The Israeli Foreign Service fails to reap the fruits of local innovation. Its diplomats continue to conduct the same type of “old diplomacy,” but with new tools. The April 2019 elections in Israel may present an opportunity to reinvent the foreign service as one which embraces innovation as an operational concept, rather than treating it merely as a tool for public relations.
"Augmented reality" on a cellphone | Photo: Daniel Frank on Unsplash
From the “light upon nations” to the “Startup Nation,” the State of Israel and its people have always considered themselves leaders, and in terms of technological innovation, the world sees them as such. Businesspeople and public figures from all over the world flock to Israel to acquire technology, innovative developments, and Israeli companies. Israeli innovation is not limited to Check Point or Mobileye; it also includes the household products that every Israeli knows, such as Soda-Stream, which identified global consumption trends and successfully reinvented itself.
Yet there is one crucial area that continuously falls behind and fails to reap the fruits of Israeli innovation—our foreign relations, and more specifically, our foreign service. While there have been numerous efforts to revitalize and modernize Israeli diplomacy, such as the extensive use of social networks, in practice this is merely practicing “old diplomacy” with new tools. If you ask the average Israeli diplomat if he works with innovative tools, he will answer, "Of course! Look at how active we are on Facebook and Twitter." Practically, this means they take the press releases drafted in Jerusalem and upload them to social media.
Unfortunately, switching from fax to Facebook does not qualify as innovation.
Innovation means knowing how to take advantage of new technologies to advance policy goals. The business world already understands that utilizing Big Data can change the results of negotiations, and the ways in which businesses can engage with new audiences using virtual reality and augmented reality. The US Army was a pioneer in this field with its development of a special computer game called “America's Army,” which was launched in 2002 with the goal of encouraging recruitment to its ranks. This free and downloadable game, which put the player in the shoes of a virtual American soldier, became one of the most popular of its kind, and made a military career desirable at a time when its image was at a low point.
Imagine an augmented reality game that shows how Israeli innovations play a central role in the daily lives of each user through his or her phone screen. That would be effective public diplomacy
Imagine a virtual reality game that depicts the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through Israeli eyes, or a “Pokemon Go”-type of augmented reality game, which shows how Israeli innovations play a central role in the daily lives of every user through his or her phone screen. That would be effective public diplomacy—one which engages with its audience under terms that its members understand.
Innovation is not just about technology; it is first and foremost a worldview. A prime example of this sentiment is Israel's former ambassador to Norway, Rafi Schutz. In 2017, when he realized that the traditional reception that the embassy organizes for Israel’s Independence Day yielded little political gain, he decided to find a more efficient way to utilize its budget. Schutz took one of the prominent issues facing the Norwegians – spinal cord injuries resulting from ski accidents – and introduced them to ReWalk, an Israeli company that develops unique exoskeletons to help those with back injuries regain the ability to stand and walk.
On Israel's Independence Day, the Norwegians learned how ties to Israel can serve their interests, namely through exposure to Israeli technology. They also benefited from a donation of several ReWalk exoskeleton devices to injured Norwegians, funded by the embassy and an anonymous donor. Since then, Norwegians no longer associate Israel only with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or with the Oslo Accords, but with cutting-edge medical innovations that have the ability to change their lives.
No one thinks that taking an old institution (specifically one from the public sector) and creating a conceptual and intellectual revolution will be an easy feat. This is especially true regarding the Israeli Foreign Service, which in the past decade has been dealt blow after blow and has had many of its responsibilities distributed among several government ministries. It is difficult to expect an institution in decline, which receives little support from the establishment, to adapt itself to the changing reality.
The 2019 elections in Israel could be an opportunity not only to rehabilitate the Foreign Service, but to reinvent it. Regardless of its party composition, one of the next government’s first steps should be the appointment of a full-time foreign minister and the initiation of a profound conceptual change in the foreign service—one that views Israeli innovation as an operational concept, and not just as a tool for “Hasbara.”
A healthy, functional, and innovative foreign service is in Israel's national interest. Priding ourselves on the creation of the USB flash drive and cherry tomatoes did the trick in the early 2000s, but the time to move on is long overdue. Israeli diplomacy can and should lead this effort.
Ron Prosor is the head of the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. He is the former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations and the United Kingdom, and the former Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.