PM to tap US-born human rights activist as new spokesman

Before David Keyes started ‘punking’ Iranian and Saudi officials, New York Times hailed him as a ‘pioneer in online activism’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

David Keyes (Courtesy)
David Keyes (Courtesy)

Human rights activist David Keyes is to become Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new foreign media adviser and spokesperson, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Keyes, who was born in California and currently lives in New York, will replace Mark Regev, who has been appointed Israel’s new ambassador to London.

The Prime Minister’s Office on Monday did not confirm Keyes’s appointment, which was first reported by The Jerusalem Post.

Keyes, who is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, currently serves as the executive director of Advancing Human Rights, an umbrella human rights organization operating, 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, which he founded while working for former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky in Israel. The site “highlight 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 General 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.

Last summer, 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.”

“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.

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 re-imprisonment, 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.”

Stephie Grob Plante contributed to this report.

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