Netanyahu Tells Knesset Panel: We Have Defeated the BDS Movement

Prime minister says he has no intention of holding on to foreign minister post forever, adding that he is not the cause for the stalemate in peace, rejecting claims that settlements damage Israel's standing abroad.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 25, 2016.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, July 25, 2016. Olivier FItoussi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Israel has defeated the BDS movement and said he would not hold on the foreign minister portfolio forever, adding that there is no current Palestinian partner for peace.

The prime minister arrived on Monday for a special session of the State Control Committee on the Foreign Ministry and Israel’s public diplomacy and responded to criticism that he has yet to name a foreign minister. Netanyahu stated that he does not intend to hold "the foreign minister portfolio forever." He also defended his personal lawyer, Isaac Molho, who serves as his representative for various diplomatic missions.

The session is the first significant and open meeting about the Foreign Ministry since Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009. Netanyahu has controlled the Foreign Ministry portfolio since the elections were held last year. The meeting was held to discuss two reports published by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira on May 24, which exposed a list of Israeli failures against the BDS movement and in the state hasbara (public diplomacy) system.

Shapira blamed an erosion of authority in the Foreign Ministry, pointing to the transfer of roles to other ministries, a lack of coordination and power struggles taking place among the various ministries. The comptroller said these transfers of responsibility had hurt the government’s struggle against BDS, anti-Semitism and global attempts to delegitimize Israel, as well as Israel’s public diplomacy abroad.

Netanyahu rejected the majority of the comptroller's criticism and responded cynically to questions posed by lawmakers. “I have dealt with the Foreign Ministry for 35 years. I think I understand something about it,” Netanyahu said in response to a question by committee chairwoman MK Karin Elharrar (Yesh Atid) who asked by Israel has not had a full-time foreign minister since the March 2015 election.

The prime minister pulled out a world map, color-coded to illustrate how Israel’s foreign relations have improved. “People say we are isolated,” he said. “What isolation are we talking about?”

“We are acting against BDS and this is why they are on the defensive,” he added, noting that anti-Israel activists around the world are now being forced to fight over the issue of whether they even have a right to boycott Israel. “They are taking hits of many fronts. We have beaten them.”

“I do not accept the claim that all foreign policy issues should be dealt with by the Foreign Ministry," Netanyahu added.

Addressing claims that he had dismantled the Foreign Ministry and divided up its responsibilities, Netanyahu said: “I examine things according to results ... Foreign policy is made by the prime minister and that is obvious.”

“Soon I will release myself from a number of portfolios and this will make it easier for me to deal with tasks I define as important,” he added.

In a remark aimed at Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid, Netanyahu said: “Hasbara is not a goal in its own right, unless you are a virtual politician and deal with a virtual world.”

A representative of the State Comptroller’s Office told the committee that the Foreign Ministry had been continuously weakened internally, both administratively, in terms of manpower and in the professional planning of diplomacy, including a deterioration in the relationship between the Foreign Ministry and the defense establishment. The report noted redundant responsibilities between the Foreign Ministry and other ministries.

Netanyahu dismissed the claims during the meeting: “You are dealing with processes — I don’t deal with processes. Processes are important but results are more important.” At one point, Netanyahu insisted that Elharrar show a clip of him shaking hands with various world leaders.

Elharrar and other MKs questioned the coordination between the various government bodies that deal with hasbara, as well as Shapira’s complaints about the failures during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during the summer of 2014.

Netanyahu rejected their objections. "The supreme test is whether they will tie our hands when we need to defend ourselves,” he said, adding that during the two most recent Gaza military operations, no one was able to force a UN Security Council resolution on Israel.

The only question that made Netanyahu lose his calm during the meeting came from MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union). She asked him why Molho runs Israel’s foreign relations and not the Foreign Ministry. Elharrar added that Knesset members cannot supervise Molho’s work and asked Netanyahu if he thought that appropriate.

“With all due respect, you don’t know what Isaac Molho does and that’s a good thing,” responded a visibly angry Netanyahu. “Instead of slapping Molho here, you need to shake his hand. The oversight of him is a secondary matter. All prime ministers used this type of representative or another. Molho does not deal with promoting his personal matters. He is an honest man. Everyone who knows him knows it.”

At this point Netanyahu read aloud a note he had received from his chief of staff, David Sharan. “Hillel Kobrinsky, a private businessman, served as a senior adviser to Finance Minister Yair Lapid,” said Netanyahu in an attempt to put an end to the criticism concerning Molho.

After the meeting, Svetlova said she would ask Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to examine the propriety of Molho’s employment as Netanyahu’s diplomatic representative.

MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) attacked Netanyahu, saying, “Hasbara will not help even when you speak excellent English with a Republican accent.” She accused the prime minister of presenting a “virtual reality” with his map, and said that in the test of diplomatic results, he has failed time after time, especially concerning the nuclear agreement with Iran.

Netanyahu responded that “if not for Israel’s diplomatic action and other actions, Iran would have obtained nuclear weapons long ago.” Concerning the criticism of his address to the U.S. Congress on the Iran nuclear deal, he said the speech was “essential,” because “when the prime minister of Israel thinks there’s something that endangers Israel, it’s his obligation to appear before the ones making the decision.”

He also noted that U.S. President Obama urged the British to vote against leaving the European Union, “and no one said a word.”

Livni asked why he had asked all the coalition parties to sign an agreement on initiatives in the area of communications and media, but did not require all his coalition partners to accept the principle of two states for two people.

“I am leading a policy of two states for two peoples,” he answered. “If we will have a partner for [peace], we will bring it for a decision. I don’t bring things to a decision today because there is no partner … The probability that a Palestinian leader can be found today who will make the required compromises is very low. I hope I am wrong, but in my opinion not many people disagree with me,” he said.

Netanyahu also dismissed the criticism that construction in the settlements causes diplomatic and public relations damage to Israel. “We tried a building freeze in the settlements and it didn’t help,” he said. “[Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] did not come to negotiations, but ran away. The idea that we must uproot and ethnically cleanse the Jews who live in Judea and Samaria — I don’t accept it. I don’t think it is what is preventing an agreement.”

“What are you talking about?" asked MK Zehava Galon, the chairwoman of Meretz. "Israel is under harsh international criticism because of your policy.”

Netanyahu answered: “I am not the reason that there is no peace. Not Rabin, not Olmert, not Sharon either and also not Barak. Should I tell you who is delegitimizing Israel? I would answer you but I will spare your honor.”

"Since Operation Protective Edge, our coordination with Arab countries in the region is growing, even if you don't know about it," he said.