government meeting
Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz (L), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit (R) at government meeting January 26, 2014. Photo by Emil Salman
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Government ministries are sharply divided on how to handle the increasing threat of international boycotts and sanctions against Israel over the West Bank occupation and settlements. The Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Ministry, headed by Yuval Steinitz, advocates a public relations counter-offensive, but the Foreign Ministry, led by Avigdor Lieberman, argues that this would play into the hands of boycott activists.

Meanwhile, Norway’s Ministry of Finance announced yesterday that it will exclude Israeli firms Africa Israel Investments and Danya Cebus from its Government Pension Fund - Global, a vast fund that invests the country’s oil and gas wealth in foreign stocks and bonds.

According to the announcement, the Norwegian ministry received a recommendation on November 1 from the nation’s Council of Ethics to exclude the two companies from the fund “due to contribution to serious violations of individual rights in war or conflict through the construction of settlements in East Jerusalem.”

A discussion on how to deal with the boycott challenge had been scheduled for Wednesday in the Prime Minister’s Office. But due to the crisis between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, it was put off to next week. The discussion is also meant to set anti-boycott strategy and policy for the government as a whole.

However, senior officials said the ministries are divided over how to handle the threat and even about its severity. Other obstacles to setting strategy are the lack of coordination within the cabinet, turf wars, insufficient information about the boycott organizers and a shortage of funds.

On June 23 of last year, Netanyahu said at the weekly cabinet session that he had put the Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Ministry in charge of dealing with the boycott threat, including “the coordination of efforts with the organizations in Israel and the world to deal with the phenomenon directed against Israel and the Jewish people.”

Netanyahu had said the ministry would get all the 
authority and means required for the campaign.

But that meant transferring authority from Lieberman’s office to Steinitz’s, and at the time there was no full-time foreign minister as Lieberman was still embroiled in the criminal proceedings against him, of which he was ultimately acquitted.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said Netanyahu’s decision at the time grew out of a scheme by Steinitz, his ministry’s director-general Yossi Kuperwasser and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who had appointed Kuperwasser during his, Ya’alon’s, term as strategic affairs minister in the previous government.

Steinitz and Kuperwasser contend that what they call Israel’s “delegitimization” is a grave, widespread trend, and they are in favor of an aggressive public campaign against the boycott organizers. The two maintain that the campaign requires considerable resources.

In recent weeks Steinitz and Kuperwasser have drafted a plan for the campaign, which they intend to submit for approval at the discussion Netanyahu plans to hold next week.

Steinitz is demanding 100 million shekels (about $28.5 million) to implement the plan, which consists mainly of public diplomacy as well as legal measures against the groups encouraging the boycotts.

Steinitz’s aides said that in keeping with the prime minister’s instructions, “the minister is putting together an overall plan to fight the delegitimization. He has no intention of commenting on the figures since the plan is still being drafted.”

Diplomats in the Foreign Ministry, however, have a completely different approach. They believe Steinitz and Kuperwasser have overblown the threat and branded as “delegitimization” the legitimate criticism from foreign governments and NGOs of Israel’s policy in the territories, especially settlement construction.

Regarding the Norwegian decision, the government’s pension fund had excluded the Israeli companies from August 2010 to August 2013 for settlement-related similar reasons. “The Ministry of Finance has decided to follow the Council’s recommendation,” the ministry stated.

The pension fund holds more than 1 percent of all global stocks. It owned shares worth 7.2 million Norwegian kroner (‏$1.16 million) in Africa Israel Investments as of the end of 2009.

Netanyahu told Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg during a meeting with her in Davos last week that the Oslo government had become more balanced in its relations with Israel since the latest election.

Last month The Netherlands’ largest pension fund management company decided to withdraw all its investments from Israel’s five largest banks because they have branches in the West Bank, or are involved in financing construction in the settlements.