In a new, controversial, initiative, the Israeli government plans to spend 100 million shekels ($31 million) over the next four years to strengthen positive perception of the country and combat delegitimization discourses on social networks and in global media. Combined with private investment, the budget for the initiative should reach 200 million shekels by 2025. The last time such initiative was taken, it failed.
The funding decision was agreed upon on Sunday during the government’s weekly sitting. The funding will be allocated to re-start a non-governmental organization called ‘Concert’ which operated as a joint venture with the Ministry for Strategic Affairs (which was closed by current administration).
The organization’s goal is to enhance the image of Israel in digital and media arenas, as well as to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) and fight hate speech aimed at Israel online.
To achieve this, the organization recruits pro-Israeli activists and organizations for 'Hasbara' purposes ('Hasbara' means roughly 'explaining' in Hebrew, and is a general term used for Israel's public diplomacy efforts aimed at the internaitonal community in defence of its actions).
The overall budget, combining donations and governmental investment, is expected to reach 200 million shekels
The ‘restarting Concert’ initiative will be orchestrated by Deputy Foreign Minister, Idan Roll, who will oversee his ministry’s incorporation of the Ministry for Strategic Affair’s operations. The government has allocated Concert with a budget of 100 million shekels for 2022-2025, or 25 million annually, with the government’s share in the initiative being 50 percent. The rest of the funding will be sourced from civil organizations, which are expected to match the government’s share. The overall budget, combining donations and governmental investment, is expected to reach 200 million shekels. The initiative will be overseen by a steering committee made up of representatives from the Foreign Ministry and representatives of the public. It was also decided that the initiative will not require a tender process.
- A Concert of Shame
- Israel’s Brutal Month With the Democratic Party – and Its Impact on Public Opinion
- Israel’s Standing in America Is Now Far Weaker Than It Seems
- Why Are Israelis Scared of Palestinian Identity?
During its previous try the initiative failed to realize the government’s Hasbara mission due to a lack of donations. At the time, the government conditioned its investment in Concert on soliciting donations, and agreed to match any donated sum. But an initial lack of donations meant that there was insufficient funding provided by the government, and so the project stalled.
In its previous format, the organization was allocated 250 million shekels to fund covert pro-Israeli propaganda and “consciousness shaping” activities on social networks. Like with the current decision, half the budget, 128 million shekels, was meant to come from the government and the other half from donations. However, due to low contribution, likely caused by reluctant donors hesitant to identify themselves with covert propaganda operations, Concert only managed to raise 23 million shekels from both the government and through donations.
Concert was formed in 2017, during Gilad Erdan’s (Likud) tenure as Minister for Strategic Affairs, as a public utility non-profit organization. It was initially called Kella Shlomo and was exposed in an investigative report by ‘The Seventh Eye”. Its mission was, amongst other things, to recruit influencers and organizations to speak favorably about Israel in media channels, social media, and conferences abroad and at home.
Behind ‘Concert’ stood diplomats, former military and government officials, Amos Yadlin, Dore Gold, Yaakov Amidror and others. According to the investigative report, Ministry for Strategic Affairs officials admitted that launching the initiative was in practice a way to transfer funds to pro-Israeli organizations working abroad, mainly in the United States, without tainting them with governmental affiliation. The thought was that it will “make it easier for them to engage with the public than it would be for a government backed initiative”, explained the former Director of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, Ronen Manelis, during a Knesset hearing. “At the end of the day, what you see is a financial transfer from a public utility company, rather than an official government transfer. That is the idea.”
If the funding came straight from the government, these organizations would have to declare these transactions and be registered as foreign agents in the United States.
There are concerted and concentrated attempts to shape public opinion on social media, through targeted advertising and content promotion, both by sponsored ads and by seemingly private users. Over the last decade it has become clear that political actors use these networks in order to influence public opinion in their favor.
The power of social networks was on display in the Cambridge Analytica affair, which involved utilizing Facebook in order to influence prospective American voters to vote for Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. According to a United States Government inquiry, Russia was behind the campaign. The affair highlighted further the problematic environment of social networks which tend to conceal the various interests behind certain posts and campaigns.
Concert was launched to provide a Hasbara oriented response and to generate positive sentiment towards Israel on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networks where users engage in political discussion. This arena was neglected by the government during the last years of Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule. Israel’s Hasbara abroad, which was once coordinated by the Foreign Ministry, was split into smaller departments that were divided between the Foreign Ministry, The Ministry for Strategic Affairs, and The Prime Minister’s Office.
The extent of the initiative’s failure revealed itself during the violent riots in mixed cities in May 2021, alongside Operation Guardian of the Walls in Gaza during the same period. Led by pro-Palestinian activists, the Palestinian narrative dominated social networks. And when Israel failed to develop any counter-propaganda initiatives, celebrities like Noa Tishby and Bar Refaeli stepped into the vacuum.
“An Anti-Democratic Tool”
Through the years, Concert’s activities have provoked significant criticism. “Inauthentic propaganda networks, like those operated by Kella-Shlomo, are essentially anti-democratic tools”, claims Achiya Shatz, CEO of Fake Reporter, a civil society Israeli disinformation, hate speech and online incitement watchdog group. “Not for nothing do dictatorial regimes utilize these things in order to destabilize democratic societies: they incite mistrust in society and erode citizens’ ability to engage in discussion. This is not the way Israel should try to improve its global reputation – quite the contrary.”
To the decision reached yesterday to fund Concert was attached a report, written by the Justice Ministry in June 2017, which details the Foreign Ministry’s communication strategy with external initiatives operating to combat delegitimization campaigns. The report highlights that Concert’s activities cannot be overseen by the state, as this may compromise its activities. “We consider it crucial that public engagement with target audiences is seen to be independent and authentic and not as an inherent element of the government’s activity and policy, a factor that determines the effectiveness of the Hasbara,” the report states. “Third parties abroad may prefer to avoid direct engagement with the government but would view cooperation with dedicated non-affiliated organizations favorably.”
According to the Foreign Ministry, ‘Concert’ will be up and running starting this week. “The initiative didn’t collapse because it was ill-conceived or insignificant, but for other reasons, partially to do with a lack of government funding, governmental instability, and the coronavirus crisis, which resulted in many of the organization’s activities, like conferences and delegations, being cancelled,” the Foreign Ministry stated.
According to sources in the ministry, “the organization’s mission is to advance projects that tell the Israeli narrative around the world and to counter Israel’s de-legitimization, with joint funding from the Israeli government and other private sources. Some projects will begin in the coming month or two.”