A carefully calibrated social-media campaign aimed at portraying a kinder, gentler Benjamin Netanyahu was launched at the beginning of the summer. While there’s no trace of Donald Trump’s bombast in these English-language videos, there’s a similar attempt by the prime minister to come off as a plain-speaking truth teller addressing people on their own level.
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Some have compared the videos to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Depression and World War II. In each short message, Netanyahu sits behind his desk in front of a bookshelf, a portrait of his smiling family to his right, an Israeli flag to his left. He speaks English in relaxed and folksy tones, using simple language, with no trace of the confrontational and technically complicated doom and gloom that marked his campaign against the Iran deal.
Most of the videos have a timely peg: a terror attack, a newly released viral video or a statement by a Palestinian official. In addition to the same visuals each time – only Netanyahu’s tie gets changed – there are common elements in each short speech: multiple references to parents, children and families; frequent use of the words “you,” “we” and “us”; and a direct appeal to the viewers, often asking them to take a specific action.
The topics differ, but a similar theme is repeated: Israel’s desire for peace and harmony and a world where happy Jewish and Arab children play side by side. Standing in the way of this vision, he explains sadly, are obstinate and hostile Palestinian leaders, who want – at best – to expel, and – at worst – to slaughter Israeli children.
With only a few exceptions, most the of videos, which have been posted on Netanyahu’s Facebook page and uploaded to YouTube, have been ignored by the Israeli and international media, dismissed as non-newsworthy slick propaganda, Or as it’s known in Israel, hasbara.
But that changed radically with the most recent video, entitled “No Jews,” after Netanyahu characterized Palestinian positions opposing any Jewish settlements in a future Palestinian state as “ethnic cleansing.” After a U.S. State Department spokeswoman slammed his rhetoric as “inappropriate and unhelpful,” the criticism flowed against his use of the term. An argument raged over whether Palestinians indeed wanted a future state to be judenrein – devoid of Jews.
David Keyes, Netanyahu’s foreign media spokesman, is widely acknowledged as the person who conceived and executed the video series. He doesn’t view “No Jews” as a public relations gaffe; he says the controversy only helped spread Netanyahu’s message around the world, pointing to the number of articles about it.
“Is there a bad time to stand up for human rights? It’s important to speak the truth, even when it’s unpopular – especially when it’s unpopular,” he told Haaretz by email.
Netanyahu’s use of the phrase “ethnic cleansing” was nothing new, he noted. “The prime minister has spoken about the outrage of the Palestinian demand for a Jew-free state many times in the past few decades,” Keyes says. “He wrote about this in his 1993 book and reiterated it many times since, including in his 2011 United Nations speech.”
This may be true, but the provocative phrase always came in the context of a wider discussion.
“When such a claim is made in the framework of a larger conversation with a journalist, there is context and it is one of many issues in a discussion,” says Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political-communications professor at Bar-Ilan University. “The way he said it in the video was an in-your-face argument – it was stressed and underlined.”
Producing his own English-language videos and putting a spin on his positions is probably a smart move for Netanyahu, Lehman-Wilzig believes. “Given his negative ratings around the world,” he says, it’s likely that “the press will cover him in a negative fashion .... From his perspective, he’s correct in using social media and bypassing traditional media.”
But unlike Keyes, Lehman-Wilzig views the “No Jews” video as a misstep. “Sometimes you go a little too far, like a tennis player who steps out of bounds. There is propaganda and there is demagoguery, and the final video with the use of ‘ethnic cleansing’ went over the top.”
But Keyes considers the campaign – including the “No Jews” part – a win. “Tens of millions of people in just a few weeks have seen the truth about Israel’s quest for peace and its commitment to equality,” he says. “They are also exposed to the real barriers to peace – radical Islamist terrorism and the Palestinian leadership teaching their own children to hate.”
Netanyahu’s charm offensive
By many accounts, Keyes’ boss has also been happy with the results. Netanyahu reportedly joked over the summer that he doesn’t need journalists anymore now that he has discovered his ability to hone his message and show it to millions around the world. This quip came during charm-offensive, off-the-record meetings with Israeli journalists during the months the videos were released.
Clearly, Netanyahu was worried about his image over the summer, both at home and abroad. The fuss over the “No Jews” video underscores Keyes’ new direction regarding messaging to the overseas audience.
Last spring, the 32-year-old former Californian replaced Netanyahu’s veteran foreign media liaison and adviser, Mark Regev, who served as the prime minister’s PR man to the international press since 2009. It was a surprise appointment. A raft of experienced Israeli spokesmen from the government and military vied to replace Regev. The decision to appoint an outsider like Keyes surprised many – he was strong on online activism but had never worked as a media spokesman.
Before Keyes joined the Prime Minister’s Office, he was the executive director of Advancing Human Rights, under the sponsorship of publisher Robert Bernstein, who founded and then publicly broke with Human Rights Watch over its criticism of Israel. Under Advancing Human Rights, Keyes created the website CyberDissidents.org aiming to help empower opposition movements in the Middle East. He came to the prime minister’s attention via his former boss, Natan Sharansky, and his friend Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States and a close confidant of Netanyahu.
Foreign correspondents in Israel say their interactions with Keyes have been friendly but his knowledge isn’t deep enough for the complex issues.
For substantive conversations, says one, they increasingly turn to David Baker, the foreign press coordinator at the Prime minister’s Office, or to Dore Gold, director general of the Foreign Ministry, who is close to Netanyahu.
Keyes was clearly hired for his online advocacy – not his foreign-policy or media-handling expertise. The new videos clearly show that Netanyahu wasn’t just looking for a change in personnel when he hired Keyes. He was looking for a new approach to the international arena in which social media, especially video, could overshadow – if not supplant – traditional on-the-record interviews. Netanyahu has always preferred television appearances over print journalism interviews. Facebook and YouTube videos take his ability to control his message another a step further, avoiding tough on-camera questioning.
Keyes views this as using a “powerful” new medium “to convey the truth about Israel. It is terrific to see these video resonate with so many people. Mark Twain said lies get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes. By utilizing innovative platforms in creative ways, the prime minister is reaching more people than ever before. He’s ensuring that the truth can beat out the lies.”
Many in the Israel-advocacy community agree. One says the videos offer “a direct channel to international audiences, enabling him to circumvent the media, which [Netanyahu] distrusts. They make him appear folksy, personable and real, employing plain, direct language rather than high-flown rhetoric. Most importantly, perhaps, they get your attention.”
They also give him total control over his image, clearly important to a prime minister who, frustrated with critical media coverage, recently asked prominent Israeli television journalist Ilana Dayan, “Why don’t you do an investigation into how much I’m admired overseas?”
‘Something that some of you will not believe’
The first Netanyahu video clearly bearing Keyes’ fingerprints was released after the Orlando massacre on June 12. “I ask you to reach out to friends in the LGBT community,” the prime minister says. “Comfort them. Tell them they stand together. We stand together as one. And that you will always remember the victims. Tell them they will never not alone. That we are all one family, deserving of dignity, deserving of life.”
The next two videos deal with the murder of 13-year-old Hallel Yaffa Ariel. The first, on June 30, describes the scene.
“A picture of her bloodstained room is almost too hard to see. There’s a teddy bear still on her bed, a red beanbag chair, some pictures on the wall, shoes tightly packed in a bin next to her bunk bed.”
Netanyahu tells viewers to “walk into your child’s bedroom before they go to sleep. I ask you to hug them. I ask you to kiss them. Teach them that the values that Hallel’s murderer most detested – freedom, diversity, pluralism – will never die; we’ll always hold them dear.”
The next one on July 17 takes the form of an open letter to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu points out that “your adviser, Sultan Abu al-Einein, recently called to slit the throat of every Israeli. Three days later, a Palestinian terrorist turned these words into action when he slit the throat of a 13-year-old beautiful girl, Hallel Yaffa Ariel, as she slept.
“She was a little, innocent girl. She didn’t deserve this.” He has a task for Abbas: “I ask that you to pick up the phone and instruct your party’s social-media manager to stop praising mass murderers. Impressionable children read these posts. They should be taught harmony, not hate.”
A July 25 video is a conciliatory message to Israeli Arabs that apologizes for Netanyahu's controversial fearmongering on Election Day: “Today I am asking Arab citizens in Israel to take part in our society – in droves. Work in droves, study in droves, thrive in droves.”
He says “Jews and Arabs should reach out to each other, get to know each other’s families .... Let us work together, Arabs and Jews alike, to reach ever higher in the noble pursuit of equality and dignity for all.”
On August 3, the topic was another viral video. Netanyahu shows a snippet of the film he says somberly “shook me to the core of my being.” He describes the video in which a Palestinian father pushes his 4-year-old son in front of the Israeli Border Police and tells him to shoot them.
Netanyahu tells the viewer: “Imagine your own child at that age. Think of his smile. Imagine her laugh. Picture the unrestrained joy and innocence that only a child possesses. Encouraging someone to murder a child – let alone your own child – is probably the most inhumane thing a person can do .... Today I appeal to every father and mother around the world. I ask you to join me in calling for an end to this abuse of children. The Palestinian leadership must stop encouraging children to kill.”
In the August 11 video, Netanyahu declares: “I’m going to say something now that some of you will not believe. But I’m going to say it anyway because it’s true. I, the prime minister of Israel, care more about Palestinians than their own leaders do. Israel cares more about Palestinians than their own leaders do.” Charging that Hamas “stole millions of dollars from humanitarian organizations,” he says the group “used this stolen money to build a war machine to murder Jews.”
“I want you to think about that. Let that sink in. Hamas stole critical support for Palestinian children so that they could kill our children.”
Personalizing the message
Sara Hirschhorn, a research lecturer in Israel studies at the Oxford University Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, says each video seeks to “personalize and humanize” Israel’s message. Netanyahu “takes the language of the international left and talking points around Israel/Palestine in order to subvert the stereotypical conversations.” The “ethnic cleansing” installment merely took it to an extreme.
The “ethnic cleansing” controversy was also a conveniently timed distraction. The video was released on the same Friday that new revelations regarding a bribery investigation hit the headlines. And Netanyahu’s popularity hit a new low when polls showed his Likud party trailing Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid if an election were held now.
Two Israeli officials familiar with the government’s communication efforts are split on whether the “No Jews” video hurt Keyes’ long-term campaign to retool Netanyahu’s image and better argue Israel’s case.
One says he’s certain the “heavy-handedness” caused “huge collateral damage” at a delicate time in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
“The damage is really very wide-ranging not just among journalists but also politicians and opinion leaders,” he says. “They did not understand Netanyahu’s ethnic cleansing message as positive and they were clearly offended by it.”
Another strongly disagrees, siding with Keyes in asserting that all publicity about the “ethnic cleansing” message was good publicity.
“Love the videos or hate them, people are talking about them, and that’s exactly what he wants. At the end of the day, people are talking about what it means to demand that no Jews remain in a future Palestinian state, and that’s what he wanted,” he says.
“The State Department isn’t his target here. He has other ways of reaching American officialdom. His goal is to reach common folk around the world and get them thinking, and it seems that he’s succeeded.”