Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to resurrect the government's student public advocacy unit to improve Israel's image overseas.
After Operation Peace for the Galilee was launched in 1982, the Foreign Ministry had Israeli students and faculty members in American universities serve as unofficial spokespeople to make the case for Israel. At the time, a young Netanyahu served as a the head of the Public Diplomacy Department at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Although the student-led effort operated out of New York, the activities were held in campuses all over the U.S.
After the Jan. 22, 2013 election, the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry was disbanded. Its various functions were transferred to the Prime Minister's Office, where Deputy Prime Minister Ofir Akunis runs the office's student-related activities.
The new unit is designed to address the need for an effective body that would deal with contemporary challenges facing Israeli public diplomacy by tapping Israeli students' command and access to social media. The project will be run together with the National Union of Israeli Students. Some 2.7 million shekels ($740 million) have been earmarked for this project, some of which would go towards scholarships for Israeli students who partake in this endeavor.
Yarden Vatikai, who heads the National Information Directorate at the Prime Minister's Office, says the decision to relaunch this initiative was a result of Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012 (Israel's eight-day campaign to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip), when it became clear that independently organized, student-led public diplomacy efforts were highly effective.
The project would cater to Israeli students who have a command of foreign languages and who have lived abroad. They would be tasked with communicating Israel's policies by telling their own story as Israelis who have lived in the Jewish state and who have their own unique experiences, all the while steering clear of ideological refrains. The focus would be on Israel's right to exist and to defend itself. Students would counter the delegitimization efforts and highlight Israel's positive traits.
Dr. Motti Friedman, who headed the public diplomacy organization in the U.S. during its previous iteration in the 1980s, says things are very different this time around. "We didn't have Facebook; the cutting-edge technology at the time was a slide projector, but it was still effective," he says. "These new things can be harnessed to great use."
"Today we have many more tools at our disposal, like Twitter," he adds. "The other side employs sophisticated techniques on campuses and in the printed press; I don't think much has changed when it comes to the modus operandi of pro-Palestinian organizations. The trick is to utilize what is available, the people here are very resourceful and are very smart; they have the capacity to carry out great things and impact others."