The expected change of government is an excellent opportunity to reassess the function of and need for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy. The combination of public diplomacy and strategy was tailored to Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan as a kind of compensation for the unattractiveness of the Public Security Ministry, which Erdan initially rejected. During Erdan’s time at the ministry alongside Sima Vaknin-Gil, until recently its director general, two parallel processes took place: While the budget of the Strategic Affairs Ministry grew and grew, the budget of the Foreign Affairs Ministry shrank considerably. On the one hand a political Foreign Ministry was set up, and on the other, Israeli diplomats’ ability to act effectively was neutered.
This is not coincidental. The staff of the Foreign Affairs Ministry was trained to represent the State of Israel. They know that to provide diplomatic protection for Israel, they must create a unique fit suitable for the place, time and target audience. And yet, the Netanyahu government wanted to reinforce the narrative of the Israeli right wing – in Israel and abroad – and to do this he had to mark an international enemy to be fought for cohesion’s sake. That’s how the perfect demon was found: the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
BDS was never a significant boycott movement. Yes, it had some influence in the academic world, and its representatives even managed to persuade the New Zealand singer Lorde to cancel her appearance in Israel. Yes, it caused some distress to Jewish students on campuses in the United States, but on the level of national security it was nothing more than a bothersome mosquito. If you want to know what a real boycott looks like, go back to the 1970s and early ‘80s, when many international companies refused to do business with Israel. That boycott was lifted in the end, both because the companies themselves realized that it didn’t truly pay to boycott Israel, and thanks to the arrival of a diplomatic age and the beginning of the peace process.
But when one seeks an enemy to serve political purposes, it doesn’t matter how much impact it really has. That’s how the Strategic Affairs Ministry and BDS were built, one on top of the other. Erdan launched costly campaigns within Israel, which had no public diplomacy significance except to show off his ministry as the pillar of fire of the struggle against Israel haters. His ministry also distributed money to right-wing civil society groups, which added some anti-BDS activities to their repertoire to enjoy the bounty.
The BDS movement, meanwhile, was strengthened, and its new status made it famous among many who considered it the global spearhead of the fight against the occupation and its implications.
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But the main problem with the operations of the Strategic Affairs Ministry was the demand for loyalty to the path of the Israeli right wing, which included whitewashing the occupation and the settlements. “A boycott of Jewish settlement in Judea and Samaria is a boycott of all of Israel,” Erdan said, referring to the West Bank, in June at an international anti-BDS conference. In its actions as well, the ministry backed the Committee of Samaria Settlements and the farmers of the Jordan Valley, groups that lobbied to prove that the territories are a part of Israel. The issue came up in meetings of the Knesset Transparency Committee called by lawmaker Stav Shaffir (Democratic Union), with the Foreign Ministry directory general voicing his criticism. Meanwhile, the lack of transparency at Erdan’s ministry was also a significant problem – it imposed confidentiality on its actions, refused to reveal information about its activities and the use of its budget, and sought exemptions from the bid process for hiring personnel.
Despite its international goals, the Strategic Affairs Ministry operated without infrastructure for activities abroad, where it had to hitch a ride with other bodies, including the Foreign Ministry and the Jewish Agency. The lack of infrastructure and consent for international activities led to struggles waged by the ministry that damaged Israel’s ties to its allies. For example, the ministry’s reports accusing the European Union of funding organizations that promote BDS against hurt Israeli-European relations. In the United States a series of efforts to promote legislation criminalizing BDS supporters, which compromise the freedom of speech enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment (and were also struck down by Federal courts), placed American lawmakers in difficult moral and constitutional straits.
The “problem on campuses” has been the subject of much debate, and the issue has also preoccupied the ministry. The desire to see Israel as the epitome of perfection and stop any debate or criticism of the occupation and Israel’s policy of creeping annexation not only did not help its position among American students, but increased hostility and deafness to Israeli arguments. In addition, blacklists of organizations, support for denying “BDS supporters” entry to Israel and the collection of information about students as if they were terrorists did not advance Israel’s status in the United States – it only deepened the crisis between Israel and the liberal majority of American Jewry.
The new government would do well to restore power and the authority of dealing with BDS to the Foreign Ministry as part of strengthening the foreign service and empowering diplomacy. The Foreign Ministry has a more realistic assessment of BDS and can more effectively act on the matter. The advancement of political agendas in the guise of supposed international diplomatic work, as the Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Ministry has done, is a line that has damaged Israel. It would be a mistake to continue it.
The writer is the director of J Street Israel.