Israeli documents show expansive government effort to shape US discourse around Gaza war

From The Guardian.

… Chikli assured the lawmakers that there was new money in the budget for a pushback campaign, which was separate from more traditional public relations and paid advertising content produced by the government. It included 80 programs already under way for advocacy efforts “to be done in the ‘Concert’ way”, he said.

The “Concert” remark referred to a sprawling relaunch of a controversial Israeli government program initially known as Kela Shlomo, designed to carry out what Israel called “mass consciousness activities” targeted largely at the US and Europe. Concert, now known as Voices of Israel, previously worked with groups spearheading a campaign to pass so-called “anti-BDS” state laws that penalize Americans for engaging in boycotts or other non-violent protests of Israel.

Its latest incarnation is part of a hardline and sometimes covert operation by the Israeli government to strike back at student protests, human rights organizations and other voices of dissent.

Voices’ latest activities were conducted through non-profits and other entities that often do not disclose donor information. From October through May, Chikli has overseen at least 32m shekels, or about $8.6m, spent on government advocacy to reframe the public debate.

It didn’t take long for one of the American advocacy groups closely coordinating with Chikli’s ministry, the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, or ISGAP, to score a powerful victory.

In a widely viewed December congressional hearing on alleged antisemitism among student anti-war protesters, several House GOP lawmakers explicitly cited ISGAP research in their interrogations of university presidents. The hearing concluded with Representative Elise Stefanik’s viral confrontation with the then president of Harvard University, Claudine Gay, who later retired from her role after a wave of negative news coverage.

The ISGAP, which reportedly received the majority of its funding in 2018 from the Israeli agency that was running Concert, touted its congressional public relations coup at a 7 April event at the Palm Beach Country Club.

“All these hearings were the result of our report that all these universities, beginning from Harvard, are taking a lot of money from Qatar,” bragged Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli Knesset member (MK) who previously held Chikli’s role and now chairs the ISGAP. Sharansky told the assembled supporters that Stefanik’s remarks had been viewed by 1 billion people.

The ISGAP has continued to shape congressional investigations of universities over claims that protests over Israel’s human rights record are motivated by antisemitism, and the organization has been deeply involved in the campaign to enshrine new laws that redefine antisemitism to include certain forms of speech critical of the nation of Israel. [TOO Emphasis]

Other American groups tied to Voices have pursued a range of initiatives to bolster support for the state of Israel. One such group listed publicly as a partner, the National Black Empowerment Council (NBEC), published an open letter from Black Democratic politicians pledging solidarity with Israel. Another group, CyberWell, a pro-Israel anti-disinformation group led by former Israeli military intelligence and Voices officials, has established itself as an official “trusted partner” to TikTok and Meta, helping both social platforms screen and edit content. A recent CyberWell report called for Meta to suppress the popular slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

The dawn of the Gaza war after the 7 October 2023 terror attacks by Hamas sparked the third reboot for the government-backed company, which was originally chartered through the now-downgraded ministry of strategic affairs. The revamp was first disclosed through a little-noticed budget document posted by the Israeli government on 1 November, which noted that Voices would be freezing all prior campaigns to support activities related to “winning the war over Israel’s story”.

The organization is now under the administration of Chikli, the Israeli minister for diaspora affairs.

Haaretz and the New York Times recently revealed that Chikli’s ministry had tapped a public relations firm to secretly pressure American lawmakers. The firm used hundreds of fake accounts posting pro-Israel or anti-Muslim content on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook and Instagram. (The diaspora affairs ministry denied involvement in the campaign, which reportedly provided about $2m to an Israeli firm for the social media posts.)

For example, Hillel International, a co-founder of the Israel on Campus Coalition network and one of the largest Jewish campus groups in the world, has reported financial and strategic support from Mosaic United, a public benefit corporation backed by Chikli’s ministry. The longstanding partnership is now being utilized to shape the political debate over Israel’s war. In February, Hillel’s chief executive, Adam Lehman, appeared before the Knesset to discuss the strategic partnership with Mosaic and the ministry of diaspora affairs, which he said had already produced results.

“We are changing administrations. Just last week, MIT, the same president who was lambasted in front of Congress, took the step of fully suspending her Students for Justice in Palestine chapter for crossing lines, and for creating an unwelcoming environment for Jewish students,” said Lehman, referencing the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sally Kornbluth.

Hillel International, CyberWell, the NBEC, the Israeli ministry of diaspora affairs and Voices of Israel/Concert did not respond to a request for comment.

This investigative report reviewed recent government hearings, Israeli corporate filings, procurement documents and other public records. While private individuals and foundations primarily fund many of the organizations devoted to pro-Israel advocacy, most likely without foreign direction, the records point to substantial Israeli government involvement in American politics about the Gaza war, free speech on college campuses and Israel-Palestine policy.

“There’s a fixation on policing American discourse on the US-Israel relationship, even college campus discourse, from Israel, going all the way up to Prime Minister Netanyahu,” said Eli Clifton, a senior adviser at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “One struggles to find a parallel in terms of a foreign country’s influence over American political debate.”

None of the groups identified in this story’s reporting have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (Fara). This law requires groups receiving funds or direction from foreign countries to provide public disclosures to the US Department of Justice.

“There’s a built-in assumption that there’s nothing at all weird about viewing the US as sort of an open field for Israel to operate in, that there are no limitations,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. …

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