From fighting BDS to fighting delegitimisation: Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs code for battling accountability

The Israeli Ministry for Strategic Affairs is shifting its focus from fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS), to fighting deligitimisation.

It was initially established in 2006 for Avigdor Lieberman, and he was given the role of coordinating security, intelligence and diplomatic initiatives regarding strategic threats, including Iran, and reported directly to the prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert.

One of the “strategic threats” it focussed on in recent years was the growing BDS movement. In 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, in effect, that the movement was the “new Iran”, warning that his country is facing an “international campaign to blacken its name.”

Rather than to recognise that this was due to Israel’s actions, he claimed that: “It is not connected to our actions; it is connected to our very existence,” adding that Israel was being singled out and held to unfair standards.

This coincided with the appointment of Gilad Erdan (2015-2020) to head the Ministry for Strategic Affairs. He has now moved to the post of Israeli ambassador to both the US and the United Nations.

During his tenure, the ministry led Israel’s charge to target the BDS movement through labelling it and those who support it as “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Semites”, respectively, and to claim that it is linked to terrorism. Both claims are false. It is a movement that calls for an end to the occupation, equal rights for all citizens of Israel and upholds the right of the Palestinians to return to their homes. All three demands are moral and legal.

Its desperate attempts to link the movement with terrorism are also false, despite its production of glossy reports naming individuals and organisations that campaign tirelessly to support the Palestinian people, helping them achieve freedom, justice and equality. Its last such attempt was in 2019, through the publication of Terrorists in Suits: The Ties Between NGOs promoting BDS and Terrorist Organisations.

To demonstrate the absurdity of the report, I am listed in there as a board member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a member of the Executive Committee of the Popular Conference for Palestinians Abroad, claiming that this links me with Hamas. In other words, membership of a UK campaigning organisation and a conference which brings together diaspora Palestinians automatically connects me to terrorism. If I had any connection to terrorism, I doubt I would be walking freely on the streets of the UK or any other country.

However, this is a government report, which security forces in countries friendly with Israel could use to guide their decision as to whether or not to grant me entry or residency in that country. It is an easy smear to make, which leaves those on the receiving end potentially suffering the consequences.

To add to that smear, another of the ministry’s “achievements” was the passing of a law in 2017 which would provide Israeli officials with the ability to deny entry to the country, and therefore to occupied Palestine, if they were active in the BDS movement. As a result of the passing of this law, I was denied entry to visit family in Palestine at Tel Aviv Airport in April 2017.

The ministry also led efforts to encourage, or pressure, friendly countries to adopt laws targeting those supporting BDS, culminating in the passing of anti-BDS laws in over 25 states in the US that threatened individuals and companies supporting boycotts of Israel. The restriction on freedom of expression, a fundamental right in the first amendment, has been sacrificed to protect Israel from any pressure for its crimes.

The absurdity of these laws was demonstrated when a teacher in Texas, Bahia Amawi, was forced to resign from her job when she refused to sign an anti-boycott clause in the school’s contract. The contract asked members of staff to confirm that they did not boycott Israel, and would not do so while working for the school.

In 2019, a federal court told Amawi she could return to work after a federal court blocked an anti-BDS law in the state on the grounds that it was “likely unconstitutional”. However, anti-BDS laws still exist in other states.

It even came to Israel, which claims to be the “Jewish State”, applying the law to ban Jewish Rabbi Alissa Weiss from boarding a flight to Tel Aviv, as part of an interfaith group. Other Jews have also been denied entry under this law.

The Ministry for Strategic Affairs has been well-funded. In 2019, it was provided with a budget of NIS 128 million over three years.  It has also benefited from a gag order over reporting its spending.

In past years, there has also been tension between the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, exemplified by a complaint from the Israeli embassy in London, which in 2016 accused the latter of operating British Jewish organisations behind the embassy’s back, in a way that could put them in violation of British law and undermine Israeli-British relations.

It seems that the departure of Erdan as strategic affairs minister has provided the ministry with the opportunity to rethink its strategy. Its Director-General Ronen Manelis told the Knesset State Control Committee recently that it is shifting its focus from the BDS movement to the delegitimisation of Israel, more broadly. Manelis defined deligitmisers as: “Whoever doesn’t recognise Israel, in any boundaries, as a Jewish state, is delegitimising the State of Israel.”

New Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen stated recently that “2020 is a Year of Delegitimisation” against the State of Israel. We are facing a series of unprecedented challenges against Israel’s legitimacy, which may affect it politically and economically, as well as its security.

The ministry’s other focus is on social media. The continuing work here is about silencing voices supportive of the Palestinians by claiming that they are anti-Semitic. This includes pushing prominent social media companies to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism, which widens potential accusation of anti-Semitism to criticism of Israel.

Another worrying trend for supporters of the Palestinian cause is the targeting by Israel of NGO funding by western governments. This was exemplified by the Israeli ministry’s targeting of Belgium for funding peaceful NGOs. Not only was the Belgian ambassador summoned in Israel, but the Israeli ambassador to Belgium raised the issue with the Belgian Foreign Ministry. The claim here is that they are targeting organisations whose goal was explicitly “anti-Israeli”, as opposed to “pro-Palestinian”.

However, the ministry responded that it: “Does not intervene in the legitimacy of the goals of these organisations” and that it values freedom of speech. It added that it does not necessarily share the goals of the organisations that it funds, and that it opposes: “Racism, anti-Semitism and discrimination.”

The reality is that Israel attacks pro-Palestinian groups and individuals because it wants to silence any criticism of its crimes against the Palestinians since its founding, and up to the modern-day. Its policy is to discredit and smear both individuals and organisations in the hope that they will spend less time campaigning for Palestinian rights, and more time fighting the smears. It also works to attack legitimate sources of funding for peaceful work, and plunging organisations into financial crises, leaving them expending valuable energy to remain afloat, rather than develop their campaigning work to help Palestinians.

The other reality is that the apartheid label is sticking firmly to Israel, through its laws and policies, including the Nation-State Law and annexation. More and more people around the world are looking past the hasbara and judging Israel on its deeds – and they are dastardly.