Silencing critics will only reinforce image of Israel as a bully
In recent years Israel has been developing approaches to combat the criticism it receives, both for the lack of progress towards peace with the Palestinians and increasingly for policies it develops and implements.
This can be traced to a significant 2010 report, produced by the Reut Institute, that claimed: “Israel has been subjected to increasingly harsh criticism around the world, resulting in an erosion of its international image and exacting a tangible strategic price.”
It identified what it calls “the Delegitimisation Network” and claimed that it “tarnishes Israel’s reputation, constrains its military capabilities and advances the One- State Solution.”
The Reut report diagnosed Israel’s predicament as facing “a systemic, systematic and increasingly effective assault on its political and economic model.” It suggested that “faced with a potentially existential threat, Israel must treat it as such by focusing its intelligence agencies on this challenge; allocating appropriate resources; developing new knowledge, designing a strategy, executing it; and debriefing itself.”
The report suggested that, to combat the “delegitimisers,” Israel should adopt “relationship-based diplomacy with elites;” “engage the critics;” “isolate the delegitimisers;” “NGOs to engage with NGOs;” “mobilise Jewish and Israeli diaspora communities;” “let the local pro-Israel community lead the effort and reorganisation of the foreign affairs establishment.”
Since the publication of the report, it would appear Israel has taken its recommendations on board. It has certainly strengthened its relationship-based diplomacy with elite figures and institutions, most significantly perhaps in the United States and Britain.
All major US presidential candidates in 2016 except Bernie Sanders addressed the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — the main Israel lobby group — affirming their unequivocal support for Israel. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the Conservative Friends of Israel expressing her unshakeable commitment to the country.
Israel has attempted to draw a distinction between “legitimate criticism”’ and ”demonisation and delegitimisation” by trying to establish a line of criticism that, if crossed, moves into demonisation and criticism.
Here, too, Britain and the United States have moved to support this and indeed to accuse the United Nations and some of its agencies, including the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and UNESCO, as having crossed it. Britain put the UNHRC “on notice” for its focus on Israel and the United States recently moved to shift the focus of the UN Security Council’s security concerns in the region to Iran.
A special focus of Israel’s efforts to distinguish between “critics” and “deligitimisers” has been the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. While on the one hand dismissing its effectiveness, it has identified it as an “existential threat.” It set up a task force, initially funded with $25 million, under the Strategic Affairs Ministry led by Gilad Erdan to target the BDS movement.
In February 2016, during the Global Coalition for Israel conference in Jerusalem, Erdan outlined Israel’s strategies for combating the movement that has gained momentum in recent years. Erdan said he hoped that the meeting would signify a turning point in the fight against delegitimisation. “BDS is spreading to more and more countries and fields” he said. His colleague Yisrael Katz, minister for transportation went further, saying: “Israel must carry out targeted civil thwarting of the leadership [of BDS].”
Erdan concluded by stating that Jewish communities around the world play a crucial role. Telling them “you are on the ground and know what is going on.” “I can’t do it alone. We are all on the front line together,” he said.
A combination of mobilising the elite and what are claimed to be “jewish community” organisations, which are in fact pro-israel organisations, has seen a marked rise in the silencing or at least the attempted silencing of israel’s critics. This has targeted “centres for delegitimisation,” identified by the reut report — namely london, paris, toronto, madrid, brussels and the san francisco bay area.
Attempts to silence critics have included the conflation of anti-semitism and anti-zionism through the creation and promotion of a definition of the former to encompass criticism of israel and labelling bds as anti-semitic. Venues that are booked to host pro-palestinian events have been targeted and warned that they are hosting “anti-semitic” events or allowing platforms to anti-semites and “promoters of terror.”
Recently, the israeli knesset passed a law banning proponents of bds from entering israel, even if they promote a boycott of illegal settlements. If fully implemented, the law, which was heavily criticised even by jewish organisations in the west, would also deny entry to jews who promote boycotts.
Observers said the attempts to silence critics were not working but were reinforcing israel’s image of a bully that claims to be a democracy but then silences free speech, a key democratic value.