The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has distanced itself from comments attributed to the former director of its US office that it sought to assist Israeli government propaganda against the movement for Palestinian rights and accountability for Israeli crimes.
Uri Zaki, who was initially identified by Ynet as the director of B’Tselem USA, told the Israeli publication that his organization’s efforts to help combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement had been rebuffed by the government, which only wanted to work with more right-leaning organizations.
“Uri Zaki’s term of employment at B’Tselem USA ended in May 2013,” B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli told The Electronic Intifada in response to an inquiry about the Ynet report. “If quoted accurately, his comments were not expressed on behalf of either B’Tselem or B’Tselem USA, nor do they reflect the policies of either.”
Ynet later updated its article to describe Zaki as the “former” director of B’Tselem USA.
Michaeli did not elaborate on why Uri Zaki left the organization but the former staffer’s comments nevertheless raise troubling questions about how B’Tselem’s US advocacy arm has functioned, even after his departure.
Driving a wedge
The 28 June Ynet article titled “Rift in Foreign Ministry prevents effective fight against BDS” looked at philosophical differences within Israel’s state hasbara, or propaganda, apparatus on how best to block the momentum of the Palestinian rights movement.
In a 2010 strategy paper that shaped the approach of Israel and its international lobby, the Reut Institute, a think tank with close ties to the government, argued that Israel should work closely with mild, liberal critics of the country’s policies the better to isolate so-called “delegitimizers” – those who support BDS.
According to Ynet, Reut’s director of policy and strategy Eran Shayshon “has been explaining to government representatives over the past few years that it is important to divide and drive a wedge between the leaders of the BDS campaign, but they were unable to reach a consensus on the issue, especially when it came to the political echelons.”
“To achieve this goal,” Shayshon says, “we explained to the government representatives that we have to operate with as large a base as possible; meaning, recruit not only right-wing agencies and groups to the fight, but also left-wing groups who criticize the government.”
B’Tselem and the US Israel lobby group J Street are offered as prime examples of such “left-wing” assets in Israel’s fight against BDS.
“Among other things, meetings were held in Washington and in Israel between representatives of the Foreign Ministry and the Strategic Affairs Ministry with J Street (which represents the Jewish left in the US), B’Tselem and others,” Ynet reports.
B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli did not respond to The Electronic Intifada’s question about the group’s participation in such meetings.
The Ynet report continues:
“It’s a major missed opportunity,” B’Tselem’s former US Director Uri Zaki says. “I went to universities in the United States, specifically on Apartheid Week, in order to explain that I was an Israeli patriot, and to oppose the boycotts. Like the Jewish left-wing groups in America who joined the fight against the boycott, our position has great influence. It is true that we will not fight a boycott of settlement products, but our efficacy in the fight over sovereign Israel’s good name is very obvious, much more than that of right-wing groups.
“It’s a shame that those who took over the hasbara efforts are excluding us for political reasons,” he adds.
Incidentally, B’Tselem has already proven its contribution when it strongly criticized the Goldstone Report, which greatly embarrassed South African jurist Richard Goldstone. Even now, after the release of the UN report on Operation Protective Edge, the fight against the boycott would surely be more effective if a way can be found to include Israeli human rights groups.
The Goldstone report, an independent inquiry commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council, found evidence of extensive war crimes and crimes against humanity by Israel during its 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza.
In 2012, B’Tselem and its US office came under strong criticism from Palestinian human rights organizations for proclaiming that it was a “proud sponsor” of a J Street gala featuring former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert as a keynote speaker.
Olmert had been in charge during Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon and the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza which, together with other actions by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza during his term of office, killed more than 3,000 Lebanese and Palestinians.
In an effort at damage control, B’Tselem’s then executive director Jessica Montell had claimed that the email announcing the organization’s sponsorship of the Olmert gala had been a “mistake.”
But Montell also angrily scolded Palestinian human rights organizations for their “conduct” in speaking out against B’Tselem’s participation in the gala.
Yet B’Tselem did not apparently learn anything from the “mistake.” In September 2013, B’Tselem USA once again openly aligned itself with Israel lobby efforts to defeat the Palestinian rights movement.
It touted its “strategic cooperation with J Street” and promoted its participation in the J Street conference. “We are encouraged to know that this conference will feature remarks by US Vice President Joe Biden and many other distinguished partners and allies and proud [sic] to share the stage with them,” B’Tselem USA proclaimed.
Biden, a staunch defender and abetter of Israeli crimes as part of the Obama administration, was joined at the conference by Israeli war crimes fugitive Tzipi Livni.
This was four months after Uri Zaki’s departure, indicating that B’Tselem’s “strategic” alignment with anti-Palestinian groups was not the product of a lone individual’s vision.
J Street has a long record of staunchly supporting Israeli military attacks on Palestinians including all the major assaults on Gaza, opposing key Palestinian rights including the right of return, and proclaiming itself a leader in the battle against BDS.
Signs of change?
Jessica Montell stepped down as the director of B’Tselem in March 2014 and was replaced by Hagai El-Ad.
Nonetheless, B’Tselem USA continues to count among its advisors such figures as “liberal” Zionist pundit Peter Beinart, who is on record opposing “full, equal citizenship” for Palestinian citizens of Israel.
There is no doubt that over the years B’Tselem has done important documentation of Israel’s crimes in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. But such work is entirely incompatible with taking any sort of role in Israeli state propaganda and requires explicit condemnation of such whitewashing.
Even if it has yet to make a clean break, B’Tselem’s new leadership may have become more reluctant to align itself so publicly with Israeli war criminals and anti-Palestinian lobby groups.
There is no doubt B’Tselem must do more if it is to retain any credibility.