Jerusalem – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the appointment of a new foreign media adviser and spokesman this week, the latest in a series of moves viewed as snubs to the Obama White House.
US-born David Keyes replaces Mark Regev, who became familiar to English-language audiences as the voice of the Netanyahu government during Israel’s repeated attacks on Gaza. Regev will be Israel’s new ambassador to the UK.
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Keyes, aged 32, has been plucked from his current position as executive director of Advancing Human Rights, a New York-based lobby group he founded in 2010. He also heads a web operation known as Cyberdissidents, which claims to connect political dissidents around the world.
Keyes took Israeli citizenship nearly a decade ago, and then served as a spokesperson in the Israeli army. Netanyahu’s office said Keyes would start in his new role “very soon”. Rumours of the appointment had been circulating since January.
Keyes steps in as Netanyahu’s foreign media adviser at a time when Israeli officials have been accused of conducting a “witch hunt” against both the foreign press corps in Israel and Israeli social media activists.
Like Keyes, Israel claims to support human rights around the world, but when it comes to Palestinians' rights, Israel is a serial offender.
Palestinian human rights groups, meanwhile, have highlighted Keyes’s failure, despite styling himself a supporter of human rights activism, to challenge Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights. Thousands of Palestinians are in Israeli jails, including hundreds being held on secret charges.
His appointment is also likely to heighten tensions with Washington, given his high-profile campaigning to undermine the White House’s foreign policy efforts to end a long-running standoff with Iran.
Keyes is best-known for a series of publicity stunts he staged in 2014 in Vienna, during key negotiations between Washington and Iran over the latter’s nuclear energy programme.
He published videos of himself admonishing – or what he called “punking” – Iranian diplomats in the streets of the Austrian capital over Tehran’s human rights record. He also held a mock press conference denouncing Iran in a hotel lobby, next to someone dressed in an ayatollah outfit.
Last July, as the White House prepared to sign an agreement with Iran, Keyes published an article on the Daily Beast website in which he declared his goal had been to “cause as much trouble as possible” for the negotiators.
Netanyahu was a vocal opponent of the talks, and controversially bypassed the White House to speak directly to the US Congress last spring in a last-ditch attempt to pressure legislators to scupper the deal. An agreement was signed a short time later.
Many of the online videos of Keyes’s stunts have been taken down over the past two months, in an indication of apparent concern by Israel that his appointment might be viewed adversely by the White House.
Yossi Alper, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, one of Netanyahu’s predecessors, said Israeli moves such as Keyes’s appointment were now a staple feature of US-Israeli relations mired in “permanent crisis”.
“Netanyahu appears confident that he can weather any storm with Obama,” Alper told Al Jazeera. “The view seems to be that there is only so much more damage that can be done in the remaining nine months of this presidency.”
Keyes is close to Ron Dermer, Israel’s envoy to Washington and a close ally of Netanyahu’s. Dermer was widely blamed for bringing ties between Israel and the Obama administration to a new low by arranging Netanyahu’s address to Congress. Dermer reportedly suggested Keyes for the new post.
The appointment follows Netanyahu’s surprise announcement last November that Ran Baratz was to be appointed his new head of public diplomacy. The decision was put on hold after White House officials, including Vice-President Joe Biden, strenuously objected.
Last year Baratz accused President Obama of “anti-semitism” on social media, in the run-up to his signing the agreement with Iran.
In a further unprecedented move this month, Netanyahu angered the White House by declining an invitation from Obama to meet in Washington. Israeli officials reportedly took two weeks even to acknowledge the invitation.
The rebuff was seen in Israel as a bold move to raise the stakes in Israel’s negotiations with the US to increase its military aid annually from $3bn to $5bn.
One of Keyes’s first tests will be how he develops relations between the Israeli government and the foreign press corps, which have turned increasingly sour.
Last month, the Israeli government’s press office threatened to revoke the accreditation of foreign correspondents if their reporting was deemed “negligent”.
Days later, the Foreign Press Association, which represents foreign journalists in Israel, accused Israeli officials of conducting a “witch hunt” after a parliamentary committee demanded that it attend a meeting to justify its members’ recent reporting.
At around the same time, the Washington Post’s bureau chief, William Booth, was briefly detained by Israeli police while interviewing Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City. The police accused Booth of “incitement” and helping to promote Palestinian “propaganda”.
In another sign of a media crackdown, Israel’s military censor announced last month that she would require for the first time that Israeli bloggers and social media activists submit posts for review ahead of publication. Israeli TV and press are already required to do so.
Moussa Rimawi, director of Mada, a Palestinian centre for media freedom based in Ramallah, said Keyes personified Israeli “double standards” on human rights.
“Like Keyes, Israel claims to support human rights around the world, but when it comes to Palestinians’ rights, Israel is a serial offender,” he told Al Jazeera. “The reality is that Palestinians, including our media organisations, face daily harassment, intimidation and violence.”
Rimawi noted that in recent months, Israel had closed three Palestinian radio stations, as well as shutting down last week a TV channel, Palestine Today, and Transmedia, a company that provides links to satellite networks.
He added that there were numerous cases of Palestinians being arrested for their social media posts.
After military service, Keyes worked for the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem, in a role coordinating “democracy programmes” that was funded by Sheldon Adelson, a US casino magnate. Adelson also underwrites a free Israeli daily newspaper, Israel Hayom, that has been widely criticised for serving as a mouthpiece for the Netanyahu government.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has described Keyes’ wider online activism as designed to “empower opposition movements and regime opponents in the Middle East”.
Critics, however, have argued that his organisation has endangered such activists by publicising their names and faces without their permission.