In ‘covert op,’ Israeli consulate backed poll inflating support for Gaza war

Marcel Wieder of Aurora Strategies poses for a selfie with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posted online in May 2023. Wieder has described Israel’s Gaza war as a  “fight between good and evil.” Credit: Marcel Wieder/LinkedIn

By Emma Paling & Martin Lukacs, The Breach, Dec. 8, 2023

The Israeli consulate in Toronto was secretly behind an opinion poll that experts say manipulated Canadian public opinion about Israel’s war on Gaza, an investigation by The Breach reveals. 

A group of Liberal party insiders, part of a WhatsApp chat called “Lib Friends of Israel,” then discussed sending the poll to top officials within the prime minister’s office before its public release to “inform their thinking,” according to messages seen by The Breach.

The poll was conducted in late October by Aurora Strategies Global, which is headed by Liberal strategist Marcel Wieder, who The Globe and Mail once labelled a “dirty-tricks man” for his use of manipulative tactics.

His firm did not disclose that the poll was done on behalf of the Israeli consulate in its news release or the poll’s full text, a move that flies in the face of conventions set out by the Canadian Research Insights Council, which the major polling agencies in the country follow.

Consulates are arms of foreign states that are smaller diplomatic missions than embassies, usually located in a major city other than the capital.

The poll used “completely and totally loaded questions,” an accredited pollster who reviewed the poll said. The pollster asked not to be identified to avoid recrimination between polling agencies.

The poll posed misleading statements as facts, offered inappropriate comparisons for respondents to agree with, and inaccurately told those polled that “pro-Hamas protests” were sweeping the country.

This line of questioning resulted in 60 per cent of Canadians agreeing “that Israel should invade Gaza and remove the Hamas leadership,” and 57 per cent expressing “concern” about protests.

“The sponsor should have been disclosed and the Israeli consulate should not be seen influencing public opinion, with a poll that wasn’t balanced and provided one-sided information,” said the pollster. 

“I don’t know if it’s illegal but it’s not a good look.”

Despite a publicity push, the poll was only picked up for coverage by the conservative website Western Standard and three local Alberta newspapers.

The Israeli consulate shared an infographic of the poll’s findings on Instagram without disclosing that it was done on its behalf.

Meanwhile, the media widely reported polls conducted around the same time by Angus Reid and Mainstreet Research that found that a large majority of Canadians support a ceasefire to the two-month bombing campaign.

It’s a sign that the Israeli government’s public relations efforts have faltered in the face of credible accusations of war crimes in Gaza, which United Nations experts have described as a “genocide in the making.”

The Canadian government, following the United States, has refused to call for a ceasefire to the war, which has killed more than 17,000 Palestinians and destroyed or damaged 45 per cent of housing units after Hamas attacks killed 1,200 Israelis.

Deborah Cowen, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, a member of the Jewish Faculty Network, and a former fellow of the Trudeau Foundation called the poll “outrageous.”

“The Israeli state is essentially engaging in covert operations to craft what was meant to pass as ‘Canadian public opinion,’ in an attempt to manufacture support for their indefensible attacks on civilian life in Gaza.”

‘Lib Friends of Israel’ strategized to influence PMO with poll 

In early November, Aurora Strategy Global’s president Wieder shared the unreleased poll results to the “Lib Friends of Israel” WhatsApp chat, messages seen by The Breach show, telling them: “This was done on behalf of the Israeli Consulate in Toronto.”

The group has about 50 members, according to someone in the chat whom The Breach agreed not to identify so that they could share details about private conversations. The members include Liberal government staffers, lobbyists, political advisors, and former Liberal candidates. 

Jack Siegel, a veteran Liberal insider who has served in multiple senior roles with the federal party, replied to Wieder suggesting the poll be shared with the prime minister’s office (PMO).

“Is there anyway that the poll could be leaked to the [PMO] in advance of the public announcement, strictly on a heads up basis, so that they might be in a better position both to have it start informing their thinking immediately, and let them be ready for a potential response once it is made public?” he asked.

Wieder replied immediately that he would “check with the Consulate.”

Three hours later, Wieder wrote: “I have permission to release the findings to PMO under embargo.” 

The Israeli consulate did not reply to a request for comment from The Breach by publication time. 

The “Lib Friends of Israel” group then strategized about which officials Wieder should send the poll to.

Mark Resnick, a former senior advisor to prime minister Paul Martin, suggested sending it to “Harry,” in an apparent reference to Harry Orbach Miller, a policy advisor in the PMO who oversees the Israel and Palestine file.

Jonathan Kales, a former advisor on Quebec to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, suggested he could send it to Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford, “if there’s a thought that it would be helpful.”

The messages, which were viewed and verified by The Breach, did not indicate whether Wieder sent the poll and what the reception was from the prime minister’s office. 

Spokespeople for the prime minister did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

Wieder, Siegel, Resnick and Kales did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

The WhatsApp chat appears to represent a harder-line faction within the Liberal party’s network who are aggressively backing Israel’s actions in Gaza. 

Almost two dozen MPs, representing another faction within the party, wrote a letter to Trudeau in late October asking for him to advocate for a ceasefire.

On Tuesday, Liberal MP Salma Zahid wrote a letter for the second time to Trudeau repeating the call. 

“There is no longer any safe place for the innocent civilians of Gaza,” Zahid wrote. “Told to move to the South of Gaza, the fighting is now as intense in the South, and they have now been told to evacuate the South as well…Where are the innocent civilians to go? Nowhere is safe.”

Israeli consulate’s PR ‘disturbing but not surprising’

The poll is a window into the Israeli government’s public relations (PR) efforts.

The country has long engaged in PR or propaganda campaigns abroad—known in Hebrew as Hasbara—that are well-known for their organizational strength.

Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s previous coalition government, campaigning abroad was carried out clandestinely by a Strategic Affairs Ministry. According to Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the ministry saw “themselves as the heads of a public affairs commando unit.”

In 2017, its director-general Sima Vaknin-Gil said its goal was to undermine the narrative “that Israel equals apartheid.”

In an interview with Israeli media outlet Y Net News, she was frank: “In order to win, however, we must use tricks and craftiness.”

Involved in that broader effort was Psy-Group, an Israeli psychological warfare firm with close ties to Mossad that specializes in covert operations. 

Their tactics, as reported in The Nation and The New Yorker, included cancellation of events, damage to the reputations of students, lawsuits, the creation of fake news outlets, phony Facebook personas and posts, and “masked PR” that is “not attributable to us.”

In recent years, however, the Israeli government’s public relations have been weakened, undermined by Netayahu’s corruption, government underfunding, and jockeying between different ministries and partners in his far-right governing coalition.

At the beginning of 2023, the Netanyahu government re-established a Hasbara Ministry, appointing far-right politician Galit Distel Atbaryan as its minister.

But this fall, the Hasbara Ministry was closed after Distel Atbaryan resigned, citing a lack of resources and authority. In November, she posted on X, formerly Twitter, that “Gaza should be erased…and let them die badly.”

Deborah Cowen said it was “deeply disturbing but not surprising” to see the Israeli consulate engaging in such tactics in Canada.

“Producing this kind of slanted research—essentially ‘fake public opinion’—is a way of suppressing meaningful debate about Israeli policy, which has been a cornerstone of Israeli public relations abroad for decades,” she said. “Anyone who believes in the most basic principles of democracy and the integrity of public opinion reporting should be incensed.” 

Consular controversies have erupted before during Netanyahu’s coalition government. In spring 2023, Netanyahu appointed to the New York consulate far-right Israeli politician May Golan, who once said she was “proud to be a racist.”

‘A communications program designed to change your mind’

The accredited pollster who reviewed Aurora Strategies Global’s poll for The Breach said it “reads more like a communications program designed to change your mind.”

“There is a structure and method for polling so you’re getting results that have integrity,” the pollster said. “When you’re conducting polls that are one-sided, you can’t say that that’s fair.”

Those polled were asked if they were concerned by the “recent pro-Hamas protests and demonstrations across multiple cities in Canada.”

No such pro-Hamas protests have been formally organized by any civil society organizations in Canada. But 286,000 Canadians have signed a petition urging Prime Minister Trudeau to call for a ceasefire, a record high since parliamentary e-petitions began in 2015.

The poll also asked people to “evaluate Hamas in comparison to these other terrorist organizations,” naming ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

While Hamas has engaged in attacks against Israeli civilians, including the killing of 851 civilians and 368 IDF soldiers on Oct. 7, it is also a political organization that—unlike the other groups named—has run in democratic, national elections and won office in 2006.

Before soliciting opinions about Hamas, the polling firm asked those polled “to what extent are you aware of the various facts.”

The “facts” they cited include that “Israel voluntarily withdrew in 2005 and forcibly removed any Israeli settlers who lived in the Gaza Strip, turning the area over to Palestinian control.”

In fact, according to the United Nations, Israel remains an occupying force because it continues to control Gaza’s air, sea and borders. The removal of settlers in 2005 was, according to the chief advisor to then-Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, a tactic of “freezing the peace process.” 

Another “fact” says that “Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 following fighting with Fatah, the Palestinian organization that currently controls the West Bank.”

In fact, after Hamas won elections in 2006, the U.S., Israel and Fatah plotted to violently overthrow them to undo the democratic result, which led Hamas to pre-empt the coup and take office in Gaza.

‘Marcel the Weasel’

Wieder, president of Aurora Strategies, is no stranger to controversy. 

In the late 1990s, he admitted to making up a fake citizens’ group and fake polling firm which both spread untrue allegations that a Toronto election candidate had received illegal donations, The Globe and Mail reported.

According to the newspaper, the “dirty-tricks man” hired a company in Alabama to conduct a phone campaign using the name “Argus Read,” which sounds like well-known Canadian polling firm Angus Reid. Later, he was sued and settled out of court with both Angus Reid and the candidate.

The Globe and Mail nicknamed him “Marcel the Weasel,” but within a few years Wieder was serving as one of Ontario Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty’s leading communications “gurus.”

He has been a regular Liberal commentator in the media and in 2011 founded Aurora Strategy Global, which offers clients public relations and lobbying services in Canada, the U.S., and Israel.

“The time has come to understand that this is a fight between good and evil, right and wrong,” Wieder wrote about the current Israeli war on Gaza on LinkedIn a month ago. 

“There can be no spectators on the sideline. It is time to choose sides. If you value freedom, decency, and democracy then you only have one choice. If not, then you have thrown your lot in with the evil that will destroy all what [sic] you cherish.”

In September, Wieder also gave an interview to a Portuguese-Canadian newspaper.

“Lying is never a good strategy in politics,” he said. “Eventually the truth comes out and you’re caught.”

 

Posted Dec. 26, 2023