Israel’s ‘sharp power’ manipulation threatens democratic allies

Israel’s ‘sharp power’ manipulation threatens democratic allies
TEL AVIV, ISRAEL — MARCH 2, 2024: Police officers push back protesters blocking the road and try to clear congested traffic on main roads during an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 2, 2024. Protests against the Netanyahu government took place across Israel, calling for early elections, and for the immediate return of Israeli hostages held in Gaza. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)
(Marcus Yam/Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Israel’s ‘sharp power’ manipulation threatens democratic allies


Sharon Pardo and Yonatan Touval April 4, 2024

As the rift between the Biden administration and the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deepens over the



in Gaza

, tensions have also heightened over what each side perceives as interference in its domestic politics.

This came to a head last month when Senate Majority Leader

Chuck Charles E.

Schumer expressed hope for early elections in Israel. In response, Netanyahu went on American television to castigate the Democratic senator from New York for trespassing on Israeli democracy. Its inappropriate to go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there, Netanyahu said. Thats something that Israel does on its own, and were not a banana republic.

President Biden implicitly embraced Schumers words, and national security advisor Jake Sullivan noted the irony of the prime minister speaking on American television about his concerns about Americans interfering in Israeli politics something that, Sullivan added, U.S. officials dont do nearly as much on Israeli television as Israelis do on U.S. television.

Of course, the U.S. has also engaged in a long line of interventions in other countries internal affairs, including fomenting regime change. That said, the way Israel conducts its foreign policy is not always typical of a sister democracy either. Israels covert actions should be troubling, for their potential of undermining the countrys key strategic alliances.

A March report showed that Israeli authorities had been carrying out an influence operation on social media platforms. Discovered by an Israeli online watchdog, the campaign used hundreds of fake accounts to amplify claims that Palestinian employees of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, took part in Hamas Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Democratic lawmakers were among the primary targets of the campaign, which aimed to persuade them to block the agencys U.S. funding.

This secret influence campaign is an egregious violation of democratic norms. And yet

it’s not shocking coming fromcannot come as a shock in

a country governed for much of the past 28 years by the increasingly antidemocratic Netanyahu.

Last year, many Israelis protested efforts by Netanyahus government to pass legislation that would have undermined the countrys judiciary and democratic principles. (The plans only ended at the outbreak of the recent war.) But Israels antidemocratic behavior goes back at least a decade. And the most salient developments have been not in domestic legislation but in foreign policy, where successive Netanyahu governments have deployed a growing arsenal of sharp power techniques against Israels closest democratic allies.

Introduced by the scholars Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, the term sharp power describes a strategic approach by which an authoritarian state seeks to affect the political landscapes of another. In contrast to hard power (usually understood as coercion through military might) and soft power (persuasion through such intangible factors as culture, values and institutions), sharp power hinges on manipulation and division.

The Israeli campaign to influence U.S. lawmakers is a classic example of a sharp power tactic,


Israel has targeted other allies in this way. A case in point, as we found in our research, is its often successful effort


to undermine the European Union consensus on West Bank settlements.

In 2015, for example, Israeli officials learned that the EUs Foreign Affairs Council was planning to issue a statement that would draw a clear distinction between Israel proper and its West Bank settlements. Viewing such a distinction as a threat to its efforts to stave off calls for trade sanctions on settlement exports, the Netanyahu government went into action.

Taking advantage of internal European divisions, Israeli officials reached out to their counterparts in member states such as Greece, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. At the time, the leadership of these countries had a somewhat Euroskeptic foreign policy that sought to undercut EU power.

Within a few short weeks, Israel not only gleaned insights into the draft EU statements wording

lost this link:

but was also able to persuade its partners to reject certain aspects of


language and tone. The result was a

n EU

statement that was considerably watered down from the original.

This feat left seasoned EU leaders dumbfounded. As one journalist put it, Israel functioned as if it were the 29th [European] delegation in the negotiations, reading EU draft texts and amendments in real time.

And yet Israel’s sharp power tactics are not limited to targeting lawmakers and official governments. Consider, for instance, the Blue Network, a group of nongovernmental organizations whose work the Israeli government strives to shape through funding, strategic guidance and inter-organizational coordination.

Established under the name the Global Coalition for Israel, the Blue Network includes today more than 200 NGOs, according to our estimates, most of them operating in the U.S., Europe and Israel. While some of these organizations have been clandestinely set up by the Israeli government, others are well-established and prominent

, such as StandWithUs


The creation of the Blue Network marks an unhealthy blurring of the lines between civil society and government interests. Whether explicitly or implicitly, these organizations have been co-opted by successive Netanyahu governments to disseminate state-sponsored propaganda.

As these and other examples attest, Israels foreign policy under Netanyahu has adopted more of the much-maligned sharp power tactics typically associated with authoritarian regimes, such as Beijing and Moscow.

As such, the similarities are not only striking; they should also be alarming to Israels closest allies. Sharp power tactics are not merely undemocratic. Under Netanyahu, they have been wielded against Israels staunchest democratic allies, without whose continued support Israels very survival will be imperiled.

Sharon Pardo is a professor of international relations at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the current president of the Israeli Association. for International Studies. Yonatan Touval is a foreign policy analyst with Mitvim, a Tel Aviv-based think tank focusing on Israeli foreign policy.

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