Netanyahu names human rights activist, video prankster as spokesman
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Netanyahu names human rights activist, video prankster as spokesman

US-born David Keyes, hailed as a ‘pioneer in online activism’ by New York Times and known for ‘punking’ Iranian and Saudi officials, to replace longtime flak Mark Regev

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

David Keyes (Courtesy)
David Keyes (Courtesy)

Human rights activist David Keyes is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new foreign media adviser and spokesperson, the Prime Minister’s Office said on Monday.

Keyes, known for a series of videos seeking to embarrass Iranian and Saudi officials over their human rights records, will replace Mark Regev, who has been appointed Israel’s new ambassador to London.

The statement from Netanyahu’s office said Keyes and Regev would begin their new positions “very soon.”

Keyes, who was born in California and currently lives in New York, thanked the prime minister “for the great honor to serve the State of Israel in light of the many challenges facing it,” according to the statement.

Keyes, who is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, currently serves as the executive director of Advancing Human Rights, an umbrella human rights organization operating Movements.org, which describes itself as a crowdsourcing platform connecting dissidents in closed societies with those who might be able to help all over the globe.

He is also the director of Cyberdissidents.org, which he founded while working for former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky in Israel. The site “highlights the voices of democratic online activists in the Middle East,” he told The Times of Israel during an extensive interview last year.

In 2012, The New York Times called him a “pioneer in online activism.”

Keyes, who is close to Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer and Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold, graduated with honors from the University of California in Los Angeles with a degree in Middle Eastern Studies. After immigrating to Israel, he served in the Strategic Division of the Israel Defense Forces and pursued a Master’s degree in diplomacy at Tel Aviv University.

However, his style of activism is sometimes closer to Sacha Baron Cohen-like guerrilla theater than to quiet diplomacy.

In 2014, Keyes traveled to Vienna at the time of the nuclear negotiations with Iran to mock Iranian diplomats for their country’s dismal human rights records. In a clip entitled “Punking Iran’s Nuclear Negotiators in Vienna,” he is seen approaching Iranian dignitaries on the streets of the Austrian capital.

“We have agreed to an interim human rights deal with Iran. Iran has agreed to let gays choose which kind of noose they will be hung with now,” he declared in a Vienna hotel lobby during a faux press conference, standing next to a man dressed up as an “ayatollah.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KC_NlS9ikHc

“We’re using satire and humor to shed light on Iran’s brutal human rights record,” he explained in the video.

In an event in May 2015, David Keyes — handing out balloons and free ice cream in New York to “celebrate” Tehran having hung a thousand people over the previous year and a half — said that “every balloon counts when you’re trying to topple the Iranian regime.

“Congratulations, Mr. Zarif: 1,000 hangings,” he called out to a black van presumably belonging to the Iranian foreign minister who was in town. “Tyranny and despotism cannot exist forever,” Keyes added in Persian.

In a clip posted in June 2015, Keyes also derided the government of Iran’s archenemy, Saudi Arabia, by throwing a “gay party” under the motto “Saud and proud” in the same hotel at which Riyadh was hosting a job fair.

However, that video has since been pulled from YouTube.

In 2013, Keyes confronted Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “I walked right up to [Zarif] and said, ‘Do you think it’s ironic that you enjoy posting on Facebook when your government bans it in Iran?’ He laughed and went, ‘Ha ha, that’s life,’” Keyes recounted last year. “I said, ‘When will [prominent Iranian human rights activist and prisoner] Majid Tavakoli be free?’ He said, ‘I don’t know who that is.’”

Tavakoli was freed temporarily shortly after the episode was highlighted on Iranian television. Despite Tavakoli’s subsequent reimprisonment, Keyes considers the episode a crucial step.

“We need to focus the world’s attention, and massively raise the pressure against the Iranian regime,” Keyes said. “Confrontations are one way, like I did with Zarif.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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