Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan is known in Israel for his political acumen.
He’s a keen debater, often taking on Likud opponents on television and radio and, of course, in the Knesset.
The senior cabinet minister, who will be addressing the 5th Annual Jerusalem Post Conference in New York on May 22, also knows how to win in the court of public opinion, capturing first place after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the last Likud primary and second place in the previous two.
As the first designated minister to fight boycotts against Israel, with a NIS 120 million (nearly $32m.) budget for the effort, Erdan is putting his political aptitude – which has put him on the shortlist of potential candidates to eventually replace Netanyahu as Likud leader – to good use in Israel’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of the world.
Erdan’s strategic campaign against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has the trappings of a political campaign: catchphrases, tested arguments, polls, and focus groups conducted by renowned American public opinion expert Frank Luntz.
One major theme in the approved methods arguing for Israel is to use positive language about the need for mutual respect, cooperation, and compromise.
“Don’t say the Palestinians are unwilling to make peace; show that we, the Israelis, are willing and eager to make peace,” Erdan explained.
That doesn’t mean that, when speaking to The Jerusalem Post from the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Public Security Ministry, his other portfolio, Erdan didn’t have negative things to say about the boycott movement.
“A central claim of ours against BDS is that they’re not human rights activists.
That’s their big lie. They don’t care about human rights anywhere else in the world, not Iran or Syria or other places where terrible things happen, and they don’t care about the conflict or peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
That’s their disguise,” he said.
That’s the reason, Erdan explained, that the government’s policies toward the Palestinians and Judea and Samaria have nothing to do with BDS.
“They want to confuse people and say they’re peace activists. My job is to reveal their true colors. We have documentation of many prominent BDS activists, when they have their guard down, answering the question whether Israel can exist as a Jewish state if it withdraws [to 1949 armistice lines], and they always answer no, the Jews have no right to their own state,” he related.
“If you really examine the facts, when Israel was prepared for concessions and before 1967, when Judea and Samaria weren’t under Israeli sovereignty, there were even more boycotts.”
According to Erdan, BDS is “pure anti-Semitism, based on hating Jews and a refusal to recognize the Jews’ right to exist, let alone have a state.
Most, if not all [BDS activism] comes from anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews and the Jewish state and is not connected to the conflict.”
Erdan was careful to clarify that it is legitimate to criticize Israel and the government’s policies.
“Most Jews in the world understand there is a big difference between legitimate criticism of the government and boycotting Israel, which comes from other, dark motives. I want people who have criticism with me to join in the battle against boycotts,” he said.
Erdan plans to team up with pro-Israel people – whether they’re critical or supportive of the current government – saying he sees himself and his boycott- fighting strategies as facilitators to the non-governmental organizations that have been leading the effort for years.
“It’s not necessarily good that the government is at the front of this battle,” Erdan posited. “BDS brings in civil society, labor organizations, student organizations, private businesses, so it’s better that the response comes from civil society.”
To that end, Erdan called a conference in February of leaders of 150 pro-Israel organizations from 20 countries, where Luntz’s research on public opinion about Israel was presented and the participants discussed strategy.
“We do not intend to replace anyone, because there are organizations that have been doing great work for years, whether it’s the Jewish Agency or StandWithUs or Israel on Campus Coalition and dozens of others. They need to see where we can help them in the government. For the first time, there’s a designated minister to do that, to create a broad program and concentrate all the factors around one table to strengthen their actions and harness the government’s advantages.”
The Likud minister said one of his mottoes in fighting BDS is that “it takes a network to fight a network.”
The boycott movement has technology on its side, Erdan noted. Lifting up his iPhone, he said, “They can use this to send out their lies 24 hours a day. BDS is not that big, but it makes noise because they have the tools. If you have a network, even if it’s only hundreds of people, you can create a feeling like it’s stronger.
To that end, Erdan encouraged all Israel supporters to use the tools they have, such as participating in social media debates, to counter anti-Israel slanders. His ministry is working to replicate a model of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a college in central Israel, used to improve Israel’s public diplomacy: a “media room” in which students can respond.
One innovation Erdan has brought to the fight against boycotts is working with the Histadrut Labor Union.
“It’s a joint interest of the Histadrut and the government, because we both want to protect the Israeli economy and workplaces,” Erdan said.
“The Palestinians try to permeate population groups that feel deprived or are minorities. BDS understands that Western governments know the details of what is really happening in the Middle East and the conflict. They have a more difficult time entering parliaments.
Workers’ unions, which are especially strong in Europe, are easier [for BDS] to get to with a message that ‘we’re disadvantaged, like you.’ If the unions don’t have enough of a connection to Israel, it can succeed.”
The Histadrut is working with the Strategic Affairs Ministry on a pilot project to send emissaries to several European capitals and strengthen its ties with the local unions, and the ministry will fund delegations to Israel, with the participants and content chosen by the Histadrut.
Erdan admitted that there is something paradoxical to his fight against BDS. “In a sense, we increase their influence,” he sighed.
“The minute that high-ranking officials respond, it helps BDS say ‘look, our actions are working, we’ll make Israel surrender.’ So I’m very careful not to respond publicly [to specific campaigns]. I prefer to quietly build a system. It’s a Sisyphean task and a lot of work, but I think it’s important to create a support system with authority and funding to help organizations work better.”
While Erdan is working hard on building that system, he also pointed to a positive trend on which he didn’t have an influence – laws and declarations against boycotts in European countries and several states in the US – as a factor that “put BDS on the defensive instead of being able to focus on the next attack.”
The data show it’s working: Foreign investment in Israel, the anti-Israel movement’s central target, increased 71 percent in 2015.
BDS “has had no real influence on the State of Israel or its economy,” Erdan declared.
Still, he said Israel cannot be complacent.
“We can’t underestimate BDS. There are areas where, unfortunately, they work in a way that could be effective, like targeting private businesses, harassing and acting violently against them and their leadership, to make them think: ‘What do I need this headache for? Maybe I should divest from Israel...’” “Thank God, in almost every case, we’ve stopped these attempts, but we have to create resilience to prevent them in advance from promoting boycotts.”