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Israel's hidden propaganda war

While the BDS movement does not appear to be having a tangible impact on Israel's economy, the government is fighting it with all its might. It seems it fears the future more than the present

Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu was in a triumphant mood last week. His coalition has managed to pass a few controversial laws and his government was about approve its record high budget for 2019: 400 billion Shekel ($117bn). 

“Israel finds itself in an unprecedented phase of political might, economic might and military might and it changes the country beyond recognition,” he said in a speech at an economic conference in Jerusalem on Thursday.

As with every politician, there was a certain amount of bragging in Netanyahu's words. Yet it cannot be denied that Israel looks good in numbers. Its economy grew three percent in 2017, its exports passed the $100bn mark for the first time and the exports of Israeli high-tech companies have more than doubled to a record of $23bn.

Israel's GDP per capita has passed the $40,000 bar, higher than France. Only 10 years ago it stood at $25,000 per capita.

An inquiry in the Seventh Eye revealed that through the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the Israeli government allocated more than $100m in support of 'hidden propaganda' against the BDS movement

Yet early in the same week in which Netanyahu delivered his jubilant speech, his government announced new measures again the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement: it prohibited activists from several allegedly pro-BDS organisations from entering Israel. If Israel's economy is going so well, what has it to fear from a boycott movement which does not seem to have had any real effect so far? 

Last week's move was just another step in a battle Israel is waging against the boycott movement. In 2011 it passed a law which defined any boycott of Israel or “areas under its control” – a legal term used to describe the occupied West Bank – as a “civil wrong”. Anyone infringing this law is liable to pay compensation for the damage done. 

Last year Israel went one step further and passed a law allowing the minister of interior to bar entry to anyone promoting boycott or sanctions against it. The measures announced last week were taken according to the entry ban law. 

There is no doubt that these new measures take Israel further away from its claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East”. Among the organisations named in last week's announcement is the American Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). 

Banned without appeal

This means that a member of this group can emigrate to Israel and win immediate Israeli citizenship according to the Law of Return, yet if she or he calls for a boycott on products coming from Israeli settlements in the West Bank, they will be barred from entering Israel. In other words, entry to Israel, at least for Jews, is dependent on your political views. 

While the boycott law from 2011 demanded a legal process in order to determine if a person's call for boycott caused actual damage, the entry ban law does not require any such thing. The interior minister is free to determine who is “pro-boycott” and who is not, without any real opportunity to appeal. 

Passengers walk past an information board indicating delayed or cancelled flights during a strike at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on 17 December 2017 (AFP)

While the boycott law was aimed mainly at Israeli citizens who oppose the settlements and wish to fight against them, the entry ban is aimed at people and organisations which operate beyond its legal reach.

As most of the organisations barred from entry are based in Europe or the United States, it seems that Israel is even ready to risk straining its relations with these countries, as long as it can continue its fight against the BDS movement.

Last week the Norwegian foreign minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide, protested against the barring of a Norwegian peace activist from returning to Israel. Similar incidents may follow soon. 

Propaganda fund

The ban on BDS activists received a fair amount of attention. But this move is just the tip of the iceberg in Israel's fight against the boycott movement. An inquiry in the Seventh Eye, an Israeli independent website, revealed that through the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the Israeli government allocated more than $100m in support of “hidden propaganda” against the BDS movement and its sympathisers.

Why bother to pay Israeli newspapers for publishing propaganda against the BDS movement, while a huge majority of its Jewish population already oppose it?

The money is channelled to “proxy” organisations outside Israel, which act in favour of Israel's policies and against efforts to boycott it or its settlements, without revealing that they are funded by the Israeli government. Some of the funds go into “buying” favourable coverage in the international and local media.

Just this week the Ministry of Strategic Affairs announced a 128 million shekel ($37m) budget for undescribed “activities for public awareness” in favour of the fight against “delegitimisation” of Israel. As Israel wishes to distance itself from these activities done in its name, it exempted them from any outside scrutiny through the freedom of information law.  

So why is Israel ready to risk its relations with the Jewish diaspora and friendly countries in Europe and spend so much money in an effort to fight the boycott movement, which it claims has little effect on the Israeli economy? Why bother to pay Israeli newspapers for publishing propaganda against the BDS movement, while a huge majority of its Jewish population already oppose it? 

New Zealand singer Lorde cancelled her tour of Israel following criticism by BDS campaigners (AFP)

There are a few possible answers. The first is that this effort is focused inwards, not outwards. The current right-wing government wishes to delegitimise any internal political campaign against the settlements however small or weak it may be. This effort certainly yields results. Opposition to the settlements has all but disappeared from Israeli mainstream media. 

A second answer is that the boycott is gaining some ground, especially concerning Israeli products coming from the settlements in the West Bank. Despite intensive Israeli pressures, the European Union insists on marking products coming from the settlements. SodaStream had to move its plant from the West Bank into Israel. In real numbers, it is hard to see a direct effect of the boycott movement, but the fear is that it may get stronger in the future.

Cultural boycott

On the cultural front, things looks even gloomier for Israel. While the case of Lorde, the New Zealand singer who cancelled her trip to Israel, remains a rare one, every tour of a leading cultural figure is accompanied by doubts whether he or she will eventually arrive. The constant news coverage of the pressures put on them by the BDS movement helps create an impression of siege in Israel.

Nothing scares Israel more than following the South African model during the apartheid regime 

Yet it seems that Israel's greatest worries lie in the future. Almost every Israeli who travels abroad can feel the change of mood regarding Israel. Michael Sfard, a well-known Israeli human rights lawyer, recounts that when he made his first tour in American campuses 10 years ago, he was met with hostility because he was critical of Israel's conduct in the West Bank. Now he is criticised for not supporting a full boycott on Israel.

Nothing scares Israel more than following the South African model during the apartheid regime. It fears that a similar worldwide consensus against it may threaten its very legitimacy. Israel's economy is much stronger than the South African economy used to be in the 80s when it faced an economic boycott, and its international support network is much wider.

But Israel's dependence on the outside world is deeper. Its high-tech industry, for example, will find it difficult to thrive in a hostile international environment. 

Banning BDS activists from entering is not likely to convince them and their supporters to give up their positions. Yet seen through the perspective of the hidden “propaganda war”, this ban makes more sense. Israel tries to delegitimise the boycott movement in the eyes of European and American public opinion.

Banning BDS activists are just a part of this campaign. How successful it will be is yet to be seen, but it certainly shows that for Israel this is its biggest threat, however small it is in the present.

Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for an inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the news department at Haaretz, and now an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on 11 January 2018 (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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