Israeli ministry paying for anti-BDS propaganda in major news outlets

Itamar Benzaquen

+972 Magazine  /  January 14, 2020

The Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is leading the international campaign against BDS, is buying space in mainstream Israeli newspapers to promote its messages under the guise of published articles.

The Israeli government recently paid tens of thousands of shekels to the Jerusalem Post in order to publish a series of articles connecting the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS) to anti-Semitism, according to the government’s own procurement department.

The articles were part of a “package” purchased by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs that included branding, advertising, a slot at a recent Jerusalem Post conference, and the articles themselves, which appeared in the run-up to the conference. The Jerusalem Post denied that the articles had been paid for.

The Strategic Affairs Ministry, headed by Likud minister Gilad Erdan, has for years been spearheading an international campaign to counter what it sees as “de-legitimization” of the State of Israel. This project has, in large part, involved providing funds and handing down directives to non-governmental organizations and journalists in order to enlist them in the fight against BDS.

The ministry prides itself on having created a “network” of domestic and international organizations to implement its policies. Believing that official government propaganda is ineffective, the ministry instead funnels its messaging via individuals and institutions who are perceived as unconnected to the state. The ministry has refused to release the list of entities belonging to this network, although some of them were revealed in a 2017 investigation by The Seventh Eye.

Leading the anti-BDS network is “Concert” (previously “Solomon’s Sling”), a company that is supposed to receive 128 million shekels in order to conduct “mass consciousness activities,” although the organization received far less due to fundraising difficulties.

Media outlets occupy the outer reaches of the network, receiving funds from the ministry in order to effectively provide PR services to the various organizations and individuals involved, including Strategic Affairs Ministry officials — chief among them Tzachi Gabrieli, the “campaign manager” who was appointed director-general of the ministry last year.

The ministry’s campaign to purchase space in newspapers began in summer 2017. The Jerusalem Post was one of the first media outlets to be involved, along with the Keshet broadcasting company and the Yedioth Ahronoth group. At the time, the Israeli government paid about NIS 120,000 to place articles in the Jerusalem Post — a relatively small chunk of the campaign’s roughly 7 million shekel budget.

According to a Finance Ministry document, the government’s latest arrangement with the Jerusalem Post is supposed to include paid content that will reflect the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s messaging. The ministry paid around NIS 70,000 to “sponsor” the Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference that took place on November 21. The fee was intended to provide the ministry with a “30-minute panel on the fight against the boycott movement,” including “a screening of a film produced by the ministry exposing the narrative about BDS and anti-Semitism” and an exhibition.

Karin Peretz, who heads the Strategic Affairs Ministry’s “public arena” arm, wrote on the Finance Ministry document that the payment was also intended to promote the ministry’s “sponsored content” and to get it viewed by as many people as possible—both through broadcasting the Jerusalem Post conference panel and by making sure it was widely reported on. The Jerusalem Post, in its own report on the panel, omitted the source of the panel’s funding.

In the weeks leading up to the conference, the Jerusalem Post published numerous articles and opinion pieces on the “links between BDS and anti-Semitism.” In one op-ed, based on a report by the Strategic Affairs Ministry, American-Jewish philanthropist Adam Milstein declared BDS the “new face of the old anti-Semitism.”

The ministry’s messaging has also popped up in a string of Jerusalem Post news reports over the past few months, although the paper denies that the articles were paid for.

“All the articles you sent us are interesting pieces on topics that the paper covers regularly, and were written by reporters and regular opinion contributors,” the Jerusalem Post said in a response to The Seventh Eye. “BDS is one of the central challenges faced by the Jewish world today, so naturally it is an important topic for the Jerusalem Post, the central newspaper for the Jewish diaspora. As a rule, the paper specifies when articles are sponsored.”

A spokesperson for the Strategic Affairs Ministry initially declined to respond when asked to explain the discrepancy between the Jerusalem Post’s version of events and that of Peretz as one of the ministry’s own officials. However, after the original version of this article was published (in Hebrew), the ministry spokesperson told The Seventh Eye that “the relationship with the Jerusalem Post does not include a series of articles. There was an error in the statement [by Peretz] published on the [government procurement] website.”

Itamar Baz is a reporter for The Seventh Eye – Israel’s only independent media watchdog.