Israeli Ministries Feud Over anti-BDS Warfare in U.K.

Diplomats warn that actions of ministry other than the Foreign Ministry are in potential violation of British law.

A woman holds a sign reading 'Boycott Israel' while attending a demonstration supporting Gaza, Berlin, Germany, August 1, 2014.
Steffi Loos, Reuters

In a cable to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the nation’s embassy in London protested this week against the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s coordination of activity against the BDS movement.

The cable accused the ministry of “operating” British Jewish organizations behind the embassy’s back in a way that could put them in violation of British law and undermine Israeli-British relations.

A copy of the cable obtained by Haaretz, said that when Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan visited London about two weeks ago, embassy officials met several times with senior Strategic Affairs Ministry officials to coordinate activities against the local boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Embassy officials sought to reinforce understandings reached previously between Erdan’s ministry and the Foreign Ministry to coordinate their activities, but that only the Foreign Ministry would work directly with people or organizations overseas.

They urged Erdan’s advisers “not to pose as the embassy,” and the advisers promised not to do so.

But a few days later, an incident occurred in violation of these understandings, infuriating both embassy personnel and Foreign Ministry officials in Jerusalem.

Asher Friedman, the Strategic Affairs Ministry official responsible for contact with the Diaspora Jewry, asked a senior official in Britain’s Jewish community to use his connections to thwart an anti-Israel campaign by the Palestinians, the cable said. Friedman contacted the official directly rather than via the embassy and didn’t even inform the embassy he was doing so.

The Jewish official was surprised to be approached by the Strategic Affairs Ministry and immediately voiced his objections to the embassy, both orally and in writing, as well as to the heads of other British Jewish organizations. He even hinted that the ministry’s behavior could cause problems for him and his organization, the cable said.

“Attempts to act behind our back have happened before and will again, but ‘operating’ Jewish organizations directly from Jerusalem, with no coordination and no consultation, is liable to be dangerous,” the cable said. “Operating like this could encounter opposition from the organizations themselves, given their legal status; Britain isn’t the U.S.!”

“The Strategic Affairs Ministry must understand that ‘operating’ organizations directly from Jerusalem, by email and telephone, isn’t good for their health,” the cable added. “It’s not clear the Strategic Affairs Ministry understands the significance of local law with regard to the activities of charities.”

The potential legal problem stems from the fact that most British Jewish organizations are defined as charities. As such, they are barred from activity of a political nature unless it is directly connected to the organization’s charitable goals. Efforts to counter BDS, especially if directed from Jerusalem, could be considered political activity, or even activity on behalf of a foreign government on British soil.

“The embassy works closely and in full coordination with Jewish organizations,” the cable said. “‘Operating’ them from Jerusalem is like ‘flooring it in neutral’ ... There’s no benefit in such operations without informing and consulting us.”

The incidents over the past few months are part and parcel of the murky relationship between the Foreign Ministry and the Strategic Affairs Ministry. The tension between these two bodies stems mainly from the fact that many powers and a lot of funding were taken from the Foreign Ministry and transferred to the Strategic Affairs Ministry under the political agreements between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the former and current strategic affairs ministers, Moshe Ya’alon and Erdan.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry said in response:  “We work in coordination with the Israeli embassy in Britain and the Foreign Ministry. Every action is done according to the law and in accordance with government decisions and the ministry’s authority. We regret there are elements in the Foreign Ministry who don’t understand the division of responsibilities between the ministries and prefer to deal with struggles of honor instead of focusing on our goals.”

A state comptroller’s report published in May said that the erosion in the Foreign Ministry’s powers and their transfer to other ministries, coupled with a lack of coordination and power struggles among the various ministries, have undermined the government’s battle against BDS and attempts to delegitimize Israel overseas. In this report, State Comptroller Joseph Shapira implied that he considers the Foreign Ministry the agency best suited to lead this battle.

The report highlighted the absurdity of giving the Strategic Affairs Ministry most of the money for fighting BDS, while it lacks the ability to put it to use, whereas the Foreign Ministry has the professional knowledge and experience to take action, but doesn’t receive the money it needs to do so. It ended by urging the government to reconsider the existing division of labor.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said that while his ministry’s budget has been cut dramatically, paralyzing many activities, the Strategic Affairs Ministry received a large budget, 128 million shekels ($34 million) year, with which to combat BDS. This means that if the Foreign Ministry wants to do anything against BDS, it effectively has to apply to the Strategic Affairs Ministry for funding.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry was supposed to focus on setting priorities, coordinating among all the different bodies involved in fighting BDS and allocating money for anti-BDS activity. But instead, the official charged, it is increasingly engaged in conducting anti-BDS activity in the Foreign Ministry’s stead, despite lacking the tools to do the job properly.