Opinion

Israel's Ministry of Silly Affairs

Lara Alqasem is the latest victim of the superfluous Strategic Affairs Ministry, headed by an over-reaching amateur to sow panic about the virtual reality BDS movement. It's a classic political farce that's now actually damaging Israel's foreign relations

US student Lara Alqasem sits for a hearing at the Tel Aviv district Court on October 11, 2018
AFP

A few months ago I was invited to a meeting with an official at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs. Since the meeting was on deep background terms, I can’t actually say who I met or what I was told, but the truth is I learned nothing I didn’t already know. We spent an hour politely arguing over whether Israel is facing a real threat of "delegitimization" and whether it actually needed a ministry to confront this threat.

Leaving, I felt transported nearly four decades back in time, to the BBC’s classic political comedy, Yes Minister, where the hapless politician Jim Hacker finds himself surrounded by silk-tongued conniving civil servants, out to frustrate each and every one of his policy initiatives.

Hacker’s ministry is the Department of Administrative Affairs, and in one episode, when faced with plans to abolish the unquestionably superfluous department, he makes common cause with his bureaucracy to save their place of work.

The Select Committee I founded, it's a great success. Oh, indeed, what has it achieved? Nothing yetYouTube

Perhaps, suggests Principal Private Secretary Bernard Woolley, they could run a media campaign, with slogans like "Administration Saves the Nation," "Red Tape Is Fun” or even "Red Tape Keeps The Nation Together."

That was more or less the level of my conversation at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, only we were nowhere near as funny as Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay’s scriptwriting.

I was thinking about the Department of Administrative Affairs again this week, when Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan was flailing around, trying to explain what terrible threat a 22 year-old American student - who wants to study for her masters degree at Hebrew University - poses to Israel, and would justify her being held (for over a week now) in the detention facility at Ben-Gurion Airport.

Erdan’s claim that Lara Alqasem, who cannot leave the airport and may miss the academic term in Jerusalem starting next week – if she isn't deported - is not under arrest because she is free to return to the United States, was almost worthy of Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Appleby had the perfect description of ministers like Erdan: "Politicians like to panic. They need activity. It’s their substitute for achievement."

It’s tempting to borrow from another iconic BBC comedy and call it the Ministry of Silly Affairs, but the tax-payer has been paying for this silliness - and now it’s damaging Israel’s foreign relations, especially its ties with the Diaspora.

Monty Python's Ministry of Silly WalksYouTube

It really is a very silly place, founded in 2006 by two of Israel’s most corrupt politicians. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, reeling from failure and scandal, was saved from oblivion by Avigdor Lieberman. Fed up with being in opposition, Lieberman agreed to prop up Olmert but as he was himself under investigation for money-laundering, couldn’t get the job he wanted of Internal Security minister, in charge of the police.

So they invented the title - Strategic Affairs Minister, which really meant nothing except that Lieberman attended the security cabinet.

When Lieberman left government in 2008, the title and the fake ministry ceased to exist. But the next year, Benjamin Netanyahu, returned to office, resurrected it to compensate Moshe Ya'alon, after welching on his promise to make him Defense Minister.

Ya'alon was more ambitious. Hiring a team of retired security officials, he searched for a role. But no one in the Israeli security establishment gives up their powers, and the ministry under Ya'alon mainly produced studies and papers on critical matters such as incitement in Palestinian textbooks.

The next minister was Yuval Steinitz, a Netanyahu loyalist left without a real job after the 2013 election. Steinitz was the one who came up with the genius idea of dedicating the ministry to "fighting delegitimization and BDS," drew up an ambitious plan and demanded 100 million shekels to implement it. He was laughed out of cabinet.

It was chiefly Lieberman, by then foreign minister, who blocked any allocation of funds to his former ministry, explaining that if anyone would be fighting delegitimization of Israel, it would be his own professional diplomats. And the other Strategic Affairs alumnus, Defense Minister Ya'alon, didn’t show any inclination to helping out with his massive defense budget either.

As John Cleese righteously complains in that immortal sketch – "Last year the government spent less on the Ministry of Silly Walks than it did on national defense."

There’s a reason I’m going into all this ministerial minutiae. The evolution of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs may be a farcical story, but it proves an important fact: At no point, over the last ten years or so, was there a serious move by the government to put "delegitimization" and boycotts high on the policy agenda.

Sure, there were pompous government decisions and statements, and even an amendment to the Entry Law passed last year, prohibiting the entry of boycott supporters, though that didn’t really change the existing situation, under which the interior minister, at his discretion, could block their entry anyway .

Pro-BDS activists at a protest against President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Republique Square, Paris, France. Dec. 9, 2017
Kamil Zihnioglu / AP

But this was all empty talk. Netanyahu could have intervened on Steinitz’s behalf, but he didn’t see it as a priority. He may occasionally make a speech against those trying to delegimitize Israel, but those are just populist declaration intended to stoke his supporters’ siege mentality. He knows full well that Israel, with its burgeoning foreign relations and growing exports, is not at risk of any serious boycott.

"You can argue over whether confronting delegitimization is important or not," said a security official who was involved in the intra-ministerial fighting at the time. "The fact is that no other ministry or security service saw it as a priority or were prepared to put any resources in it." No-one that it is, except bored ministers trying to create panic as a substitute for activity.

When there has been a specific directive from the very top to stop dedicated anti-Israel activists from entering the country - as there was, for example, in 2011 or 2012 to block the planned Palestinian solidarity "Flytillas," the full might of Israeli intelligence is focused on the issue and the flight-lists are scrutinized in advance. Most of the activists are prevented from even boarding at their destination, and the rest are detained and deported upon arrival. Whether or not it’s justified is immaterial. It works swiftly and efficiently.

But most of the time, those who decide on allocation of valuable resources will never dedicate them to non-existent threats. Even the former Strategic Affairs ministers, upon finding themselves in positions of true responsibility, make the same decision.

Steinitz is Netanyahu’s acolyte, a weak politician lacking a political base of his own. Without the prime minister’s support, he was doomed to fail. He was relieved to move to the Energy Ministry after the 2015 election. Once again, it looked like the Ministry of Strategic Affairs had ceased to exist.

But there was to be a new minister. Gilad Erdan, one of the most popular young Likud ministers,demanded after the 2015 election an upgrade to the powerful Interior Ministry. But Netanyahu instead gave it to Shas leader Arye Dery, and offered Erdan the far less lucrative Internal Security brief instead. Erdan refused, and remained for a week on the backbenches, until Netanyahu managed to cajole him in to cabinet with a few added sweeteners, including the abandoned Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Erdan sniffed an opportunity. Announcing his return to government, he said he was taking upon himself "a national mission" to fight the boycott of Israel. He declared he had set a policy of moving from "defense to offense" against BDS. And unlike Steinitz, he had secured funding from Netanyahu, which enabled him to expand the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gilad Erdan, now Minister for Strategic Affairs. Jerusalem, October 8, 2015
\ REUTERS

But money wasn’t enough. To track BDS activists, he needed intelligence - and not one of Israel’s spy agencies were prepared to give his ministry access to their databases. Even if they had, says one insider, they would have found that Mossad and Shin Bet and the rest simply hadn’t wasted their time on such inconsequential targets.

So Erdan tried to set up his own database but was shot down, this time by the attorney-general, who ruled that the ministry did not have the legal power to collect such information. Erdan didn’t have the political backing for the necessary legislation. But he didn’t give up.

A shadowy corporation was set up, to channel funds and maintain discreet links with like-minded organizations abroad. He directed the ministry to embed itself with the border-control officials at Ben-Gurion Airport and back at headquarters, there were researchers poised to google any suspicious name.

This is the main reason behind the highly-publicized recent rash of cases in which American Jewish journalists and activists have found themselves detained for hours for ridiculous political questioning at the airport.

Last week, Haaretz’s Noa Landau revealed that the "database" now being used by the Ministry of Strategic is an American website called Canary Mission, which has become notorious across the U.S. for intimidating faculty and students for any hint of criticism of Israel. The Forward has reported that one of funders of Canary Mission was a foundation controlled by the San Francisco Jewish Federation. 

What a sad amateurish joke. A grandly-titled Israeli ministry has been reduced to using a muckraking and vicious foreign website, funded by American Jews, to police the thoughts of American Jews visiting Israel. Israel-Diaspora cooperation has indeed reached new and extraordinary heights.

And what a victory for the virtual-reality BDS "movement," that in 11 years has failed to achieve anything beyond bullying a few artists not to perform in Israel, and getting local councils - who never had any investments in Israel - to divest from it. Now it’s the Israeli government that is helping it enforce the boycott and prevent an American student from studying in an Israeli university.

There’s a perfectly valid debate to be had on whether a country should allow critics who question its very right to exist enter. Should this be a matter of principle? Or would it be better to allow in anyone who has no violent intentions, rather than making martyrs and handing them free publicity?

But at this point, there’s absolutely no question that the Strategic Affairs minister, with his cack-handed intervention, has done more to publicize the boycott movement than any of its empty victories could ever have done.

In a few months, after the elections, like all his ministerial colleagues, Erdan will try and upgrade his status. It won’t be easy. Netanyahu’s survival strategy is to give the main portfolios to the other coalition partners and minimize their incentive to leave his government. Erdan and the other Likudniks will be left to fight for scraps.

The worthless Strategic Affairs will once again be kept in reserve to compensate a disgruntled member of the prime minister’s party. The new Strategic Affairs minister may decide to keep the silly ministry focused on delegitimization, or find another phantom menace to take on.

Either way, I hope that before Erdan moves on, the weedy online activists of BDS award him a special prize for serving as their greatest champion.