Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will reportedly have a new English-language spokesperson in March: David Keyes, who has made a name for himself as an Internet freedom advocate. The Jerusalem Post first reported the news last week, though the prime minister’s office has not publicly confirmed the appointment. Other Israeli news outlets have also reported he would become the new spokesman.
Keyes is the executive director of a group called Advancing Human Rights, and runs CyberDissidents.org, a database of Internet dissidents. Now Keyes, who has long-standing ties to the Israeli elite, is going to work for a man whose security forces have locked up dozens of Palestinian activists for social media posts in recent years, in addition to the thousands of Palestinian prisoners in jail on other charges. He has not criticized Israel for those arrests. Keyes is an advocate for human rights — except for Palestinians.
What’s more, Keyes has used activists’ names on CyberDissidents.org without their permission. In police states, that kind of database could put people in danger.
Keyes is set to replace Mark Regev, the long-time English-language spokesman for Netanyahu. According to Haaretz, Keyes is “very close to some of Netanyahu’s associates, foremost among them Israel’s envoy to Washington, Ron Dermer, who recommended that the premier appoint Keyes.” Keyes used to work under famed Soviet dissident and now Israeli official Natan Sharansky at the Sheldon Adelson-funded Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, where he first set up the Cyber Dissidents project. He also worked under close Netanyahu advisor Dore Gold at the conservative Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is also a contributor to The Daily Beast, and has made headlines when confronting Iranian officials in public pranks about human rights abuses in the country.
Keyes’ CyberDissidents.org was folded into a project of Advancing Human Rights, created in 2010 by Keyes and Robert Bernstein, a former chairman and the founder of Human Rights Watch who criticized the group because, he said, the human rights group focused too much on Israel and other democratic societies’ human rights record. Advancing Human Rights has been given cash by a number of well-known foundations like the Newton and Rochelle Becker Foundation, which has come under heavy criticism for funding anti-Muslim groups. In 2012, Advancing Human Rights joined forces with Movements.org, a platform for “crowdsourcing human rights.” Movements.org was founded by Jared Cohen, famous for being the director of Google Ideas and a former State Department official.
CyberDissidents.org has been criticized for publicizing the names and faces of Arab dissidents who work in repressive societies without their approval. Jillian York, a well-known writer and advocate on Internet freedom who first met Keyes in 2010 at a Google conference in Budapest, said he “used that conference to find more people to put on his website, CyberDissidents.org, and did so without permission.” One of those people, York said, was Alaa Abdel Fatah, the Egyptian blogger now imprisoned by government run by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has overseen a brutal campaign of repression in the country targeting human rights activists. Fatah asked Keyes to take down his name from the site, and after threatening a lawsuit, Keyes complied, according to York. Issandr El-Amrani, founder of the Arabist blog, is another person who said his name was used on the site without permission.
York also said that Keyes “would lie to people and tell them he wasn’t Israeli” in a bid to win Arab dissidents over.
Keyes did not return a request for comment on this story.
Keyes touts himself as a promoter of democracy, a person who wants to use the Internet to leverage the power of dissent. He has repeatedly criticized the Palestinian Authority and former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for political repression. But on the board of CyberDissidents.org is Saad al-Din Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian liberal jailed under Mubarak who has been a staunch supporter of Sisi, even after his regime launched a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that resulted in thousands of arrests and deaths. In recent weeks, Sisi’s regime has arrested administrators of Facebook pages calling for protests against the government.
And he is now reportedly set to take a paycheck from the Israeli government as Netanyahu’s new English spokesperson. Israeli security forces under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have cracked down hard on Palestinian dissent voiced online. Dozens of Palestinians, most of them in Israel proper and in Jerusalem, have been arrested for Facebook posts for violating Israel’s law against incitement to violence, which the government has interpreted broadly. All branches of Israeli intelligence closely monitor social media sites, frequently using it to target dissenters.