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US billionaires joined Whatsapp group to 'change Israel narrative'

Business leaders spoke to senior Israeli officials and New York mayor during Columbia encampment, according to Washington Post
Pro-Palestinian student protestors wave a Palestinian flag as they gather on the front steps of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City on 30 April 2024 (AFP/Emily Byrski)
Pro-Palestinian student protestors wave a Palestinian flag on the front steps of Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in New York City on 30 April 2024 (AFP/Emily Byrski)

American business leaders and billionaires set up a Whatsapp group to shape public opinion on Israel's war in Gaza and urged New York City's mayor to use police to disperse a pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University. 

The contents of the Whatsapp group were reported by the Washington Post on Thursday. 

The group was set up on 12 October, days after Hamas's surprise attack on southern Israel, to "change the narrative" on Israel, including by conveying "the atrocities committed by Hamas... to all Americans". 

Among the business leaders in the group were the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, Dell CEO and founder Michael Dell, and Joshua Kushner, a financier and brother to Donald Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. 

The contents of the chat were supplied to the Washington Post by unnamed people with direct access to it. 

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Last month, members of the chat, including billionaire Len Blavatnik, held a Zoom call with New York City Mayor Eric Adams, at a time when a pro-Palestinian encampment was taking place at Columbia University in the city.

During the call, attendees spoke about making political donations to Adams, and about how the business leaders could urge Columbia's president and trustees to permit the mayor to send police on campus. 

Some members of the chat offered to pay for private investigators to help police during the protests.

According to the Washington Post, a member of the group wrote on the chat that such an offer had been accepted by Adams. New York's police denied using private investigators to manage the protests. 

'The insinuation that Jewish donors secretly plotted to influence government operations is an all too familiar antisemitic trope'

- Fabien Levy, New York deputy mayor

On 1 May, dozens of students were arrested as New York police officers wearing riot gear entered the main campus and broke up the encampment.

Police used an armoured vehicle with a bridging mechanism to gain entry to Hamilton Hall building, which students had occupied and renamed Hind's Hall - after a five-year-old Palestinian girl who was trapped in a car in Gaza and was later found killed along with several of her relatives and two paramedics who tried to save her after they appear to have come under fire from Israeli tanks.

Deputy Mayor Fabien Levy said police entered Columbia University in response to "specific written requests" from the university. 

“Any suggestion that other considerations were involved in the decision-making process is completely false,” he said.

“The insinuation that Jewish donors secretly plotted to influence government operations is an all too familiar antisemitic trope that the Washington Post should be ashamed to ask about, let alone normalise in print.”

'Win the war of public opinion'

The Whatsapp group had over 100 members, and was titled "Israel Current Events".

It was set up by real estate tycoon Barry Sternlicht, who was not directly a member of the chat but participated through a staffer. 

The staffer said in October that the group's mission was to help "win the war" of public opinion in the US, while Israel worked to "win the physical war".

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Israel's war on Gaza has killed over 35,000 Palestinians, most of whom are women and children, and displaced the vast majority of people in the besieged enclave. 

More than a dozen of the Whatsapp group's members were on Forbes's annual billionaire list, according to the Washington Post.

Earlier during the war, the group's members attended private meetings with former Israeli prime minister and now opposition figure Naftali Bennett, war cabinet member Benny Gantz, and Michael Herzog, Israel's ambassador to the US. 

The group's members also worked with the Israeli government to screen an Israeli military-compiled film displaying Hamas's 7 October attack, which left around 1,200 Israelis killed. 

In November, Sternlicht reportedly launched a $50m media campaign against Hamas, with the help of media and business magnates. 

The chat was shut down this month by Sternlicht's staffer, who said the group's aims were moving beyond its initial objectives. 

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