Inside the clandestine world of Israel’s ‘BDS-busting’ ministry

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

Others say the powers were moved from the Foreign Ministry to the Strategic Affairs Ministry due to what Netanyahu perceived as the too-liberal tendencies of the Foreign Ministry.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry’s current director general, Vaknin-Gil, was appointed in late 2015. In a meeting last August of the Knesset Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information, Vaknin-Gil was asked what she defined as “winning” the battle against BDS. Winning, she said, meant that the “narrative in the world won’t be that Israel equals apartheid.” She explained that the ministry was training some 200 people, “among the best people in Israel,” as its ambassadors abroad.

Tzahi Gavrieli, the ministry’s deputy director general, is “director of the campaign against delegitimization.” Gavrieli, 43, a lawyer, was Netanyahu’s adviser on content affairs and also worked in the bureaus of prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon. He was involved in the establishment of the Public Diplomacy Council and before the last election left Netanyahu’s office and worked with Moshe Kahlon on preparing the platform of Kahlon’s party, Kulanu. He took up his current post in the Strategic Affairs Ministry last year.

During the discussion in the Knesset’s transparency committee, Gavrieli said a number of times it would have been better for it to have taken place in a less public forum. According to Gavrieli, the ministry’s role was to “act so the narrative of the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people is clear and unquestionable, not among countries nor among audiences, not among progressive liberal audiences, not on campuses, nor among economic decision makers, nor among jurists throughout the world, nor among labor unions and churches. And the second narrative is to stop the phenomenon of delegitimization. And on that matter, there is difficulty speaking in an open forum.”

When Gavrieli was asked what the ministry’s definition of delegitimization was, he said it meant “rallying of organizations and ideas around an existing contemporary issue of rejecting the idea of the State of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people.”

Vaknin-Gil added: “We identify the story of labeling products [from settlements in the occupied territories] as the first step on the way to something much greater … for us, therefore, the labeling of products is a certain symptom of delegitimization.”

In terms of budget, Vaknin-Gil reported that the budget for her ministry’s operating costs was 44 million shekels ($12 million) for 2016, while the budget for the fight against “delegitimization” was 128 million shekels. According to the website Mafteah Hatakziv (the Budget Key), though, the ministry’s budget was 8.8 million shekels in 2015, jumped to 26.9 million shekels in 2016 and almost doubled to 46.5 million this year.

At the time of last August’s Knesset committee meeting, the ministry had 16 employees, with the aim of increasing that number to 20. At the head of the ministry’s “public diplomacy” department is Edi Yair Freiman, who a few years ago published an article in Yedioth Ahronoth entitled “Obama betrayed Mubarak, Bibi stayed loyal.” Freiman is a member of Young Likud and a former adviser to Minister Yossi Peled, who headed the new media department in the old Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a security official told Haaretz that after the passage of the law barring entry into Israeli of foreigners who call for a boycott of Israel or the settlements, a greater need arose to broaden the law and get personal information about those supporting the boycott.

How this is done can be understood from job descriptions for ministry officials. One of the main roles, for example is “Senior official – new-media realm.” The individual filling this job is responsible for “heading the campaign” against the BDS movement. Areas of this official’s responsibility include: “Analysis of the world of social media, in terms of content, technology and network structure, emphasizing centers of gravity and focuses of influence, methods, messages, organizations, sites and key activists, studying their characteristics, areas, realms and key patterns of activities of the rival campaign and formulating a strategy for an awareness campaign against them in this realm and managing crises on social media.” That is, surveilling of activities mainly in the digital arena.

The gleaned information is then managed, sifted and passed on to “authorized figures in the ministry for continued processing.” In addition, the job description explains, officials at the ministry deal with “construction and promotion of creative and suitable programs for new media, in keeping with the goals of the campaign and communications strategy.”

The head of this area must be fully conversant with the various social networks, Google Analytics and additional programs. All employees must receive security clearance before they begin work.

The ministry also deals with “formulating the awareness and communications strategy to create significant change in the image of the State of Israel concerning the proactive campaign against delegitimization of the State of Israel and change in the communication dialogue,” in media outlets and new media. The ministry advances various projects to apply this strategy. For example, in June 2016, it was exempted from the need to publish a bid for a contract worth 1.6 million shekels with an organization called “The Multidisciplinary Center for Leadership and Project Initiation,” to train young people for activities on social media and direct encounters. Then, delegations will be sent to areas defined by the ministries as “delegitimization-challenged” and “groups of teens will be selected who can represent the true and pluralistic face of Israel, to extract the sting from delegitimization.”

Discussing the program, Vaknin-Gil said, “The ministry will also determine which schools abroad to have discussions and exchanges of delegations with. These will be those high schools that later feed the campuses where the struggle against delegitimization is being waged” – for example, South Africa.

Last September, the ministry also stated its intent to launch a cooperative effort with the Histadrut through a Histadrut NGO called the International Leadership Institute, at a cost of 22 million shekels. The program’s purpose would be to “work among labor unions and professional associations abroad to root out the ability of BDS entities to influence the unions.”

In November, the ministry approved a budget of over 16 million shekels through the Jewish Agency for student activities throughout the world. In recent months the ministry has also begun cooperating with the Aish Hatorah NGO, at a cost to the ministry of over 3 million shekels. The purpose of its activity with this right-leaning religious organization is to bring student delegations from the United States to Israel.

Last month, together with the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, the ministry decided to invest more than 3 million shekels on an Israeli cultural festival in London this September. It explained the decision by stating it would “give British people a peek at the varied shades of Israeli culture,” presenting it to “audiences who are exposed to anti-Israel activities and influences by the campaign of delegitimization against Israel.”

And last week the ministry reported that it was allocating 3 million shekels to bring delegations to Israel for visits to settlements in the West Bank, in cooperation with the Samaria Regional Council.

Earlier this month, as part of the Innovation TV conference hosted by the Channel 2 franchisee Keshet, Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan delivered a speech on what he called the distorted coverage of Israel in the international media.

After the conference, Erdan tweeted: “Had a great meeting with CNN Pres. Jeff Zucker on the role of CNN in the Mid.East. Looking forward to continuing our conversation #intv2017. and “Just spoke at international TV conference on the need to end anti-Israel bias in the international news.”

The Strategic Affairs Ministry gave Keshet 250,000 shekels in exchange for its participation in the conference. The ministry said it considered it an opportunity to create connections with “people who mold worldwide awareness for hundreds of millions of viewers every day. … As part of the ministry’s goals in the struggle against the biased coverage of Israel in the world media and in disproving lies against Israel, the ministry considers the conference an opportunity for fertile cooperation.”