Gov't projects meant to improve Israel's image 'lack planning, management and implementation; don't achieve their goals'

Dysfunctional Israeli leadership failing utterly in battle against BDS, state watchdog warns

Highlighting dismal propaganda performance during 2014 war, comptroller cites lack of overall strategy, absent funding, divisions between ministries, failure to coordinate with IDF

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

A 2014 Middle East Monitor cartoon shows an Israeli war plane bombing Gaza while a 'BDS' missile heads toward the plane. (Courtesy)
A 2014 Middle East Monitor cartoon shows an Israeli war plane bombing Gaza while a 'BDS' missile heads toward the plane. (Courtesy)

The Foreign Ministry has no overall strategy, lacks funds and is failing to achieve its goals in the battle against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel, a damning state comptroller’s report charged on Tuesday.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s annual report criticized a range of “failings” in the ministry, underlining an inability to present any significant achievements in the battle against the BDS movement that has targeted Israel over its alleged mistreatment of the Palestinians.

Prominent among the failures in dealing with BDS, the report highlights shortcomings during the 2014 Gaza War.

“A lack of cooperation between the Foreign Ministry and the army spokesman, and a lack of speed in getting information to the media, brought about an advocacy failure during Operation Protective Edge,” the report says, using the army moniker for the conflict.

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (R) hands the latest State Comptroller's report to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on May 24, 2016. (Issac Harari/Flash90)
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira (R) hands the latest State Comptroller’s report to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein on May 24, 2016. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

“Foreign Ministry projects meant to improve Israel’s image in target communities around the world are lacking in their planning, management and implementation, and are failing to achieve their designated goals,” the report added.

While recent years have seen significant efforts to contend with BDS, the report says the ministry “has a hard time presenting achievements relating to efforts to delegitimize Israel around the world: in academic circles, culture, trade unions and the general public in the target countries.”

The report highlights a number of reasons for the apparent failures, repeatedly pointing to challenges surrounding the relatively new Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Relations.

An amalgamation of various minor ministries that were created over the past 10 years to provide government roles for coalition partners, the Strategic Affairs Ministry was given specific responsibility for dealing with BDS in 2013. The report, however, says that the division of work between it and the Foreign Ministry was never clearly defined.

“Not only was there no cooperation between the new [ministry] and the Foreign Ministry, but there was an active power struggle between the two over responsibilities and resources,” the report says.

“As of 2015, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Relations has still not put into place its own operational work plans and still lacks the operational advantages that are built into the Foreign Ministry, including the professional knowledge and experience… required to manage a campaign effectively against BDS,” the report adds. “Reports from missions abroad have made it clear that the problems in this area have steadily exacerbated.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently the foreign minister, while the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Relations, headed by Gilad Erdan, also falls under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Asked Tuesday if the prime minister had any response to the claims leveled against the ministries he directly manages, a spokesperson for Netanyahu said the Foreign Ministry was responsible. The Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

Shapira’s report said that a number of ministries dealing with foreign policy showed a lack of structural management and cooperation between the different bodies.

The confusion can be dated back to the ministerial appointments following the March 2015 elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (left) in the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (left) in the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem on September 7, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Refusing to appoint a full-time foreign minister, Netanyahu kept the job for himself and tapped Likud MK Tzipi Hotovely as his deputy. He tasked then-interior minister Silvan Shalom, who recently resigned amid claims of sexual harassment, with heading up any future peace talks with the Palestinians, and made Naftali Bennett the diaspora minister and Gilad Erdan minister for public diplomacy and strategic affairs.

The report also pointed to a lack of budget for Foreign Ministry, and recommended an increase in the ministry’s funding in the annual state budget.

According to figures revealed in a May meeting of the Knesset Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs and Public Diplomacy, only about eight percent of the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget is used for diplomatic activity, with the rest spent on manpower, security and other logistical and administrative needs.

In 2015, just NIS 132 million ($33 million) of the ministry’s total budget of NIS 1.65 billion ($423 million) was spent on what officials call diplomatic activities: development aid, conferences and hasbara (public diplomacy). By comparison, the ministry paid significantly more — NIS 231 million ($59 million), or 14% of the annual budget — on security for Israeli missions abroad.

In February, former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman and former finance minister Yair Lapid held a joint Knesset conference attacking the government’s approach to and budget for foreign policy, specifically noting a lack in the ministry’s ability to deal with the threat of BDS.

The two lamented plans to close Israeli embassies and consulates across the globe and called on Netanyahu to appoint a full-time foreign minister and immediately embark on diplomatic initiatives to improve the country’s international standing.

Yesh Atid leader Lapid further decried the fact that only one half of one percent of the national state budget goes to the Foreign Ministry and that its responsibilities have been delegated to various other ministries.

“Israeli hasbara is spread out over five ministries, and none knows what the others are doing. It doesn’t have to be like that,” he said. “We can win. Israel can be accepted and beloved and its version of things can be heard. But we need to work on it. It’s possible.”

The Foreign Ministry’s budget for public advocacy stands at a mere NIS 5 million ($1.28 million) per year, Liberman said at the time. “What campaign against BDS [the anti-Israel boycott, divest and sanctions movement] can we talk about?”

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report

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