For several years, Israeli government ministries have been debating who is authorized to deal with countering the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement abroad. While it has long been suspected that this effort was being led by the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, a recent Freedom of Information (FOI) request reveals that the Israeli Justice Ministry has been directly involved in hiring international law firms to combat European BDS activists and NGOs.
In September 2016, Attorney Eitay Mack filed a FOI request on behalf of several Israeli human rights activists to the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Strategic Affairs in an attempt to discover their links with possible funding of foreign bodies to combat BDS. To their surprise, it was revealed that the Justice Ministry is directly involved.
Mack and his clients are now appealing to have the identity of the foreign organizations or firms revealed. The question was before the court yesterday and in an email to supporters before the hearing Mack explained:
“In response to our FOI request, the Justice Ministry admitted it is secretly paying international law firms in order to combat European BDS activists and NGOs, and sent partial, censored documents. It refused to provide additional documents so as to shield the identity of the law firms and the type of services rendered, for which they are being paid millions of Shekels of tax-payers money. The reason given was that exposure’ would damage Israel’s foreign relations and the work of the Ministry’.
It appears, however, that the refusal to expose the identity of and services rendered by the law firms is aimed at avoiding embarrassment to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. While Minister Shaked is promoting legislation aimed at to compelling Israeli human rights NGOs to expose their foreign donors, it now seems the Ministry itself is financing foreign bodies working against European citizens and NGOs in order to influence European public opinion which is increasingly supportive of BDS.”
Although the Justice Ministry is fighting to avoid revealing who exactly it is paying, the ministry has already provided an overview of its role. In response to a follow-up FOI request filed by Mack, the Justice Ministry explained (PDF, Hebrew):
5. On the 12th December 2016 a response was sent to the representative of the plaintiffs, from the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Hasbara [sic]. In this letter it was stated, inter alia, that in the National Security Cabinet decision of October 2015, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs was bestowed overall responsibility to lead the battle against the phenomena of delegitimization and boycotts against Israel, and within this to represent the position of the government against extra-governmental organizations in Israel and abroad in regards to the battle, and to act in coordination with them for the furtherance of the goals of the battle. Concerning the request for information by the plaintiffs, it was responded there, that the Ministry of Strategic Affairs did not actively contact organizations abroad.
6. On the 29th of May 2017, a response from the Foreign Ministry was also sent to the plaintiffs, wherein it was informed that it was not possible to locate the relevant bodies which deal with communication with foreign bodies for the purpose mentioned in the plaintiff request, or [which deal with] documentation concerning financing given to foreign bodies for this purpose by the Foreign Ministry. Furthermore, the Foreign Ministry has referred the plaintiffs to the Justice Ministry […] [my emphasis].
7. On the 16th of October 2017, the Justice Ministry provided a response. Inter alia, it was written that “in the Justice Ministry there exists information concerning communications of the Justice Ministry – the Department for Special Positions (International) with law firms abroad, in order to deal with the phenomena of BDS with legal tools. The documents in possession of the Ministry and which are relevant to the request, include: protocols and decisions of the Ministerial Survey Committee, protocols and decision by the Ministerial Exemption Committee as well as protocol for contact with lawyers abroad”. These documents were added to the Ministry decision, but it was added that “in accordance with paragraph 11 of the law, which enables passing of information yet omission of details, details have been omitted from the attached documents which are considered to be information wherein there is concern that if revealed, may harm the foreign relations of the state, … information regarding internal discussions, opinions and recommendations which were given towards the decision making, … as well as information which if revealed may damage the proper workings of the public authority or its ability to carry out its duties, …”. [emphasis in original].
It would appear that the various ministries involved have been passing on the hot potato, and that they have passed it on to a ministry which was not even suspected of complicity in this international anti-BDS campaign.
Israel’s efforts to fight BDS abroad
The original FOI request coincided with revelations concerning Israel’s clandestine activities to counter BDS abroad. As Electronic Intifada‘s Ali Abunimah noted, Israel was using ‘black ops’ type activities as if it was a military challenge. “We want most of the ministry’s work to be classified,” said the director general of the BDS task-force, Sima Vaknin-Gil. The task-force is under the Ministry of Stategic Affairs and Hasbara, a new ministry which seems to have BDS as its major focus. “There are many sensitivities, and I can’t even explain in an open forum why there are such sensitivities, a major part of what we do stays under the radar”, Vaknin-Gil said, and added that the ministry aims to “build a community of warriors.”
Just over a year ago, an Al Jazeera undercover documentary series called The Lobby revealed what these activities look like. The expose featured an Israeli operative, Shai Masot, operating straight from the Israeli Embassy in London, plotting to “take down” a British Minister (deputy Foreign Minister Alan Duncan, who expressed critique of Israeli policy).
Now, the plot thickens – even the Israeli Justice Ministry is involved in such activity.
Demanding transparency of government critics
As Mack mentions, it was Justice Minister Shaked herself who has pushed for the passing of the “Transparency bill” nearly two years ago, which forced organizations who receive more than half their funding from institutions abroad (including from European governments), to disclose it prominently in official reports. The law does not specifically refer to leftwing organizations, but applies to about 25 NGOs. Rightwing NGOs, such as those supporting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, tend to rely on private donations, which the law does not cover.
Mack stressed the issue of transparency further in yesterday’s court hearing (text taken from official court minutes, Hebrew):
“We are in a special situation. The respondents have not replied in their response to constitutional procedures in Israel regarding human rights organizations. I believe that the respondents should have dealt with the quotes we have brought of the Justice Minister who opined in a sweeping manner, that when a state finances activity in another state, there is importance to heightened transparency. If the sacred value is transparency – then the value of transparency is universal. There is a difficulty here to which I have not received response from the respondents. Perhaps the answer lies in the secret documents. Why is it that we cannot apply the claims of the Justice Minister concerning transparency?”
The State representative, attorney Brown responded:
“We are really not part with the theoretical and hardened arguments of my fellow colleague nor with the concerns due to which he believes that the public interest is heightened. We think that balance leads to the conclusion, that there is no place to reveal more than that which has already been revealed.”
The Israeli Justice Ministry is thus now in major focus – and the minister who ironically has been adamant about “transparency” appears very wary of transparency in this particular case.
We have yet to see what more may be revealed in this plot. But one thing is clear – the Israeli Ministry of Justice is major player in the international anti-BDS and “anti-delegitimization” campaign.
Whether more details may be revealed at this time, will be decided by the court in its verdict, which is pending.
Thanks to Eitai Mack, Ronit Lentin