Prime Minister's Office: It's Not in Israel's Interest to Make Noise Over BDS Movement

Knesset meeting reveals that Strategic Affairs Ministry has been allotted $32.8 million in fight against Israel boycott movement, while Foreign Ministry was allotted just $10 million.

Yarden Vatikai addresses the Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs Wednesday, February 3, 2016.
Olivier Fitoussi

Yarden Vatikai, Director of the National Information Directorate (Hasbara) in the prime minister's office, said during a meeting of the Knesset Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Wednesday that Israel has no interest in authorizing media engagement of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that operates against Israel worldwide. 

"We didn't think we need to talk about it a lot but we live in a world of media and there is also reality [to consider]," he said.

The discussion that took place in the Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, headed by MK Michael Oren (Kulanu), was open to the media, which is rare. The meeting, attended by representatives from the prime minister's office, the Foreign Ministry, the Strategic Affairs Ministry, the Finance Ministry, and an IDF spokesperson, focused on Israeli Hasbara and how to deal with the "threat of de-legitimization."

During the meeting, MK Anat Berko (Likud) answered Vatikai's comments, saying that Israel should attack BDS activists with a greater use of strategy, including in the media. She said that Israel must deal with what she called "anti-Israel protest tourism," which draws foreign civilians to the West Bank to protest the Israeli occupation. 

"Why aren't we dealing with protest tourism?" she asked. "European women drink and celebrate there."

Vatikai responded that he doesn't believe that Israel will benefit from broad media engagement against BDS' actions and used as an example the strategy of the Hasbara campaign against the last few flotillas to Gaza

"We wanted there to be as little coverage as possible and that's what happened," he said.

Vatikai also used an opposite example in which there was the need to increase media engagement on a specific issue – the claims that 13-year-old Palestinian Ahmed Mansara had been executed after carrying out a stabbing attack in Jerusalem – in order to repel criticism of Israel. The Hasbara director admitted for the first time that the prime minister's office was behind the release of the photos of the child in the hospital proving that he was still alive. 

"We sent photographers to the room of the terrorist child Ahmed Mansara at Hadassah hospital and gave the photos to the media," he said.

A representative responsible for confronting the BDS movement from the Strategic Affairs Ministry said that the ministry was allotted 130 million shekels [about $32.8 million] in 2016 to doing their job and granted increased manpower. "We're at five employees right now, but we received 30 more positions [to fill]," he said.

Knesset members present in the discussion, including a team from the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, tried to understand the need for a Strategic Affairs Ministry if the majority of the battle against BDS is being fought by representatives of the Foreign Ministry across the world. 

A representative of the Strategic Affairs Ministry explained that his office doesn't try to replace the Foreign Ministry but to help it and organize between different bodies. He also stated that all employees of the Strategic Affairs Ministry are located in Israel and not abroad. 

"We have no intention of replacing other ministries on Hasbara and foreign relations. We want to focus on de-legitimization against Israel," he added.

It was Noam Katz, head of the Foreign Ministry's Hasbara department, who presented a worrying picture regarding Israeli Hasbara. He pointed out that the Foreign Ministry's Hasbara budget in 2015 was only 40 million shekels and also cited the Hasbara budget of the embassy in Sweden, one of the countries most critical of Israel, which received just $19,000 in 2015.

"There are 327,000 articles on Israel in the international media every year. Most of this exposure is very negative," he said. "After the investment of 50 million shekels on the Israeli exhibit at Expo in Milan, we saw in surveys we conducted in Italy that Israel's image in the eyes of Italians improved and their exposure the discussion of boycott against Israel decreased. Hasbara can't be done cheaply. Some actions cost money. More money for the right Hasbara actions will improve Israel's situation."