Does Israel need a ministry to fight BDS?

After incoming Strategic Affairs Minister calls to eliminate his own office, experts and activists weigh in on its necessity.

Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, also known as BDS. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, also known as BDS.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Incoming Strategic Affairs Minister Michael Biton (Blue and White) made a surprising admission in an interview with Army Radio last week.
“I think, in the future, the Strategic Affairs Ministry and Intelligence Ministry and a few others will have to be consolidated,” he said.
The interviewer pressed Biton further as to whether he would abolish the ministry he was set to enter as part of a slight cabinet reshuffle after Asaf Zamir (Blue and White) resigned from the Tourism Ministry.
“I wish,” Biton said. “I would do it happily.”
“It’s not a secret that to have a unity government we needed many more portfolios [than usual],” he added. “But the appropriate thing in the future will be to reduce the number of ministries.”
Biton’s willingness to get rid of his own job is not unprecedented. Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan not only made the suggestion, he went through with it in the Home Front Defense Ministry in 2014.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry has “nice activities in the area of BDS,” but those can “connect to an existing ministry,” Biton told Army Radio.
This raises questions as to whether Israel needs a ministry focused on fighting delegitimization around the world, or if another body, like the National Security Council or the Foreign Ministry, can do the job. Experts and professionals across the political spectrum gave mixed responses.
Dan Diker, a researcher on delegitimization and BDS at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was horrified at the suggestion. Few Israelis recognize the “strategic national security threat of an ideological war against Israel,” he said.
Delegitimization efforts are a “lethal convergence of modern antisemitism and eliminationism [sic] of Israel,” Diker said. “We can fight the physical wars, conventional wars, terrorism. We’re very good at that. We are less skilled at fighting ideological and political warfare. Many politicians do not perceive it to be an existential threat, and I think it is. The ABCs of any country’s national security is international legitimacy.”
The Strategic Affairs Ministry does good work in intelligence gathering and challenges to what’s become known as “lawfare” against Israel, but it could do more in terms of a counteroffensive, he said.
If the Strategic Affairs Ministry is eliminated, Diker suggested that the National Security Council take up its tasks and hire a whole new department’s worth of people to work on the matter full-time.
Arsen Ostrovsky, executive director of the Israeli Jewish Congress and a vocal advocate for Israel, also opposed closing the ministry, saying it “has played an indispensable role in the fight against BDS and delegitimization of Israel.”
“Given the myriad of challenges facing the Jewish state, both the Strategic Affairs Ministry and Foreign Affairs Ministry ought to be strengthened, with each having a crucial part to play,” he said. “There are other ways to reduce the budget that do not sacrifice our national security and public diplomacy.”
Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Blue and White), chairwoman of the Knesset subcommittee on Israel-Diaspora Relations, took a middle ground on the issue.
Israel should lead a holistic effort with all of its expertise and consistent policies on fighting delegitimization of Israel, she said.
“In order to do this successfully, it is indeed important that we eliminate existing overlap and bureaucratic inefficiencies that have arisen by artificially dividing issues between multiple ministries,” Cotler-Wunsh said.
 Assaf Orion, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, said combating delegitimization is an important part of security for Israel and Jews worldwide.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry, which was established in 2006, was given the delegitimization portfolio in 2015 “out of recognition of the importance of the matter and to promote and improve Israel’s responses in the area,” he said. “The Foreign Ministry, which was previously responsible for the topic, did not make it a top priority, justifiably, and it looks like in the future it would have difficulty doing so.”
As such, Orion posited that having a specific ministry for tackling delegitimization means there are focused efforts and resources that improve the government’s response. At the same time, he said, the Strategic Affairs Ministry is small and has had difficulty effectively coordinating necessary interministerial action.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry seems to have contributed to fighting delegitimization, but there is still much work to be done, and the ministry is not necessarily the only or best solution, Orion said.
Some activists supported eliminating the ministry, citing its practices and large budget, much of which remains nontransparent due to claims of security risks.
Hen Mazzig, a senior fellow at the Tel Aviv Institute and a pro-Israel advocate, did freelance work on campaigns combating antisemitism for the Strategic Affairs Ministry via the Government Advertising Agency in 2016.
“In principle, the work of this ministry is important,” he said. “The problem is that it is investing massive sums of money in enterprises [run by people] who don’t have the professional backgrounds to do the job.”
For example, the ministry spends large sums of money on advertising campaigns in publications whose audiences are already pro-Israel, Mazzig said, adding that the middlemen are making money on these deals.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry should be merged with the Foreign Ministry, and its work should be done by nonpartisan professionals, he said. In addition, its budget should be more transparent “to make sure there are no foreign interests in the distribution of funds,” Mazzig said.
Mickey Gitzin, executive director in Israel of the New Israel Fund, an organization that distributes funds to organizations it says promote “social justice and equality” in Israel, said the ministry’s practices were problematic.
“I think that if Israel wants to fight to improve its image in the world and fight those who are against it, it needs first of all to differentiate between legitimate criticism and persecution tinged with antisemitism,” he said. “The fear of criticism and turning all criticism into a crime weakened Israel and will not help it at all.”
Gitzin pointed to the Strategic Affairs Ministry establishing organizations working under its auspices that were not transparent and clashes with Diaspora Jewish organizations and figures who are highly critical of Israel. He also criticized the policy of blocking major BDS figures from entering Israel, which is not rooted in the Strategic Affairs Ministry but has its active support, including providing intelligence on the people being barred entry.
Prominent Israeli human-rights lawyer Eitay Mack called Biton’s comments “a positive development, the necessity of which is clear to all.
“The Strategic Affairs Ministry has been doing strategic damage to the State of Israel for years,” he said. “Under unjustified secrecy, it seems that the ministry is wasting public funds and employs people who are professionally and perceptually unsuitable.”
Shalom Lipner, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who worked in the Prime Minister’s Office under seven consecutive premiers, said the Strategic Affairs Ministry was reestablished in 2009 to fill a political need.
The ministry “would have seen its functions filled, in any normal circumstance, by preexisting agencies that were allocated the resources necessary to perform any of these tasks that were deemed essential,” he said. “New portfolios just add additional and wasteful layers of bureaucracy, which trip over each other in a race to justify their independent existence.”
The Strategic Affairs Ministry declined to comment on this report.