It's Far Too Early - and Too Easy - to Write Off the Threat of BDS

Not only are boycotts of Israel already a reality, but the Israeli government’s response - well funded though it is - has been shoddy, uncoordinated and incoherent.

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A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.
A BDS demonstration in Melbourne, Australia, 2010.Credit: Mohammed Ouda/Wikimedia Commons
Mose Apelblat
Mose Apelblat

Internationally, Israel’s standing has never been at such a low point as it is now. Surveys quoted in Israel's state comptroller’s annual audit report last month show that its image has continuously deteriorated in recent years with a majority of people in many countries regarding Israel as a threat to world peace and an occupying power that violates the human and political rights of the Palestinians. 

Israel is becoming increasingly delegitimized in the foreign media and is the target of a boycott campaign (BDS) that does not seem to distinguish between the occupied territories and Israel within the Green Line. As the two-state solution disappears from the horizon and the occupation goes on, Israel’s very right to exist is questioned. 

The Israeli government, however, either ignores public opinion abroad or overreacts, just as it did when the European Union published guidelines on funding projects in the occupied territories (2013) or on labeling of products from the settlements there (2015). Israel's government often tends to dismiss legitimate criticism abroad as bottom-line fueled by anti-Semitism. 

Anti-Semitism is hardly a charge which can be raised against Israeli patriots such as the deputy commander in chief and the former minister of defense when they criticized the erosion of the military code of ethics in Israel’s army. Would the same criticism have been aired by non-Jews abroad, they would have been accused of anti-Semitism. Jews abroad would have been accused of “self-hate”. Thus European criticism of Israel can be conveniently categorized as illegitimate, interfering and motivated by hatred.   

Instead of taking criticism from its friends abroad seriously and reconsidering the actions that might have given rise to the criticism, Israel's automatic reaction is to act according to the doctrine of “attack as the best defense”, and to initiate new measures whose effect can only make an already bad situation worse. Attributing reservations about Israel’s policy by other countries entirely to anti-Semitism is too easy and absolves Israel from responsibility for its own actions. 

In that annual audit report the State Comptroller devoted two chapters to Israel’s numerous and well-funded public diplomacy and efforts to counter delegitimization and anti-Semitism abroad. Resources are not lacking. 

Besides the Foreign Ministry, the lead ministry responsible for the coordination of the state's efforts in this area, two other ministries – the Strategy Affairs Ministry and the Ministry for the Diaspora and Public Diplomacy – have been charged since 2009 to join Israel’s communication effort. The Foreign Ministry alone has 68 permanent officials, 10 interns, eight external advisers and 30 people at 15 representations abroad all busy dealing with Israel’s image. 

But all their efforts have failed. Millions of shekels in budgets have either been wasted or left unused. The audit report lists shortcomings in the planning, management and implementation of information activities. There aren't even staff members who can explain Israel’s policy in Arabic, French or German. For some reason there is no media adviser or spokesperson at the Israeli representation to the EU in Brussels.

A major (and predictable) problem is the overlapping of tasks between three ministries and the lack of coordination and cooperation between them. This kind of systemic problem in public administration is a root problem in Israel and contributes to what makes it “ungovernable”. Back in 2013 Israel's state comptroller published a report on “inter-governmental disputes”. EU auditors loved the report at a seminar in Brussels but in Israel the report made no waves – and apparently led to no change. 

Another problem not addressed in the audit report – this would probably cross the border line between performance auditing and political evaluation – is the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has kept the Foreign Ministry for himself and appointed an unexperienced deputy whose statements can most charitably be described as “anti-communication”. 

The ministry’s director general Dore Gold also makes statements which do not serve public diplomacy and make no sense. Some time ago he criticized the Paris foreign ministers’ conference and accused it of aiming to impose a peace solution on Israel, even comparing it with the 100-year old Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the Middle East spoils of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France. The Israeli government excels at distorting history for political ends.

There is however no reason to be as pessimistic as Anshel Pfeffer in his recent article ("The Konseptziya About Israel’s Poor Image in the World"). He claims that even if Israel’s communication activities were effectively carried out, they would not make any difference. Even trying improving Israel’s negative image abroad would be a misconception or, as he calls it, a konseptziya of almost the same magnitude that lured the political and military leadership back in 1973 in believing that no Arab attack was imminent.

He is right on one point. The reality on the ground looks and is bad and no information in the world can change that. There will always be legitimate and harsh criticism against a right-wing Israeli government which cements the occupation and transforms Israel into an illiberal democracy. No hasbara can defend the government’s reluctance to restart the peace process with confidence-building measures. But this does not imply that delegitimization cannot be effectively countered.

With a poor international image Israel will suffer greatly, not least from the resulting international isolation, the alienation of Jews in the diaspora and the emigration of Israeli Jews to other countries which can offer them security and a decent living. The BDS threat, contrary to what Pfeffer claims, is real and is already affecting investment decisions, sales abroad and academic cooperation

Last but not the least: Contrary to Pfeffer's contention, Israel has definitely a “business fighting anti-Semitism abroad”. Not that Israel should interfere in other countries’ legislation on, for instance, circumcision and ritual slaughter – these are matters that the local Jewish communities know best and have to address themselves. But when anti-Zionism becomes anti-Semitism and Jews and Israelis are targeted abroad, to take just the Paris and Brussels attacks as examples, then they clearly become Israel’s responsibility. 

Mose Apelblat is a former official at the European Commission and has been involved in promoting performance auditing in candidate countries.

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