Israel's Ministry of Strategic Affairs is carrying out underhand 'special operations' to undermine the global BDS movement
A few weeks ago Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted while briefing a Knesset (Parliament) committee that “we defeated BDS. They are being hit in various arenas and this is the reason why their supporters are in defensive positions”.
It was probably one of those occasions – and they are in abundance recently – in which Netanyahu showed his excessive self-confidence, arrogance and hubris. BDS stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a pro-Palestinian worldwide campaign against Israel. Just a few weeks before Netanyahu spoke in parliament, he and his cabinet held the view that BDS poses an existential threat to the state. In a way, the government’s perception is that BDS is more dangerous than the threat of a nuclear Iran.
Netanyahu’s statement surprised cabinet minister Gilad Erdan, who is visiting the UK this week. Erdan holds two cabinet portfolios. First and above all, he is the minister of public security in charge of the police, and in this capacity he is meeting his British counterparts and police commissioners. But he is also in charge of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs (MoSA) that has been assigned to counter BDS efforts, which has been defined by Israeli officials as “the campaign to de-legitimise the very existence of the state”. During his visit, Erdan is also trying to rally British support for the Israeli fight against BDS and the “de-legitimising campaign”.
It is most likely that Netanyahu wants to have his cake and eat it. He wished to praise himself as a winner in the eyes of the Israeli electorate, while still holding the torch of the “fight against BDS”.
The previous director general of the strategic affairs ministry, Ram Ben Barak, who happened to be a former deputy head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign espionage agency, compared the battle against BDS to the fight against terrorism. His successor Brigadier-General (retired) Sima Vaaknin-Gil, a former chief of censorship, adopted his approach. She recently said that her mission is to create in the ministry a “community of warriors”.
MoSA secured a budget of nearly $50m for its operations and is now under a recruiting spree, consisting of 25 employees - mostly former officers from Israel’s intelligence community.
The structure is to divide the ministry into three major departments. One is intelligence, whose main mission is to collect information and data on BDS and support the activists campaigning on de-legitimisation and their plans from both open and covert sources. This intelligence-gathering department intends to work closely and be assisted by various departments within the Israeli intelligence apparatus.
The second department is known as “awareness” or communication, assigned to influence international media and social networks. The third one is the department of operations with the aim to execute the ideas and plans. It may sound like bureaucratic gibberish but there is substance behind it.
In a recent public appearance, Erdan detailed his strategy by declaring that his office will do everything “to expose BDS’ activists, those who are behind them, those who are financing their actions in order to expose their true intentions and agenda and make the world aware and understand it”.
Erdan believes the primary objective of his office is to serve as a headquarters to mobilise and coordinate all Israeli ministries on the anti-BDS mission. One of the most important areas to repel BDS is in the cyber and public spheres. In the past, it was called in the Israeli dictionary as “Hasbara”, meaning explanation or information. The money will come from MoSA and the tasks will be executed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Tourism.
Public leaders and opinion shapers from various fields such as trade unions, showbiz, arts, journalists, and ethnic communities from around the world are invited to visit Israel – all expenses covered - in efforts to show that Israel is a free democratic, pluralistic state while diverting their attention from the daily reality of the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank.
At the same time, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mobilises its friends around the globe, especially pro-Israeli groups, such as the US-based AIPAC, and uses other levers to persuade the world’s governments, parliaments and international corporations to oppose and obstruct legal public and economic efforts by BDS supporters to boycott Israel. These actions can be described as legal, routine and part of public diplomacy.
The problem, however, can be when MoSA’s department of operations goes under the surface and tries to execute directly or indirectly “special operations,” as Erdan hinted. Dirty tricks can turn into ugly smearing campaigns, threats and privacy invasions of BDS activists and supporters.
The BDS movement already blamed Israeli intelligence for a series of cyber-attacks that shot down its websites. Recently, journalist Amira Hass published in Haaretz the strange case of Palestinian lawyer Nada Kiswanson, who represented the Palestinian human rights group “Al Haq” in Holland. After Kiswanson submitted to the International Criminal Court a report demanding to investigate Israel war crimes during the last war in Gaza (summer 2014), she received phone threats.
No one took responsibility for the threats against the lawyer and the cyber warfare, but the prime suspect is Israel. It is no secret that Erdan’s offices as well as the Israeli intelligence community are eager to exercise all the measures available for them against BDS. Fortunately, Erdan’s office is not a master of its own actions. They have to be approved by the Ministry of Justice.
The bureaucrats who see themselves as the guardians of Israeli and international law fear that passion for action and covert operations will damage Israel’s relations with the international community in general and its western friends especially.
In that sense, the Ministry of Justice is the last gatekeeper of Israel as a democratic society and member of the community of law-abiding nations. Nevertheless, the battle between paranoid and adventurist politicians, such as Netanyahu and Erdan, and legalists and consciously minded officials, is still to be played out.
- Yossi Melman is an Israeli security and intelligence commentator and co-author ofSpies Against Armageddon.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."