An Egyptian man shouts anti-Israeli slogans in front of banners with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) logo during the launch of an Egyptian campaign that urges boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and Israeli-made goods, at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo, April 20, 2015 (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)
Amir Nabil / AP
Op-edBeware of Israeli government ministers bearing gifts

BDS is a dirty business. Those who battle it on Israel’s behalf must stay clean

After years of lousy PR, a new donor-backed firm is working with a well-funded ministry to thwart Israel’s detractors. They need to be careful where and how they spend their money

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Amir Nabil / AP

Nine miles wide at its narrowest point, situated on the western edge of a toxic, unpredictable and largely hostile land mass, the State of Israel has been threatened with destruction since its very inception 70 years ago.

Through the resolve of its army, it has survived repeated efforts to wipe it out via conventional warfare. Through the resilience of its citizens, it has thwarted strategic onslaughts of terrorism. It currently faces well-armed, Iranian-financed terror groups on its northern and southern borders, avowedly dedicated to its destruction, and has had to defend its Gaza fence in recent weeks against violent Hamas-spurred rallies ultimately intended to erase the border and “liberate Palestine.”

And even as it is required to continue to physically protect and defend itself against those who seek its elimination, it also must fight on a second battlefield — in the court of public opinion, including legal forums, via diplomacy, in conventional media, and on social media — against those who misrepresent the challenges it faces and the policies it follows to meet those challenges.

On this second battlefield, Israel routinely suffers minor and major libels — falsely accused of everything (to offer just a trio of recent examples) from killing babies (that turn out to have preexisting heart conditions), to capriciously imprisoning entire populaces (where a letup in security would see the terror groups importing still more weaponry), to using unjustifiable violence against civilians (at the Gaza border, where most of the recent dead have been acknowledged by the terror groups themselves as their members).

Through the decades, Israel’s defenders, at home and abroad, have argued that the Jewish state has failed itself time and again on the second battlefield — failed to take the struggle seriously enough, failed to strategize, failed to sufficiently utilize articulate spokespeople and other advocates, failed to allocate adequate resources.

In which context, supporters and defenders of Israel ought to be delighted to know that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs has in recent years been charged with facing up to anti-Israel activism in general, and in particular with confronting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement — a global campaign at the heart of the second battlefield war against Israel. Many BDS strategists and activists, ostensibly focused on punishing Israel for its policies regarding the Palestinians, in practice work to demonize Israel in its totality, in order to deny it the legitimacy to survive.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Under Minister Gilad Erdan, the ministry has secured some NIS130 million (approximately $36 million) for use over three years to battle BDS, with the possibility of more funds to follow if it is successful. The fight against BDS has become a key focus, if not the key focus of the ministry — which has seen its staff of just a handful of employees three years ago grow to several dozen now. (Full disclosure: As part of its work, the ministry last year paid for “sponsored content” in The Times of Israel and several other Israeli media outlets.)

As I say, supporters and defenders of Israel ought to be delighted. My purpose here is to sound some words of caution about the parameters within which this battle is waged.

Cooperation between the ministry and Kela Shlomo

The very nature of its anti-BDS work, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs argues, requires a degree of secrecy. At a special session of a Knesset committee on the transparency, or lack thereof, of its operations last July, for instance, the ministry’s director general, Sima Vaknin-Gil, refused even to disclose the names of ministry employees, so sensitive, she said, was the field in which they act. Vaknin-Gil, previously the IDF’s chief censor, was cagey even about the process by which they were hired.

Ministry documents that list its spending, obtained under Freedom of Information regulations and seen by The Times of Israel, contain line after line of budgetary allocations in which the recipients are not specified, and where many of the payments are marked “secret.” (The Times of Israel has been seeking to interview Vaknin-Gil to discuss the ministry’s anti-BDS work, but no interview has been scheduled to date. The Times of Israel asked the ministry various specific questions regarding material in this piece, and the ministry said it would be pleased to respond, but that it could do so only after it frees up from a major conference it is holding on June 19-20. Information from several sources at the ministry is included in this piece.)

Ministry officials privately acknowledge — indeed take pride in the fact — that the ministry has a division that gathers open-source information on BDS organizations and their activists, and that it utilizes this information to try to deter BDS activists and activities. Nonetheless, ministry officials insist that everything the ministry does is legal, and that it seeks to tackle BDS, and to empower anti-BDS activists, solely within the framework of the law, whether at home or abroad.

To that end, the ministry has entered into a cooperative arrangement — emphatically not a legal “partnership” — with an organization called Kela Shlomo (Solomon’s Sling), a “public benefit” company that was set up a year and a half ago to raise and allocate funds in order to help protect Israel from those who seek to demonize and delegitimize it.

Kela Shlomo’s leadership features numerous credible and respected Israeli figures, including former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold; ex-ambassador to the UN and UK Ron Prosor; former IDF military intelligence chief, INSS think tank head and would-be Labor defense minister Amos Yadlin; ex-senior IDF intelligence officer and prime ministerial foreign media adviser Miri Eisin; and former national security adviser Yaakov Amidror.

Micah Lakin Avni, son of terror victim Richard Lakin, in the Knesset on February 8, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Its volunteer chairman is Micah Lakin Avni, the CEO of the publicly traded Peninsula Group commercial finance institution, whose father Richard, 76, a former school principal from Connecticut who brought his family on aliya, was shot and stabbed to death in a Palestinian terror attack on a Jerusalem bus three years ago.

Another of its founders is Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of research in IDF military intelligence and a predecessor of Vaknin’s at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, who is today a senior project manager at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs research institute.

In an interview, Kuperwasser enthused that the aim of the cooperation is to enable more intensive activity. Kela Shlomo, he elaborated, is designed “to serve as a framework to bring together donors’ money and government money,” and thus to “multiply the capabilities of each of the parties in promoting activities against delegitimization.”

He said Kela Shlmo had raised “enough money to start working,” though he would not disclose the specifics of what it has done to date.

A protester holds a sign reading “Boycott Israel, free Palestine” during a Quds-day Demonstration in Berlin, on June 9, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Tobias SCHWARZ)

Several other people connected to Kela Shlomo, contacted by The Times of Israel, provided information about its goals but preferred not to speak on-the-record.

The long-term aim of Kela Shlomo, The Times of Israel was told, is to ensure that Israel’s legitimate right of existence is understood and endorsed as widely as possible, forever. With that thoroughly laudable ambition, it is working to better understand global attitudes to Israel, including via polling. It is seeking to determine what kind of activism and messaging aimed at harming Israel is effective and why, and which counter-efforts and initiatives are worth pursuing. It aims to empower existing pro-Israel activists — with information, and with funds. It wants to advance new ideas that its research tells it will likely be effective. It is particularly interested in bringing more “opinion leaders” to Israel — to see this country for themselves — not by setting up its own trips, but by making funds available to existing organizations that bring such visitors.

In short, Kela Shlomo has begun to strategize on countering BDS, and to fight back.

An imperative to thwart the haters

Kuperwasser noted that he began highlighting the second battlefield threat to Israel while he was head of research in IDF military intelligence more than a decade and a half ago.

He said the BDS campaigners and their ilk seek to “erode our ability to defend ourselves and eventually bring [about] the disappearance of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.” The strategy, he said, is to advance the claim that the Jews have no history in this part of the world, and simultaneously to argue “that even if the Jews have a right to be here, which they don’t, the way they exercise it is so terrible, they shouldn’t exist.”

Yossi Kuperwasser. (courtesy)

As director-general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs from 2009 to 2014, it fell to Kuperwasser to draw up a government strategy for combating BDS. The imperative was highlighted by the global castigation of Israel occasioned by the UN Human Rights Council’s 2009 Goldstone Report, which accused Israel and Hamas of committing war crimes in the Gaza conflict months earlier and alleged that Israel deliberately targeted civilians — an accusation Richard Goldstone, its author, subsequently withdrew, after, he said, he’d learned the full story.

The urgency was still further underlined by the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which Israel’s various public diplomacy hierarchies failed to provide a remotely effective and timely response to devastating and false allegations that Israeli troops had deliberately killed unarmed peace activists aboard a vessel seeking to breach the Israeli security blockade of Gaza. (In fact, Israeli troops seeking to commandeer the vessel, after it refused to change course, were attacked by thugs with clubs and bars, and opened fire in self-defense killing 10 of them. Information highlighted in a Times of Israel report three months ago found that one of the organizers of the flotilla later acknowledged that the Israeli troops did not resort to fire until after a former US marine aboard the Marmara seized a gun from one of them; characteristically, this report garnered little international resonance.)

Footage taken from Mavi Marmara security cameras, showing the activists onboard as they prepare to attack incoming IDF soldiers on May 31, 2010 (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)
Footage from the Mavi Marmara security cameras shows activists on board as they prepare to attack incoming IDF soldiers on May 31, 2010. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/Flash90)

In Kuperwasser’s time, the ministry, true to its name, formulated a strategy — including on collecting and disseminating information, engaging in international political and legal forums and with the media, and working with students to try to shape the debate — for implementation by other appropriate, better-funded and experienced ministries, including Foreign Affairs and Justice.

After he left, however, and with the arrival of high-flying Likud minister Erdan, the counter-BDS work became a central project for the ministry, and the Foreign Ministry’s Israel advocacy focus was diminished; some former Foreign Ministry employees, The Times of Israel was told, now work at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

“It’s a good thing,” says Kuperwasser of the ministry’s expanded focus on tackling BDS. “They put a lot more flesh on the bones.” He added: “I had only a few people. They have two or three dozen. For me, it was one part of our work at the ministry. I was also very much involved in Iran and the Palestinian issue. They focus on that [boycott] issue. And they can share money with other bodies and ministries.”

Erdan’s mission

The cooperative arrangement between Erdan’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Kela Shlomo is still in its early stages, and its functioning is not entirely clear. It was described by some of those involved as being similar to the arrangement between the government and Taglit-Birthright Israel, the program that brings young Diaspora Jews to Israel on short trips and is jointly funded by the Israeli government, Jewish organizations, and private philanthropists.

Announcing the cooperation with Kela Shlomo in December, Erdan declared confidently that it would enable Israel and its supporters to defeat BDS: “The boycott campaign tries to blacken Israel’s name and isolate it worldwide. Billions of people are exposed to the incitement and the false propaganda aimed at harming Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state and undermining the moral basis of our existence,” Erdan went on. “A joint struggle, waged by the government and pro-Israel organizations, will double our capabilities and enable us to thwart and defeat the boycott campaign.”

Soon afterwards, Erdan proclaimed that Israel had “moved from defense to attack” in the battle against its detractors, and announced the publication of a list of 20 organizations that he said promote the boycott of Israel. In cooperation with the Interior Ministry, he vowed, his ministry would block members of those groups from entering the country.

People familiar with the operation of Kela Shlomo adamantly echo Kuperwasser’s insistence that its operations will always be legal, moral and open, and that its work is necessary and legitimate

Kuperwasser said the cooperative arrangement between the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Kela Shlomo has been “reached but not yet implemented… based on matching [funds],” although The Times of Israel was told by others that a steering committee, which includes representatives of the ministry and of the donors, has been set up and has made recommendations for allocating funds, and indeed that some monies have already been distributed. (This was one of several instances during the reporting for this piece in which various people offered contradictory input that I was unable to definitively reconcile.) No information was made available, however, as to the recipients of such money.

Saying “I can’t go into these details” of what Kela Shlomo has done thus far, Kuperwasser stressed, “Everything that we do is totally legal. There is no problem. We are very careful in this respect not to do anything that is even controversial.”

People familiar with the operation of Kela Shlomo adamantly echo Kuperwasser’s insistence that its operations will always be legal, moral and open, and that its work is necessary and legitimate. The goal is to protect Israel, they said, and to do so, moreover, without following any kind of partisan agenda. Thus Kela Shlomo is seeking to achieve a balance among its donors, and is determined to avoid a situation where one or a few mega-donors with very clear political affiliations are able to dominate and characterize its activities. Indeed, it has begun its operations using relatively small donations, The Times of Israel was told, with potential mega-donors kept on hold for the time being.

Among the Kela Shlomo founders is Sagi Balasha, the former CEO of the Israeli Leadership Council, which was later renamed the Israeli-American Council, and which was substantially funded by Sheldon Adelson. Adelson, however, is not among the funders of Kela Shlomo to date, Kuperwasser said. Neither, he said, is World Jewish Congress president Ron Lauder.

He declined to say who any of the donors are. “We don’t have to divulge our finances, because we did not get any money from any government,” he noted.

Discomfiting pro-Israel organizations

While Kuperwasser enthused about the bolstered activity enabled by the cooperation between Kela Shlomo and his former ministry, some of those involved in Kela Shlomo, The Times of Israel was told, nonetheless have certain reservations about the arrangement — because it inevitably constitutes a politicization of the anti-BDS work.

The attraction of the joint relationship from the ministry’s point of view is clear. Cooperation with Kela Shlomo provides for a doubling of financial resources, with the Kela Shlomo donors providing matching funds. The arrangement may also enable certain projects to move ahead overseas that a government ministry alone, constrained by the limitations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), would not be permitted to advance. At home, it may enable the ministry to evade Freedom of Information requirements.

More fundamentally, the arrangement may mean that pro-Israel organizations that hitherto refused to take the ministry’s money may now do so.

The Times of Israel was told of multiple pro-Israel nonprofit organizations that have refused to accept offers of funding from the government and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs in recent years. In part, in some cases, this was because of concerns regarding FARA. In part, in at least two instances, this was because of efforts by the government to heavy-handedly oversee their work. Some organizations were also dismayed by the talk of an information-gathering arm within the ministry. The impression the ministry has created that it does stuff under the table, said one source, was a big mistake, and it was his fervent hope that the work done by the ministry would not leave Israel’s supporters feeling uncomfortable.

One of the the nonprofit entities to have said no to ministry funds is StandWithUs, which describes itself as “an international nonprofit Israel education organization.” It said it does not take any money from the Israeli government. “As an educational nonprofit, we work to maintain our independence; that’s very important to us,” said Michael Dickson, the executive director of the Israel office of StandWithUs.

Three years ago, StandWithUs reached an agreement with the Prime Minister’s Office under which the government was to provide it with some $250,000 to help spread pro-Israel messages via social networks. That arrangement was not implemented, because it became clear to StandWithUs that the government intended to specify and control the messaging.

Another organization understood not to take money from the ministry is The Israel Project, which describes itself as a “nonpartisan American educational organization dedicated to informing the media and public conversation about Israel.” The Israel Project at one stage discussed with the Ministry of Strategic Affairs an idea to bring Latino journalists to Israel in a long-term project with partial government funding, The Times of Israel was told, but concluded that the venture was not going to work as a joint initiative and abandoned it.

Above and main picture: An Egyptian man shouts anti-Israeli slogans in front of banners with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) logo during the launch of an Egyptian campaign that urges boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel and Israeli-made goods, at the Egyptian Journalists’ Syndicate in Cairo, Aril 20, 2015 (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

An article in the Forward last month also cited the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs among organizations that rejected offers of funding by the ministry. This was because “accepting the proposed deal would have required them to register as foreign agents with the [US] Department of Justice,” the article said, quoting Jewish communal officials.

One organization that is working with the ministry, on a joint PR campaign to counter anti-Israel propaganda, is Maccabi World Union, which operates in 70 countries. Its joint campaign was publicized by the ministry last May, before the ministry’s arrangement with Kela Shlomo was announced.

A few weeks ago, attorney Shachar Ben-Meir petitioned the Supreme Court to halt what were termed the “espionage and propaganda” activities being carried out by the ministry and Kela Shlomo, the Seventh Eye website reported. The petition asserted that the ministry has been conducting illegal operations to manipulate public opinion, and that its new relationship with Kela Shlomo was intended to enable it to carry out activities that a government ministry would otherwise be forbidden from doing.

The Ministry of Strategic Affairs “not only is ‘aided’ by private organizations in carrying out its activities, but also transfers much of its power – draconian powers to surveil, spy on, and spread propaganda – to private organizations that are not directly accountable to the government,” Ben-Meir argues in his petition, according to the report. “The ministry itself carries out radical activities that are likely unfitting of a democracy, such as espionage and propaganda, and is even transferring [the ability to carry out] these radical activities to private bodies.”

A person familiar with the work of Kela Shlomo dismissed the allegation of illegal activity, and said the petition was absurd. It was akin to appealing to the Supreme Court to stop the IDF from defending the country, this person said. He added that Israel has every right, indeed every obligation, to act legally to protect its good name, and that this is what Kela Shlomo is doing.

Several organizations that have rejected ministry funding to date may consider taking money from Kela Shlomo if their leaderships, with the FARA restrictions in mind, are convinced that to do so would be entirely legal, The Times of Israel was told. Resources are scarce, there is important work to be done, and funding would be welcome. They would have to take legal advice, we were told, as to whether the nature of the cooperative relationship between the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Kela Shlomo constituted an impediment to accepting such funds.

Speaking off-the-record, some pro-Israel activists offered praise, albeit conditional, for the arrival of Erdan and the expansion of the ministry. Under Erdan and Vaknin-Levy, they said, the ministry had obtained guaranteed government funding, recruited some good staff, and proved itself capable of cutting through red tape. A cooperative arrangement with Kela Shlomo, they also said, could be highly effective — if done right.

By this, they clarified, they meant that the government would need to stay out of Kela Shlomo’s decision-making. Much would depend, they suggested, on precisely how that joint Ministry-Kela Shlomo steering committee functioned in practice.

The dark artists

While both the ministry and Kela Shlomo refuse to specify the recipients of funding, people familiar with the operation of Kela Shlomo indicated that it would work with credible, veteran Jewish organizations and well-known pro-Israel advocacy groups. By contrast, people familiar with both the work of the ministry and of Kela Shlomo insisted, they would not utilize the services of the various covert Israeli organizations such as Black Cube and Psy-Group, set up and/or staffed by ex-Israeli intelligence officers, which have made a series of negative headlines of late.

Psy-Group’s founder and co-owner allegedly pitched the Trump campaign in 2016 on the use of social media manipulation to help boost the candidate’s presidential chances; Black Cube allegedly sought to slander Obama administration officials involved with the Iran nuclear deal. Both firms are cited among the defendants in a lawsuit brought by a Canadian hedge fund, West Face Capital, that seeks $500 million in damages for an alleged defamation campaign and sting operation against it. Both companies deny any wrongdoing in any of these matters.

The Times of Israel was told that both Psy-Group and Black Cube made approaches to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, offering their services in recent years in the battle against BDS, and were rebuffed.

Psy-Group marketing material

As The Times of Israel reported last week, however, Psy-Group is also cited in the Canadian West Face Capital law suit as having engaged in activities to counter BDS. As we also reported, multiple sources have said that Psy-Group is one of several such companies engaged in such activities, and that the ministry is aware of their work. The sources, we noted, said that such companies engage in various undercover activities against BDS leaders and activists.

This work includes highlighting the sources of funding for BDS activities if such funding is obtained from terrorist or other banned organizations, and making public instances where activists have expressed extremist and/or anti-Semitic views. The goal can be to deter the activists from continuing their activities, the sources explained. Psy-Group’s work in this field was financed by private donors, The Times of Israel was told but could not independently confirm.

Although he said he could not specify which pro-Israel organizations Kela Shlomo works with — it would be unfair to do so, he said, without getting their assent — Kuperwasser stated firmly in our interview that Kela Shlomo has no connections with companies such as Psy-Group and Black Cube. “I don’t know if these companies did work for the government,” he added. “Maybe they did something wonderful.” But Kela Shlomo, he repeated, would not work with them.

“If somebody asks Kela Shlomo to do something that is questionable, I will argue that we shouldn’t,” he said. “But I don’t see any reason to believe that this is going to be the case.”

As for Israel Cyber Shield — a third mysterious company which, according to a recent Haaretz report that has been vigorously disputed — collected intelligence on American Muslim activist and BDS supporter Linda Sarsour, Kuperwasser indicated that the report was erroneous. Asked what he knew about Israel Cyber Shield, and its relationship if any to Kela Shlomo, Kuperwasser declined to comment.

Other sources familiar with Kela Shlomo indicated that there is or was a relationship of some kind between the two entities. The Times of Israel was given confusing information, with suggestions that Kela Shlomo actually grew out of Israel Cyber Shield, or that open-source, information-gathering work by Israel Cyber Shield pointed to the need for Kela Shlomo, or that Israel Cyber Shield continues to collect legitimate information on behalf of Kela Shlomo. Another pro-Israel organization indicated that it works, intermittently, with Israel Cyber Shield, which it said does valuable, reliable, open-source research on BDS activists and activism.

While Kuperwasser insisted that Kela Shlomo’s activities would be not merely legal and moral, but also above any remote reproach — “We don’t feel there’s a need to do anything problematic in order to fight this war,” he said — others familiar with Kela Shlomo offered a slightly different stance. Nothing illegal or immoral would be done, The Times of Israel was told, but the BDS world is a dirty world, and if Israel’s supporters weren’t prepared to fight back in kind, they wouldn’t get anywhere.

Where might the line be drawn? It was indicated by one person that creating and utilizing fake social media identities to disseminate accurate information about BDS activists would be acceptable, for instance, while disseminating fake information would not. Several others, by contrast, said that any kind of fakery would be unacceptable.

The alleged practices of Black Cube and Psy-Group, as claimed in the West Face Capital law suit, plainly do not meet that latter standard.

A partnership to steer clear of

As I said above, my point in this piece is to sound notes of caution. From what I can judge, Kela Shlomo is a well-intentioned organization that seeks to protect Israel on the second battlefield by funding a strategic effort to legitimately counter anti-Israel campaigners and empower pro-Israel activists.

In which case, it seems clear to me, its leaders should be extremely wary of a partnership with a ministry that — by definition, like any government ministry — is helmed by a political leadership that does not share Kela Shlomo’s nonpartisan mindset.

In addition, as numerous staffers at pro-Israel and Jewish organizations stressed repeatedly to The Times of Israel, the involvement of government in grassroots pro-Israel advocacy can be wildly counterproductive. “Organizations like ours won’t jeopardize our independence by taking money from the ministry,” said one such senior staffer. “But more broadly, the involvement of government politicians can often be deeply unhelpful.” Grassroots anti-BDS activity, The Times of Israel heard repeatedly, should be left to grassroots activists, who don’t want to be compromised by a perceived association with this or that coalition or minister.

BDS Argentina’s call to the Argentine national soccer team to boycott a friendly match against Israel planned for June 9. The hashtag #ArgentinaNoVayas means ‘Argentina don’t go.’ (BDS Argentina Facebook page)

One staffer cited this month’s cancellation of the Israel-Argentina friendly soccer match in Jerusalem as an example of radically unhelpful political involvement. The match would have gone ahead had it been played, as originally scheduled, in Haifa, where it could have highlighted the city’s Jewish-Arab coexistence. Instead, when the government got involved and had it moved to Jerusalem, in what was regarded as a politicization of the match, Argentina pulled out.

Likewise, the guaranteed way to cause problems for next year’s Eurovision Song Contest, this staffer said, would be for politicians to seek to ensure it is held in Jerusalem — a gambit the government initially sought to pursue but, shaken by the Argentina fiasco, now seems to have abandoned.

Britney Spears performs in Tel Aviv on July 3, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Several pro-Israel activists also lamented that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other ministers, however unwittingly, bring a counterproductive political dimension to concerts and events by some performers who come to Israel, simply by meeting or seeking to meet with them. Both Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, for instance, were widely reported to have backed out at the last minute from meeting Netanyahu when playing concerts here in recent years — understandably so, said the activists, since such meetings would make them still greater targets for the BDS activists who try to deter artists from appearing here.

Whose red lines?

As the leadership of Kela Shlomo is doubtless well aware, the world of pro-Israel advocacy is filled with innumerable organizations, each with its own agenda, each with its own red lines. Forging the appropriate relationships, with the appropriate organizations, will be crucial to Kela Shlomo’s declared goal, as articulated by Kupperwasser, of avoiding “anything problematic.”

And into this field also now come those various covert Israeli companies — for-profit companies, boasting of their secretive capabilities, offering tantalizing promises of success, whose red lines may well be drawn in very different places.

Psy-Group marketing material

Ex-Israeli intelligence officers have enjoyed a degree of success with their private intel companies because of the stellar reputation of Israel’s state intelligence apparatuses. Who but the Mossad would have dreamed up, much less carried out, the astoundingly audacious operation in Tehran earlier this year to remove Iran’s own nuclear weapons program archive from under the regime’s nose — cracking open safes and spiriting colossal amounts of material out of the country and back to Israel?

If there is vital covert work to be done in the national defense of Israel, needless to say, it should be done by Israel’s state security services

But even the Mossad has been guilty of hubris on occasion — botching the attempted assassination of Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal in Amman in 1997, for instance, and leaving far more evidence of its alleged presence than intended in Dubai when allegedly assassinating Hamas arms deal Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in 2010.

Ex-Israeli intelligence officers may believe themselves to be capable of outsmarting all adversaries. But the rising tide of headlines surrounding the activities of their companies indicates that the dark arts are being brought into the light.

If there is vital covert work to be done in the national defense of Israel, needless to say, it should be done by Israel’s state security services — and not by their former employees, working at private companies outside the framework of Israel’s legal checks and balances.

The way it should be done

A staffer at one pro-Israel organization, asked whether it has accepted money from Erdan’s ministry, said that, far from doing so, his organization quickly left a meeting at which the offer was made.

Another staffer, at another organization, said it was ironic that, for years, pro-Israel groups had been trying to alert the Israeli government to the gravity of the BDS challenge, only to be rebuffed, whereas today, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs was trying to throw money at pro-Israel groups and “can’t give it away” because, by definition, the ministry’s involvement politicizes and complicates their work, including in terms of its legality.

Kela Shlomo would be much smarter staying away from the well-funded embrace of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and instead fully and directly controlling the money it raises

Kela Shlomo would appear to be the mechanism by which the ministry seeks to overcome those obstacles. But Kela Shlomo would be much smarter staying away from the well-funded embrace of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, and instead fully and directly controlling the money it raises and independently ensuring the highest operating standards of the organizations and activities it funds.

As for the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, this was a construct — like the ministry of public diplomacy before it, and the ministry of information before that — initially created for narrow domestic political reasons: Jobs had to be found for ambitious politicians, and when there weren’t enough ministerial posts to go round, new ministries were created.

Three years ago, when the current coalition began to govern and Erdan was appointed to run the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, Israeli diplomats anonymously warned of the likely fiasco as various Foreign Ministry powers were divvied up among no fewer than six ministers; a year later, in May 2016, the State Comptroller issued a report castigating the dysfunctional Israeli leadership for failing utterly in the battle against BDS. Underlining his point, a few weeks later, Israeli diplomats in London reportedly cabled home to the Foreign Ministry that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs was working behind the embassy’s back, was causing consternation in the Jewish community, and risked violating British law.

Today, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs has secured a much-enlarged budget — which it seeks to spend without transparency — and enlarged responsibilities, some which were previously the purview of ministries such as Justice, Interior and Foreign Affairs. Tomorrow, as Israel’s domestic politics shift, and ministers come and go, its finances and indeed its entire fate will shift with them.

For now, rather than taking public center stage and loudly predicting its successes, as its minister has done, while trying to secretively allocate taxpayers’ money — including to pro-Israel organizations some of which have been discomfited by its approaches — the ministry might usefully be scaled back to its previous dimensions, to concentrate on national strategy. Erdan, meanwhile, could focus on his other, hardly marginal, area of responsibility — as the minister of public security, in charge of our overstrained police force, which has proved so appallingly derelict in tackling the global plague of Israeli-controlled white-collar crime.

Israel’s marginalized Foreign Ministry — which underestimated the second battlefield threat to Israel for years, and failed to act effectively to counter it — should be directed to do at least that part of the work it should have been doing, via fully transparent mechanisms, to meet the challenges of the hour. What the Foreign Ministry might need is a strategic blueprint of the kind Kuperwasser helped develop all those years ago, and an actual minister of its own — the position has been held by the prime minister for the past three years — to shake it up and make sure the job is done.

BDS may be a dirty business, but pro-Israel advocacy must not go down into the sewer with it. Both because it’s wrong and because it will boomerang. The repercussions when any such activity is exposed, and exposed it assuredly would be, are certain to far outweigh any benefit.

BDS activists seek to undermine Israel’s very legitimacy, Yossi Kuperwasser told The Times of Israel. So, the methods of countering them, he rightly stressed, must always be strictly above board. “This is a war for legitimacy,” he said of Kela Shlomo’s activities. “You have to prove that you are doing the legitimate stuff.”

Activists from the group Reservists on Duty, in T-shirts reading ‘Defending freedom from hate,’ hold a counterprotest in front of a Boycott, Divestment and Sanction display on a college campus. (Courtesy Reservists on Duty)
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