Israel seen as a ‘pariah state,’ says top strategy official

Strategic Affairs Ministry head says BDS pushed on defensive, hopeful that existence of the Jewish state won’t be questioned by 2025

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Protesters urging a boycott against Israel in Melbourne, file photo (CC-BY SA Takver/Wikimedia Commons)
Protesters urging a boycott against Israel in Melbourne, file photo (CC-BY SA Takver/Wikimedia Commons)

A top official engaged in the campaign to improve Israel’s international standing said Sunday the Jewish state is seen as an apartheid “pariah state” abroad, while expressing the hope that by 2025, no one will question Israel’s right to exist.

Director-General of the Strategic Affairs Ministry Sima Vaknin-Gil also told the Knesset Special Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information that Israel is making progress against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, the Haaretz newspaper reported.

“Today, among the countries of the world, Israel is a pariah state,” she said. “Our objective is that in 2025 nobody in the world will raise the question ‘does Israel have the right to exist?'”

Vaknin-Gil said her ministry has set up a team of 10 staff members to change how Israel presents itself to the world.

Sima Vaknin-Gil (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Hidro, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Sima Vaknin-Gil (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Hidro, CC BY-SA 3.0)

“From my point of view, success will be a change in the narrative about Israel in the world. That the narrative in the world won’t be that Israel equals apartheid,” she said.

The ministry, she explained, is interested in working with as many organizations as possible — both those that praise and those that criticize Israel — so long as they recognize Israel’s right to exist.

The ministry is of the opinion that “although severe criticism of Israel is legitimate, rejecting the right for Israel to exist is illegitimate,” Vaknin-Gil said.

While noting that, as a civil servant, she doesn’t comment on political matters, the official opined that “whoever accepts our existence here, including the biggest critics, is a partner. Whoever doesn’t is an opponent. If there is an organization that says we need to give back all of the [Palestinian] territories, but recognizes Israel’s existence as a nation-state — to me, that is a partner. Even if there are those who don’t like it.”

Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, December 15, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, December 15, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Vaknin-Gil also told the committee that the tide is shifting regarding the BDS movement, with boycott activists pushed on the defensive.

“There is a strategic competition between us and our opponent,” she said referring to the BDS movement. “We are moving from restraining and responding to initiating and attacking.” She said Israel was using both “secret channels” and public campaigns to push back against the boycott movement, leaving BDS activists “on the defensive.”

Committee chair MK Stav Shaffir (Zionist Union) quizzed Vaknin-Gil for details about the work plan and the ministry’s budget.

Vaknin-Gil, who previously served as the head of the military censor’s office, agreed to provide only a few details, saying additional information could only be given at a closed meeting of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

However, she revealed that the ministry’s budget for 2016 to counter delegitimization of Israel is NIS 44 million ($11 million) out of a total NIS 128 million ($33 million) government budget for the issue.

She stressed that the ministry ought to keep its activities under wraps and said she has asked the Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan to refrain from talking publicly about its plans, the report said.

“We want most of the work by the Strategic Affairs Ministry to be classified. There is a lot of sensitivity and I cannot even explain in a public forum why there is sensitivity.”

“A lot of what we do is under the radar,” she added.

The director-general also told the committee that the ministry will be moving its office to Tel Aviv — although part of it will remain in Jerusalem — and that the reasons for the move are secret.

However, according to Haaretz, Erdan said several months ago that that the move was in order to be closer to the IDF command and the headquarters of various intelligence agencies.

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