The Strategic Affairs Ministry’s leaders see themselves as the heads of a commando unit, gathering and disseminating information about ’supporters of the delegitimization of Israel’ – and they prefer their actions be kept secret.
By Uri Blau Mar 26, 2017
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The Haaretz report that Minister Gilad Erdan wants to set up a database of Israeli citizens who support the BDS movement has led to questions about the boundaries of freedom of expression and the government’s use of its resources to surveille people of differing opinions. The report also shone a light on the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which Erdan heads, and cast doubt about its ambiguous activities and goals.
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Now, through official documents, Haaretz reveals some elements of the ministry’s clandestine activities, whereby even its location is a secret, described only as “greater Tel Aviv.” Its internal terminology comes from the world of espionage and security; its leading figures appear to see themselves as the heads of a public affairs commando unit engaged in multiple fronts, gathering and disseminating information about people they define as “supporters of the delegitimization of Israel.”
That definition does not necessarily include only supporters of BDS, but intentional ambiguity remains, alongside campaigns and public diplomacy activities against these individuals in Israel and abroad.
Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan. Olivier Fitoussi
“If you want to win the campaign you have to do it with a great deal of ambiguity," the ministry’s director general, Sima Vaknin-Gil, who is a former IDF chief censor, explained to a Knesset panel recently. “The way I worked with military issues like Hezbollah or terror funds or Syria or any other country against which I conducted a campaign as an intelligence officer – we didn’t tell the other side what we intended to do; we left it ambiguous.”
The ministry spends tens of millions of shekels on cooperative efforts with the Histadrut labor federation, the Jewish Agency and various nongovernmental organizations in training representatives of the “true pluralistic face” of Israel in various forums.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry was established mainly as a consolation prize for ministers when the need arose to pad them with a semi-security portfolio during the formation of governing coalitions, and has taken on various forms. It was founded in 2006 as a portfolio tailored to Avigdor Lieberman. It was dismantled two years later and reestablished in 2009 in a different format. Under each ministry it was given new meaning and content.
Strategic Affairs Ministry Director General Sima Vaknin. Alon Ron
During Lieberman’s tenure, its authority was defined mainly as “thwarting the Iranian nuclear program.” In addition, Nativ, which maintained contact with Jews in Eastern Europe during the Cold War and encouraged aliyah, came under its aegis. Then, under Moshe Ya’alon (2009-2013), the ministry focused on “Palestinian incitement” as well as the Iranian threat. During the term of Yuval Steinitz (2013-2015), the ministry was unified with the Intelligence Affairs Ministry into the “Intelligence Ministry.” In May 2015, it was once again separated out and given to Erdan, incorporating the Public Diplomacy Ministry, which had been removed from the Prime Minister’s Office.
A harsh state comptroller’s report in 2016 concerning the “diplomatic-media struggle against the boycott movement and manifestations of anti-Semitism abroad,” noted that the transfer of authority to fight BDS from the Foreign Ministry to the Strategic Affairs Ministry was damaging to the powers of the Foreign Ministry and created unnecessary duplication that paralyzed government action in that area, as Barak Ravid reported extensively at the time.
According to the comptroller, after years of contention and mutual entrenchment, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had given in to pressure and shifted more powers for fighting BDS from the Foreign Ministry to the Strategic Affairs Ministry, together with major funding.
In October 2015, the security cabinet finally gave the Strategic Affairs Ministry responsibility to “guide, coordinate and integrate the activities of all the ministers and the government and of civil entities in Israel and abroad on the subject of the struggle against attempts to delegitimize Israel and the boycott movement.”
Nevertheless, tensions with the Foreign Ministry remained. The reason for this might also be a difference in approach. According to the comptroller’s report, the Foreign Ministry’s strategy of action against BDS “focuses on expanding dialogue with individuals, bodies, organizations, corporations and institutions abroad” – i.e., dialogue – as opposed to surveillance and more aggressive public diplomacy activities by the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
Tzahi Gavrieli. Tomer Appelbaum