Watchdog: Power Struggles Between Ministries Hindered Israel's Battle Against BDS

Two highly critical state comptroller reports detail how the creation of new ministries in 2009, at the Foreign Ministry’s expense, hobbled Israel’s battles against boycotts and global anti-Semitism.

An Egyptian boycott activist holds a BDS pin (illustrative).
AP

The two reports released on Tuesday by State Comptroller Joseph Shapira — one on efforts to counter BDS, the other on Israeli public diplomacy abroad — point up how the erosion of the Foreign Ministry’s authority, by delegating its duties to other ministries, combined with a lack of coordination and power struggles among the different ministries, have hurt the government’s efforts in these areas.

Consequently, the state comptroller finds, Israel is failing in its image-building efforts around the world. “Israel is not effectively countering the overt hostility from different parties abroad that cast doubt on Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish nation-state,” the report says. “The messages they are broadcasting to the public at large are also seeping into groups that once supported Israel unreservedly.”

The state comptroller explained in great detail how, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, there has been a steady transfer of duties from the Foreign Ministry to other ministries, with authorities often overlapping between one ministry and another.

Authority for handling the campaign against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movements was gradually transferred from the Foreign Ministry to the Strategic Affairs Ministry. The latter was resurrected after the 2009 election as a consolation prize for Moshe Ya’alon, a position of political-military authority to make up for his not being appointed defense minister. According to the state comptroller’s report, in 2009 the foreign and strategic affairs ministries vied for jurisdiction over the anti-BDS battle, and it was three years before Netanyahu tried to settle the issue. In 2012 he sent a letter to both ministers laying out the general boundaries of each ministry’s responsibilities, but Netanyahu’s effort failed when both ministers rejected the terms.

The power struggles continued, the report states. The Strategic Affairs Ministry pressured the prime minister to assign it greater responsibility for the anti-BDS efforts at the expense of the Foreign Ministry. In 2013, Netanyahu gave in, delegating more authority in this area — and significant funds — to the Strategic Affairs Ministry.

But the changes did nothing to improve the anti-BDS campaign, Shapira’s report found. “Despite receiving expanded authority in 2013 to run the government’s campaign against the delegitimization and boycott efforts against Israel, the Strategic Affairs Ministry did not make full use of its budget and had no significant achievements in this area,” the report states, adding, “In 2015, it still did not carry out its work plans.”

After the 2015 election, Gilad Erdan was appointed minister of strategic affairs, in addition to information minister and public security minister. At his urging, the inner cabinet passed a resolution that gave the Strategic Affairs Ministry responsibility for the anti-boycott campaign but specified that the Foreign Ministry would retain continue to be in charge of these activities beyond Israel’s borders — which accounts for the vast majority of these efforts. The resolution only exacerbated the power struggles and the cabinet’s inability to end them.

In his report, the state comptroller implies that he accepts the Foreign Ministry’s argument that it is best suited to wage the anti-boycott campaign. Shapira describes a situation in which the Strategic Affairs Ministry enjoys a far larger budget for such activities but cannot do much with it, while the Foreign Ministry has the requisite capabilities but lacks the money needed to exploit its potential. He calls on the government to reexamine the division of responsibilities between the two ministries.

Specifically, he noted that “The Strategic Affairs Ministry still lacks the Foreign Ministry’s inherent advantages, including knowledge and professional experience, the infrastructure of 106 missions throughout the world, combined with a deep, years-long familiarity with local social and cultural attitudes in each nation needed to effectively combat BDS; in addition, it has unmediated access to the battlefield and to collaboration with sympathetic groups and organizations abroad. These advantages could strengthen the government activity in this field. ... The inner cabinet should reexamine the model for combating the foreign delegitimization and boycott movements.”

The comptroller paints a similar picture of the efforts to combat anti-Semitism worldwide, with paralysis as a result of power struggles and overlapping authority. In this case, he found that the foreign and diaspora affairs ministries “operate on parallel tracks that have not yielded significant results.”

After Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009, the Diaspora Affairs and Public Diplomacy Ministry was created, for the purpose of giving Yuli Edelstein a sufficiently large position, and responsibility for diaspora affairs, including combating anti-Semitism, was transferred to it from the Prime Minister’s Office. The Foreign Ministry’s diaspora affairs desk continued its work on the issue.

In January 2010, a team with representatives from the foreign and the diaspora affairs ministries was formed to draw up understandings regarding anti-Semitism activities. The committee submitted its report to the cabinet six months later, but in the more than six years that have passed there has been no serious discussion of it by the government and no decisions have been taken.

Here, too, the state comptroller found an inverse relationship between the two ministries’ respective capabilities and funding allocations. Shapira writes that in recent years, the Foreign Ministry’s activity on combating anti-Semitism lacked formal authority, accountability and earmarked funds, and as a result was greatly hampered. At the same time, “the government did not insist on obtaining from the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the agency that is authorized to deal with the topic, detailed plans containing time lines, general goals, types of activity, work methods and benchmarks for success,” he writes.

The comptroller hints that the government should consider merging the two ministries, insofar as the work on combating anti-Semitism is concerned.

As with the issues of boycotts and anti-Semitism, the comptroller found that Israeli public diplomacy suffered as a result of the creation in 2009 of new ministries, in this case the expansion of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry to include public diplomacy.

“From 2005-10, the Foreign Ministry worked to promote Israel’s standing among target audiences abroad, without the government having given it specific authorities to assist with this,” says the report. “During this time, the government created new public diplomacy ministries and authorized them to deal with image and awareness issues internationally that directly impact Israel’s national strength and national security. In terms of both the process and the results — not only was there no cooperation between these ministries and the Foreign Ministry, they was ongoing wrangling among them concerning authority, areas of responsibility and resources.”

Consequently, the state comptroller finds, Israel is failing in its image-building efforts around the world. “Israel is not effectively countering the overt hostility from different parties abroad that cast doubt on Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish nation-state,” the report says. “The messages they are broadcasting to the public at large are also seeping into groups that once supported Israel unreservedly.”

In a statement, the Strategic Affairs Ministry said the comptroller’s report underlines “the need for a ministry that will integrate and coordinate all activity on the delegitimization and boycott organizations.”

The ministry said that it was primarily dealing “with the Iranian issue” in the years that the report touches on. Only in October 2015 did the cabinet authorize the ministry to deal with delegitimization and boycott efforts.

“For this reason, the state comptroller’s claim that the fight against the boycott and delegitimization was mishandled until 2015 strengthens the importance of the government decision to establish the ministry in its new form, allowing it to integrate and coordinate the activity of government ministries, state bodies and civilian elements in Israel and abroad.”