Following Israeli media reports on a “covert” government program to pay students for spreading pro-Israel messages on social media, the program director Daniel Seaman’s own social media posts became the subject of unwanted scrutiny—and may end up costing him his job.
His offensive postings have also created a diplomatic incident between Israel and Japan.
As Ali Abunimah reported for the Electronic Intifada on Tuesday, the program itself, which is coordinated through student unions at Israel’s seven universities and structured in a “semi-military” fashion, is not entirely new.
The Electronic Intifada has previously reported on other versions of the program, including an effort run in partnership with the National Union of Israeli Students, in which participants would be awarded stipends of up to $2,000.
At the time, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian C. York compared the program to similar efforts by China, Syria, Bahrain, and Russia. “When a state — be it Bahrain, Israel, Syria or China - needs to stoop to the level of paying citizens to fight its public relations wars, it has already lost,” York wrote.
Attempt to conceal ‘covert’ program leads to exposure
The newest iteration of the program apparently came to the attention of the Israeli media as the result of a letter written by program director Daniel Seaman, who works out of the prime minister’s office, to Israel’s public tender committee. In the letter, Seaman, a former head of the Government Press Office, sought to exempt the initiative from the government’s standard public tender process as a means of concealing the astroturfing nature of the program.
According to the Times of Israel, Seaman explained that “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.” The article went on to explain that although the “advocacy units” will be convended under the auspices of Israel’s student unions, “they will take their orders from the Prime Minister’s Office advocacy apparatus.”
How not to help Israel’s image on Facebook
Following these initial reports, Haaretz columnist Barak Ravid posted an article questioning the choice of Seaman, outgoing deputy director of the prime minister’s office, to lead the program. Ravid denounced Seaman as an “abusive racist” whose personal Facebook postings revealed a lack of good judgement.
Among the posts cited by Ravid:
Does the commencement of the fast of the Ramadan mean that Muslims will stop eating each other during the daytime?
I am sick of the Japanese, ‘Human Rights’ and ‘Peace’ groups the world over holding their annual self righteous commemorations for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki victims. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the consequence of Japanese aggression. You reap what you sow.
Of the various remarks cited, it was the latter which landed Seaman in the hot seat once publicized by Ravid. The Japanese embassy in Tel Aviv complained about Seaman’s “Hiroshima” remark, and were apparently assured that this reflected only Seaman’s personal views.
Early this morning, Haaretz reported that Seaman had been suspended from his official position.
Israel-Japan gas, construction deals jeopardized
The potential diplomatic row comes at a sensitive time in Israel-Japan relations. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida had visited Israel, the West Bank and Jordan only three weeks prior to the exposure of Seaman’s remarks, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders to discuss a variety of issues.
Prominent in Kishida’s itinerary had been discussions of Japan’s plan for an agro-industrial park in the West Bank, known as the “Corridor of Peace and Prosperity.” The USAID-funded project, a highly problematic effort, has been the subject of previous reporting for The Electronic Intifada by Adri Nieuwhof.
According to The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s talks with Kishida also included the potential involvement of Japan in natural gas exploration off the Israel/Gaza coast, and in the construction of a high-speed railway between Tel Aviv and Eilat.
With Israel deeply concerned about its growing political and economic isolation, the loss of such projects would be a major blow.
The fact that the potential row was set off by the Facebook posts of the very diplomatic official tasked with bolstering the country’s image on social media lends further creedence to York’s obervation: in the global battle for hearts and minds, both online and off, Israel has already lost.