The Prime Minister's Office is planning to form, in collaboration with the National Union of Israeli Students, "covert units" within Israel's seven universities that will engage in online public diplomacy (hasbara).
The students participating in the project, who would post on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter on Israel’s behalf, will be part of the public diplomacy arm of the PMO, but would not identify themselves as official government representatives.
About a week ago, the outgoing deputy-director general of the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, Daniel Seaman, sent a document to the government tender committee seeking to exempt the national student union from being chosen as the partner in the project through a public bidding process.
The PMO is looking to invest close to NIS 3 million to recruit, organize and fund the activities of hundreds of university students, as part of the country’s public diplomacy effort.
The Public Diplomacy Ministry is being closed and its staff are being integrated into the national public diplomacy unit in the Prime Minister’s Office. Seaman, who previously served as head of the Government Press Office and also ran as a candidate in the Likud party primaries, is expected to assume a new position shortly - that of head of an office with the very official sounding name of “the interactive media unit.” In practice, this is the entity that is expected to coordinate the public diplomacy efforts of the Prime Minister’s Office on the Internet and social networks.
Seaman informed the public tender committee that the Prime Minister’s Office was interested in having the student union recruit up to 550 students with knowledge of foreign languages from Israel’s seven universities. The student union is to publicize the project among tens of thousands of students and be responsible for the screening process, which will include submission of resumes, submitting answers to questionnaires, providing translation samples and participating in individual interviews. It is also the student union that is to provide computers and work space for a project headquarters on each campus.
Seaman informed the committee that the diplomacy units at each university would take direction from staff at the Prime Minister’s Office, but its public face would be one of an independent student entity. “The entire idea of the setup is based on activity of students and by students,” Seaman wrote to the committee. “The idea requires that the state’s role not be highlighted and therefore it is necessary to insist on major involvement by the students themselves without any political link [or] affiliation.”
It is apparent from Seaman’s document that a diplomacy group will be set up at each university and structured in a semi-military fashion. The head of the unit will be a student “senior coordinator,” who will receive a full scholarship from the Prime Minister’s Office. Working under the senior coordinator will be three other student coordinators, each of whom will head one of three desks, responsible for languages, graphics and research. These coordinators will get smaller scholarships. A group of student activists, who will receive nominal student stipends, will work under each coordinator. The Prime Minister’s Office will fund a total of NIS 2.78 million in scholarships for the program in the upcoming academic year.
“In light of the success in the battle for awareness during the Pillar of Defense Operation [the Israeli military operation against the Gaza Strip in November of last year] and the experience gained in activating a large number of situation rooms on university campuses and work with students in general, it was decided to establish a permanent structure of activity on the Internet through the students at academic institutions in the country,” Seaman wrote. “The students are an organized population that is familiar with, and active on, the Internet on an ongoing basis, trained in use of the field, [who] live and speak the language of the [medium].”
The Prime Minister’s Office said in response that the project is designed to strengthen Israel’s public diplomacy and adapt it to changes in how information is being consumed. “The national public diplomacy unit in the Prime Minister’s Office places an emphasis on social network activity,” the office stated. “As part of this, a new pro-Israel public diplomacy infrastructure of students on Israeli campuses is being established that will assist in advancing and disseminating content on the social networks, particularly to international audiences.”
Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said the main subjects that the campus-based units will deal with are diplomatic- and security-related issues, efforts to combat the boycott of Israel and anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel. The students will emphasize Israel’s democratic values, freedom of religion, pluralism and “other subjects that give expression to the Israeli government’s public diplomacy policy.” The Prime Minister’s Office added that similar efforts with students were successful in recent years. “This model significantly advances Israel’s public diplomacy capabilities so that concurrent with messages conveyed by the country’s official spokespeople, content will also be conveyed that has been developed and disseminated by the students that is adapted to social media.”
“We believe that this involves an essential tool to strengthen Israeli public diplomacy and addresses the major importance that we attach to advancing public diplomacy of the State of Israel on the social networks.”
Hagar Yisraeli, a spokeswoman for the Union of Israeli Students, added: “Israel is dealing with an extreme, ongoing delegitimization campaign that is being conducted against it on the social networks. The student population is a talented, educated group of people with independent and diverse views and speaks [a variety of] languages and can therefore assist in dealing with such an [anti-Israel] campaign… The students are an integral part of the Israeli reality and it is therefore appropriate, in our view, that they take an active part in dealing with the delegitimization. It is accepted in the world that students are integrated and take part in various diplomatic activities. The student union is not a political organization and is not identified politically [with one school of thought]. The members of the union hold a range of views from across the Israeli political spectrum, and it is our intention to preserve that.”