In a wide-ranging interview with The Jerusalem Post, Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy officials announced the dawning of a new era in the government’s campaign against Israel-boycott organizations, proclaiming the rise of the “Start-Up Ministry.”
One of the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s principal missions is to push back, in creative and innovative ways, against delegitimization of Israel and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement. Two of the guiding principles are to move “from defense to offense” and to “adopt a big tent that works with the Left and the Right,” according to the officials.
Last year, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan asked Sima Vaknin-Gill – a former IDF chief censor and Israel Air Force intelligence officer – to serve as his director-general.
Since its founding in 2005, the BDS effort has morphed into a full-blown global campaign to delegitimize Israel. Europe, mainly Western European countries, provides fertile territory for BDS to flourish. Just last month, a German government-commissioned study revealed that 40% of Germans hold “modern antisemitic” views of Israel, that is, they loathe the Jewish state.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party last year declared BDS to be a contemporary version of the Nazi-era campaign “Don’t buy from Jews!” BDS also extends to US college campuses and to South Africa. BDS South Africa hosted Palestine Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist Leila Khaled, an Israel-boycott activist, as part of a fund-raising tour in 2015.
The ministry sees “delegitimization, and BDS as one of its symptoms, as a threat to Israel’s security,” and works closely with pro-Israel networks.” A kind of 24/7 rapid-response team and a philosophy of turning negatives into positives have put BDS on the ropes. The BDS and Palestinian campaign to sanction Israeli soccer because of six teams based in Judea and Samaria failed this month, at least for now.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry’s new offensive strategy comes after 11 years of government policy that focused on conventional public diplomacy toward the rise of the BDS movement: When Erdan took over the ministry he instituted a policy in which it would go on offense against organizations that actively seek to undermine Israel in connection with BDS. The governmental reactive “whack-a-mole” approach to guerrilla warfare-style boycott efforts is now history.
The theme that weaved itself through the Post interviews with the officials is to “make sure they [BDS organizations] are on the defensive and naming and shaming” them for their activities. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy imperative of offense and more offense recalls the line from US Gen. George Patton in the film Patton (1970). “I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything.... We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding anything except the enemy.”
In a similar vein, the officials see their anti-BDS campaign as a “series of battles” within the context of a military campaign.
Some early results of Erdan’s confrontational posture toward BDS-funding streams unfolded last year.
Erdan told the Post in April 2016: “We continue to urge all financial institutions to carefully consider the potential legal, reputational and ethical consequences of facilitating the activities of BDS groups.”
He added, “We have been working extensively over the past half-year to increase awareness among decision-makers in Europe and North America of the antisemitic, anti-democratic and discriminatory nature of the BDS movement, which seeks Israel’s destruction and often has ties to terror-supporting organizations.”
Erdan’s shot across the bow of the financial industry played a key role in the nascent industry bank standard to shun BDS accounts. Erdan’s warning was picked up by then-US senator Mark Kirk (R-Illinois) who cited it in a press release calling for an investigation into German banks supporting BDS. A few months later, Germany’s second largest bank, Commerzbank, closed a BDS account. BDS accounts in France, Ireland, the US, Germany and Austria have been shut since Erdan’s warning.
The officials lauded Erdan as “very involved” in the day-to-day machinery of the ministry’s work. Erdan’s policy is that the days of saying “Don’t do anything about BDS, it will die out” on its own are over, they stressed. “We are taking them out of their comfort zone.” When asked what is the overall goal of ministry’s anti-BDS work, the officials said to ensure that “Israel will be like any other country in the world and no one will question Israel’s right to exist. “Additionally, the ministry seeks to “strengthen the perception that Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.”
The officials outlined the troika model used by Strategic Affairs to blunt the boycott campaign. First, the ministry brings a strategy to the pro-Israel community. Strategic Affairs uses “information superiority in its dog fight” with the boycott movement. Deterrence to make BDS activists sweat about the survivability of their enterprise. The ability to coordinate with the pro-Israel community and keep the anti-BDS movement on the defensive. Public diplomacy – hasbara – to counter the “industry of lies that is affecting the consciousness” of the international public. Examples abound in Israel of the “good stuff” to show.
Second, “the information side” of the ministry’s anti-BDS division’s mission is critical. The Strategic Affairs Ministry “can bring information to the pro-Israel community that no other organization can bring.”
Third, Strategic Affairs infuses anti-BDS efforts with money. The ministry’s budget to fight BDS in 2016 was listed as NIS 120 million. The change in priorities to directly counter the anti-Israel boycott movement represents a sea change in government policy.
“Some people in Israel’s government do not see BDS as a threat to Israel’s security,” said the officials. All of this helps to explain the efforts by the Strategic Affairs Ministry to raise consciousness about the dangers of BDS across the complex set of Israeli government bodies. The ministry sources said that it can use actionable intelligence to quickly “maneuver.” As part of Strategic Affairs’s interdisciplinary approach, it promotes cooperation with other ministries, mainly, the Foreign Ministry: “Combining the public diplomacy capacity of the Foreign Ministry with the research and operation capacity of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs is a national goal.”
The officials said the ministry will not work with Jewish groups – or non-Jewish groups – that support BDS, for example, Jewish Voices for Peace and parts of J Street’s youth organization. The officials said many BDS groups invoke the misleading: “Don’t say we are antisemitic, we have Jews on our side,” in an attempt to hoodwink opponents. Israel’s “state-to-state relations look good,” but within civil society overseas we have a problem, said the officials. The worries centered on the “liberal, progressive generation against Israel.” Countering BDS within the European liberal-left remains a tall order. Pro-Palestinian activists have inculcated crude anti-Israel sentiments into many European labor unions over the past 12 years. Take for example this month’s vote by the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions to impose an economic, cultural and academic boycott against Israel because of the dispute with the Palestinians.
Erdan said last year that “Great Britain is the world center of the anti-Israel BDS campaign.” The germs of the trade union BDS campaigns can be located in the United Kingdom.
Last August, the German Education and Science Workers Union chapter in the city of Oldenburg published an article in its monthly magazine calling for a comprehensive boycott of Israel. It is believed to be Germany’s first labor organization boycott of Jews since the Holocaust. Although the head of the nation-wide union, Marlis Tepe, issued a mild rebuke of the Oldenburg chapter, she has showed little appetite to confront modern expressions of antisemitism like BDS within her union. Tepe declined to respond to Post queries.
The nature of the ministry’s workforce allows for flexibility in addressing the mix of public and private sector BDS activities. In contrast to other Israeli ministries, Strategic Affairs recruited largely from the private sector. “Ninety percent of the ministry’s staff are from outside of the government.” The workforce combines expertise in law, the economy, communications and new media. The anti-BDS division sees itself as “a nerve center within the ministry.”
Israel’s “Start-Up Ministry” has already engendered considerable existential anxiety among BDS groups, as evidenced on their web pages. Merely by tossing its hat in the ring, the ministry has breathed life and fire into the forces that have sought to combat BDS activity.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.