Foreign Ministry Probe: Did UN Envoy Buy Puff Piece on Israeli News Site?

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Danny Danon in 2015.
Danny Danon in 2015.Credit: Marc Israel Sellem

The Foreign Ministry is investigating whether Israel’s UN delegation directly or indirectly “bought” a puff piece on the Walla news site that lauded the activities of Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon, in violation of ministry regulations.

Danon denied any involvement in the Walla article. But senior ministry officials cast doubt on his story and said the investigation is continuing.

Danon, a former Likud minister and Knesset member, obtained his ambassadorship as a political appointment. According to sources in both the Foreign Ministry and Likud, he wants to return to political activity after finishing his term. 

On November 16, he organized a conference at UN headquarters in New York on efforts to combat the BDS movement, which calls for anti-Israel boycotts, divestment and sanctions, via legal action. He invited jurists, law students and pro-Israel activists from several American Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith, CAMERA, Hillel, the Maccabee Task Force, StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America and the Israeli-American Council.

Danon organized the conference together with aides who were his personal appointees. Foreign Ministry staffers in the UN delegation steered clear of the event, because they believed the conference was intended primarily to promote Danon personally and politically.

Danon did not coordinate the conference with the Foreign Ministry, nor did he receive ministry permission to hold it. He also failed to coordinate the event with the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which the government has tasked with leading Israel’s battle against BDS.

The day after the conference, Danon’s spokesman in the UN delegation, Elie Bennett, put out a press release about the event. The release included pictures of Danon at the conference.

A few hours after the press release appeared, Walla published an article about the conference that lauded both the event itself and Danon. The article didn’t bear the byline of any Walla reporter; instead, it bore the highly unusual byline “Walla News in cooperation with the embassy in New York.”

Screenshots of the two versions of the article. The credit was changed. Credit: Screenshot

Nor did the content of the article resemble an ordinary news story, and, in fact, no Walla reporter whose beat was relevant to the conference was involved in writing it. Instead, the article read like the kind of advertising content Walla usually publishes only in exchange for payment: It was a word-for-word copy of the press release put out by Danon’s spokesman. The accompanying pictures were also taken from the press release.

A few days after the article appeared, Haaretz asked both the Foreign Ministry and the UN delegation whether the article had been purchased. A few hours later, the byline on the article was changed: The words “in cooperation with the embassy in New York” were dropped and replaced by “in cooperation with organizations that combat BDS.”

A few hours after that, Elie Bennett provided an official response. “The Israeli delegation to the UN didn’t commission any paid-for content,” he said. “The entire event was in cooperation with several pro-Israel organizations that fight BDS in various ways.”

Nevertheless, Haaretz’s inquiry prompted the Foreign Ministry’s Media and Public Affairs Division to launch its own inquiry into the affair, out of concern that members of Israel’s UN delegation had violated ministry regulations. The ministry’s acting director general, Yuval Rotem, and its inspector general, Orna Sagiv, were briefed on the inquiry and approved it.

Foreign Ministry regulations state that if an embassy wants to buy advertising content in the Israeli media, it must obtain permission from ministry headquarters and issue a tender for the job. Moreover, if an embassy wants to accept a donation from a Jewish organization to finance public diplomacy activity, it also needs permission from ministry headquarters.

“We expect all Israeli legations worldwide to comply with these regulations and obtain permission from Foreign Ministry headquarters if they want to use contributions they raised for a public diplomacy conference overseas for the purpose of promotion in the Israeli media,” a ministry official said.

The ministry’s investigation found that neither Danon nor any other member of Israel’s UN delegation had requested permission either to buy advertising content in the Israeli media or to accept a donation from a Jewish organization in order to buy such content. Moreover, a long list of questions by senior ministry officials to Danon and his staff elicited only partial or evasive responses.

Danon denied that the UN delegation paid for the Walla article and said he doesn’t know who did pay for it or how it came to be published. He also had no explanation for why the article was a word-for-word copy of his press release. 

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the investigation is still in progress, and additional steps may be taken to determine whether Danon directly or indirectly purchased the laudatory article on Walla.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said, “According to Israel’s UN delegation, the funding for the conference came from Jewish sources, and the delegation has no connection to paid promotional activity in the Israel media, if there was any such activity.”

Walla declined to respond to Haaretz’s questions on the issue.

Nati Tucker contributed to this report.

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