‘PMO stealthily recruiting students for online advocacy’

Government to play behind-the-scenes role in spreading pro-Israel information on social media via universities

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Israeli students seen on the first day of the new academic year. October 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli students seen on the first day of the new academic year. October 21, 2012. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Prime Minister’s Office is working to set up a network of advocacy units in Israeli universities, operated by students who will receive scholarships for their efforts totaling nearly NIS 3 million ($845,000).

The outgoing deputy director of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy, Danny Seaman, sought to gain a waiver from issuing a public tender for the advocacy project, the Haaretz daily reported on Tuesday.

“The whole idea of the system is based on student actions,” Seaman wrote in a letter to the government tenders committee last week. The project requires the state’s role to be under the radar, making it appear as if the students are working independently under the auspices of the students’ union, he added.

The plan aims to harness 550 bilingual students drawn from the student pool at the country’s seven universities, who will target their efforts abroad.

In each university there will be a three-tier hierarchy led by a senior coordinator, who will receive a full scholarship paid for by the government to oversee three other coordinators. The second-tier coordinators will each be responsible for one of three specific areas of operation in language, graphics and research. The coordinators will also receive scholarships, albeit smaller ones than the senior coordinator, and will be in charge of the mass of students recruited into the program, each of who will also receive a “minimum stipend.” In total the project is expected to have a NIS 2.78 million ($783,00) annual budget.

According to the report, the student union will be responsible for advertising openings for the project and for reviewing and recruiting the candidates. The union will also operate computer rooms for the project.

Although the advocacy units will be under the auspices of the student unions, they will take their orders from the Prime Minister’s Office advocacy apparatus.

“In light of the success in the battle for awareness during the Pillar of Defense Operation [the Israeli military operation against the Gaza Strip in November of last year] and the experience gained in activating a large number of situation rooms on university campuses and work with students in general, it was decided to establish a permanent structure of activity on the Internet through the students at academic institutions in the country,” Seaman wrote. “The students are a structured population that is constantly active and present in the Internet arena, is well-practiced in the field that lives and speaks the language of the medium.”

Israel’s now defunct Ministry of Public Diplomacy is currently being absorbed into the National Advocacy Department at the Prime Minister’s Office, where Seaman will head the Internet Media Unit.

“The advocacy campaign puts a focus on activities within social media,” the PMO said in a statement to Haaretz. “As part of that effort, a pro-Israel advocacy infrastructure is currently being set up based on students on Israeli campuses, that will assist in the promotion and spread of content in social media, primarily to international communities.”

The Israeli academic year is scheduled to start in October.

“Israel is facing a prolonged and extreme campaign of de-legitimization against it on the social networks,” explained a spokeswoman for the National Union of Israeli students, Hagar Yisraeli. “The student population is a talented population educated, with a range of independent views, that speaks different languages, and can therefore help in standing up to such a campaign.”

Yisraeli stressed that while the student union was willing to help out and supported students playing a role in the project, it will not have any specific political affiliations.

“The members of the students’ union hold a range of views from all points of the Israeli political spectrum and it intends to stay that way,” she said.

The PMO office further said that the advocacy units will focus on diplomacy/security issues and the struggle against anti-Semitism and BDS, while also stressing Israel’s democratic values.

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