PR organ whose work will be directed by Jerusalem, but will be represented by front groups so that their messages do not bear the imprimatur of the government.

"When an Israeli ambassador speaks of Palestinian incitement or weapons smuggling from Syria to Hezbollah - the Europeans immediately cast doubt on it," said a senior Israeli diplomat. "But if those same messages are delivered by someone who supposedly has no official ties to Israel, it is likely to be more effective."

In addition, ministry sources say such a system will enable Israel to convey messages that it cannot issue officially for political and security reasons.