ONE OF the political tricks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has employed to consolidate his power for nearly eight years (or 11, if you include his first spell in the job from 1996-1999) is sowing fear in the Israeli public of real or imaginary external enemies and threats.
Once upon a time it was the PLO or Hamas. Then it was Hezbollah, and then for the past few years, it was Iran and its nuclear program.
Each enemy and threat is magnified by Netanyahu and portrayed as “existential.”
Since the world powers signed a deal last year that delayed for 10 years Iran’s capability to produce a nuclear bomb, the Israeli prime minister has been in search of a new enemy. It seemed he had found one: BDS.
But surprisingly, in late July Netanyahu boasted while briefing a Knesset committee that “we defeated BDS. They have been hit in various arenas and this is the reason their supporters are in defense mode.” It was probably one more moment – and they are in abundance of late – in which Netanyahu showed his excessive self-confidence, arrogance and hubris.
Just a few weeks earlier, Netanyahu and his cabinet held the view that BDS ‒ Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a pro-Palestinian worldwide campaign against Israel ‒ posed a very existential threat.
More than anyone else, Netanyahu’s statement surprised Minister Gilad Erdan. In addition to his position as public security minister in charge of the police, he is also in charge of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which has been assigned to counter BDS efforts, defined by Israeli officials as “the campaign to delegitimize the very existence of the state.”
During a visit to the United Kingdom in early September, Erdan tried to rally British support for the Israeli fight against BDS and the “delegitimization campaign.” But time and again he was confronted and challenged by questions from friendly quarters, who said they were confused by Netanyahu’s statement.
Has BDS been defeated, they asked? It is more likely that Netanyahu wanted to have his cake and eat it, too: he wanted to portray himself both as a winner in the eyes of the Israeli electorate, while still keeping lit the torch of the “fight against BDS.”
The Strategic Affairs Ministry’s language in taking up the BDS challenge is borrowed from the terrorism realm; its previous general director, Ram Ben-Barak, former deputy head of Israel’s foreign espionage agency Mossad, compared the battle against BDS to the fight against terrorism.
His successor, former chief military censor Brig.-Gen. (res.) Sima Vaknin-Gil, adopted his approach. She recently said her mission is to create in the ministry a “community of warriors.”
THE MINISTRY, however, is a superficial creation and redundant. It was established in 2006 to meet the personal needs of current defense minister Avigdor Liberman, when he joined the Olmert government and no ministry was available. Since then, the ministry has shrunk and expanded like elastic to fulfill political and personal aspirations of this party or that politician.
It is not really needed, and has been considered an outcast by the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry and the entire intelligence community, which refuses to cooperate with it and share assessments and intelligence.
In 2105, as Netanyahu was forming his latest (fourth) cabinet, he allocated the ministry to Erdan, who flexed his political muscle and secured a budget of nearly 50 million dollars for operations. Now Vaknin-Gil and Erdan are in the midst of a recruiting spree hiring 25 employees, mostly former officers in Israel’s intelligence community.
The design is to divide the ministry into three major departments. One is intelligence, whose main purpose is to collect information and data on BDS and its activists from both open and covert sources.
The head of the department is Col. Yishai Har-Zvi, a former officer in the IDF with a background in research. This intelligence gathering department will work closely with and be assisted by all the security agencies of the Israeli intelligence community.
The second department is known as “awareness,” or communication, and is assigned to influence the international media and social networks. The third is the department of operations, which will execute the ideas and plans.
All this may sound like simply more bureaucratic gibberish, but there is substance behind it.
In a recent public appearance in July during an anti BDS conference arranged in Israel by the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Erdan detailed his approach by declaring that the Strategic Affairs Ministry will do everything “to expose BDS’s activists, those who are behind them, those who are financing their actions, in order to expose their true intentions and agenda and make the world aware.”
Erdan sees the main mission of his office as serving as a headquarters to mobilize and coordinate all Israeli ministries for the mission.
Two of the most important spheres in which BDS needs to be repelled are cyber and public.
In the past, such efforts to influence the media and the public at large were known as hasbara, public diplomacy, or to put it another way, propaganda.
Funds for the “awareness” campaigns will come from the Strategic Affairs Ministry, but the tasks will be executed by the Foreign, Tourism and Economics ministries. Public leaders and opinion shapers from various fields, such as business executives, trade union leaders, celebrities, artists, journalists, and leaders of ethnic communities around the globe are invited to visit Israel – all expenses covered ‒ in efforts to show that Israel is a free, democratic, pluralistic state, while diverting their attention from the daily reality of the occupation of the West Bank, Jewish settlements, and social and religious tensions.
At the same time, the Foreign Ministry is mobilizing its friends around the globe, especially pro-Israel groups such as the USbased AIPAC or the UK’s BICOM, and using other leverage to persuade the world’s governments, parliaments and corporations to oppose and obstruct legal, public and economic manifestations by BDS supporters to boycott Israel.
The various ministries – with Erdan’s offices taking the lead – are also involved in arranging international conferences abroad.
The purpose of these events is to show that BDS is a troll of the PLO, and is receiving instructions from Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority.
In some cases, the conferences are also partially supported by Jewish groups or with their participation. Such an event was held in July at the UN attended by Israeli Ambassador Danny Danon, and Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. These actions can be described as legal, routine and part of public diplomacy.
Problems could arise, however, if the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s department of operations goes underground and tries to execute, directly or indirectly, special operations ‒ which also could be called “black operations” ‒ as Erdan has hinted. Such measures can turn into ugly campaigns of smearing, threats, and invasion of privacy of BDS activists and supporters.
The BDS movement already blames Israeli intelligence for a series of smear campaigns and cyber-attacks against its websites.
RECENTLY, THE newspaper Haaretz published the strange case of Palestinian lawyer Nada Kiswanson, who with another attorney represented the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq in Holland. After Kiswanson submitted a report to the International Criminal Court demanding the investigation of alleged Israeli war crimes during the summer of the Gaza war in 2014, she received phone threats. Although no one took responsibility for the threats and the cyber warfare, the prime suspect is Israel since it is no secret that Erdan’s offices, as well as the Israeli intelligence community, are eager to exercise all measures available against BDS.
Fortunately, Erdan’s office is not its own master, and his actions must be approved by the Justice Ministry and attorney-general.
These legal bureaucrats, who see themselves as guardians of Israeli and international law, fear that the overeagerness and passion for action and covert operations by Erdan and his officials will damage Israel’s relationships with the international community in general, especially its friends in the West.
In that sense, the Justice Ministry is the last gatekeeper of Israel as a democratic society and member of the body of international law-abiding nations. Nevertheless, the battle between paranoid and adventurist politicians such as Netanyahu and Erdan and the legalist and conscience-minded officials has not been determined.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman