Israeli Foreign Ministry Director Slams Government’s Clandestine anti-BDS Arm

The clash at the Knesset Transparency Committee highlighted infighting between the foreign and strategic affairs ministries

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Stategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan, October 2017.
Amit Shabi

The director general of the Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem, escalated its spat with the Strategic Affairs Ministry on Monday, accusing it of operating in the dark.

Rotem charged that the staff of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is headed at the cabinet level by Likud Knesset member Gilad Erdan, insist on joining overseas delegations and then hide what they’re doing. The spat began with the Strategic Affairs Ministry complaining to the Knesset’s Transparency Committee that in fact the Foreign Ministry was uncooperative.

“The people at the Strategic Affairs Ministry join Foreign Ministry delegations, then when they get there, they disappear. They don’t report on their actions, they hide the content of their actions and it’s impossible to know what they did and where they went,” Rotem told the Transparency Committee.

Incensed at the allegations, the Strategic Affairs Ministry called the allegations strange: “We know nothing about ministry people joining Foreign Ministry delegations and certainly about them disappearing. We thank the director general of the Foreign Ministry for his concern and can report that the ministry people are present and working zealously against the boycott and legitimization movements [BDS], according to the mandate given them by government.”

Rotem’s gripe about alleged Strategic Affairs Ministry’s secrecy followed an earlier complaint by the Strategic Affairs Ministry that the Foreign Ministry was uncooperative due to “ego and budget battles”.

The Knesset Transparency Committee is headed by Knesset member Stav Shaffir of the Zionist Union. At the committee session, Shaffir asked whether the Foreign Ministry was counselling to simply ignore the BDS movement, which would run counter to the position of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.

Rotem confirmed that the Foreign Ministry has not changed its position and indeed believes the BDS movement should be ignored.

“The Strategic Affairs Ministry was set up through a cabinet resolution, and we work with them as with all government clerks . I voiced my opinion in all the relevant discussions before decisions were made, but the moment the decisions are made, I carry them out,” Rotem said.

The moment the Strategic Affairs Ministry was created, Rotem explicitly directed that the Foreign Ministry cooperate with it on all fronts, and it does so, the Foreign Ministry stated.

“Regarding complaints to the Transparency Committee that the Foreign Ministry isn’t cooperating, the director general [Rotem] said there are unfortunate cases in which the other side [the Strategic Affairs Ministry] operates overseas without transparency,” the Foreign Ministry said, but added that the two ministries have to cooperate in dealing with “shared challenges”.

It bears noting that Israel has no full-time foreign minister at this time: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has retained the portfolio. In that regard, Rotem said that it makes “life simpler – because I’m just one phone call away from the boss, which shortens procedures and makes it possible for decisions to be made faster.”

Asked what role is played by deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely, and whether her statements reflect the ministry’s position, Rotem said that he has only one minister who calls the shots.

Regarding the ministry’s attempts to bridge the widening rift between liberal American Jews and Israel, Rotem said that he feels the difficulties that Reform rabbis are facing: “I am trying to create an agenda that brings the rabbis back, enlists them from a political and community standpoint.” It is a huge strategic problem that young American Jews are growing more distant from Israel: “We need them with us,” he said.

During the committee session, Shaffir criticized the absence of transparency in the Foreign Ministry’s policy. “I think the citizens of Israel want to understand what’s going on with Israel’s foreign affairs as well,” she said. “They see the prime minister making costly, long visits around the world, to India and Russia, then there are UN votes and all these countries vote against us, and the Indian prime minister visits the Palestinian Authority, goes to visit [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat’s grave and delivers messages that are the reverse of Netanyahu’s,” Shaffir said.

“It’s clear to anyone watching these performances that something is not working, that the Foreign Ministry and foreign affairs network is intensely dysfunctional,” Shaffir continued. “To critique [the ministry], we need to lead to budgetary and operational transparency. The people of Israel pay the money. The Foreign Ministry’s budgets and salaries are public money. Yet you do everything to conceal most of the relevant information from the public,” she said.

Strategic Affairs Minister Erdan and Prime Minister Netanyahu
Olivier Fitoussi