The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is systematically being stripped of its powers and responsibilities by a government which wants to run a foreign policy without public and parliamentary oversight. To reverse the damage to Israel's foreign policy, the Ministry must regain its stature, and decision-making processes must be made transparent and accessible
Ministry of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Jerusalem | Photo: Doronef (CC BY-SA 3.0)
On December 9, 2017, a distinguished diplomat’s letter of resignation was published in a leading magazine. She wrote, in bitter tones: “The department’s position within the interagency has also diminished . . . The trend in this direction will accelerate further with the budget and staffing cuts… leaving few empowered to make hard foreign policy decisions. . . I would urge you to stem the bleeding by showing leadership and a commitment to our people, our mission, and our mandate as the foreign policy arm of [the government].”
The story stated that the Foreign Minister was facing a wave of criticism led by legislators and former senior diplomats, who they deemed responsible for effectively dismantling his office, the “hemorrhaging of top talent, a hiring freeze, and plummeting morale.”
Though it may sound familiar to Israelis, the diplomat quoted above, whose letter was published in Foreign Policy magazine, was referring to the deteriorating condition and stature of the United States Department of State. The resigning diplomat, who was serving in Somalia at the time, is Elizabeth Shackelford, and the minister under attack is former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Some will perhaps find some solace in the fact that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is not the only one struggling with harsh budget cuts and the loss of talented personnel, and that our great ally’s Department of State also faces similar woes under the unorthodox administration of President Donald Trump.
But we must answer the following questions honestly: Would Israel and the US pay the same price for the deteriorating condition of their foreign services? Do both face the same international challenges? Do they each have similar resources to make up for the weakening of the civilian branch that deals with foreign affairs and national security?
The answer to all the above is, of course, negative, though some in the Israeli government would like to think the cases are similar. This would be a grave error. The enormous challenges Israel faces nowadays, as will likely face in the future, demand an appropriate strategy. Alongside strengthening our military, Israel also needs a competent and determined foreign service. Unfortunately, despite the great efforts by many qualified individuals put into building our Foreign Service, Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu is taking it apart, quietly and away from the limelight.
Let us not be mistaken – the actions that have led to the crippling of the Foreign Service have a clear goal: weakening public and parliamentary oversight of the government’s foreign policy. These actions may well serve short-term partisan goals, but they stand largely in contrast to Israel’s national interests. And by working in the shadows, those in charge avert a public debate and parliamentary oversight on the subject.
To begin rebuilding the Foreign Service, the Knesset and the Israeli public must demand both increased transparency in government decision-making process, and the MFA’s reassertion of its foreign policy powers.
The Steady Erosion of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Our first PM David Ben-Gurion used to say that in order to survive, Israel must be both strong and just. Alongside the ability to defend itself militarily, his words point to the importance of Israel’s ability to convey the propriety of its actions, both to its citizens and to its international allies. The latter have demonstrated their influence on the state’s strategic and security interests, both in the short and long terms. A highly capable and professional foreign service is therefore critical for Israel to advance its interests. As a result, and despite the declining public interest in its activities, the MFA affects the lives and futures of all Israeli citizens.
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the MFA has been the chief executive office for formulating and advancing its foreign policy. However, during the last few years, and without public scrutiny, the office has been taken apart and stripped of its powers to the point it can no longer plan or execute long term foreign policy goals. This move has been led by PM (and acting Foreign Minister) Netanyahu. For the past several years, Mr. Netanyahu has been reallocating powers long held by the MFA to numerous other ministries, agencies, and private actors who he considers as loyalists.
Activities in the international arena are nowadays led by several ministries with little to no coordination
To list a few examples, the Prime Minister’s Office was assigned the role of “promoting the government’s policy in Israel and the world via diplomacy and the media;” the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is now in charge of “strengthening the Jewish identity and connection to Israel in the Diaspora;” the Ministry of Strategic Affairs was reorganized so that it may “lead the campaign against the de-legitimization and boycotting of Israel” and “represent the government on matters concerning non-governmental organizations in Israel and the world.”
In addition, the Ministry of Intelligence Services, which has intelligence and strategic responsibilities (but does not control Israel’s intelligence agencies), has lately asserted powers over regional cooperation initiatives, including vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority (PA) – powers which had already been distributed to the Ministry of Regional Cooperation. And finally, MK Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the US, was appointed Deputy Minister of foreign policy in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Yitzhak Molcho, a prominent private attorney and close associate of Mr. Netanyahu, has frequently been representing Israel in International negotiations.
The fragmentation of the foreign service and the lack of clear leadership gravely undermine Israel’s ability to speak to the world with one coherent voice. For instance, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotoveli, has made several statements that deviate from the official position of the MFA. These have more than once caused embarrassment for Israel in the international arena. As one prominent Jewish leader in the US, out of many, who denounced her inflammatory statements, has argued: “If an American politician had made these comments, we would not hesitate to call them out as anti-Semitic. At a minimum they evidence a shocking ignorance.” Mr. Netanyahu also appointed Danny Danon to the senior position of Israel's Permanent Representative to the UN, though he had no prior diplomatic experience.
Alongside the fragmentation of foreign policy functions, Mr. Netanyahu has cloaked the activities of the Foreign Service in secrecy. There are of course certain issues that should not be discussed in public. As chair of the Knesset’s transparency committee, I draw a clear line between debates that must be fully accessible to the public, and those that for security and strategic reasons should remain behind closed doors. Yet this rule does not apply to the majority of the MFA’s activity. The total lack of transparency denies both the public and the Knesset the ability to fully understand the implications of Mr. Netanyahu’s attempts to cripple the MFA.
How does one cripple the MFA without public oversight ?
The distribution of the MFA’s powers to other actors has severely damaged Israel’s ability to promote its foreign policy. When Israel spoke with one voice to the world, leaders like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin could sign peace agreements with our neighbors Egypt and Jordan, and others like Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon could lead unilateral moves, such as withdrawing from Southern Lebanon and the Disengagement from Gaza. Leaders from both sides of the political map, with or without a partner, could lead immense changes.
Today, however, activities in the international arena are led by several offices with little to no coordination between them. Yuval Rotem, Director General of the MFA, appeared in February before the Knesset’s transparency committee. Mr. Rotem said that the activities of his ministry and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs sorely lack coordination. For example, he noted that the MFA has been intentionally downplaying the role of the anti-Israeli BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement in the media, with the aim of delegitimizing it. The Ministry of Strategic Affairs, however, is doing the exact opposite: organizing conferences in places where the BDS movement has strong roots and investing significant resources in promoting them. After coming under heavy criticism, last year the Ministry of Strategic Affairs was exempted from the Freedom of Information act, and is thus under no obligation to report to the public of its activities.
Pro-Palestinian protest in Minnesota, 2013. Each ministry has a different strategy to address the BDS movement | Photo: Fibonnaci Blue, CC BY 2.0
The reality is that the MFA’s staff abroad finds itself executing policy dictated by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, instead of its own. According to Director General Rotem, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs uses the MFA’s resources in many countries only to “disappear for days, their actions unknown, having reported to no one”.
Recent budget cuts within the MFA and the decision to close several Israeli consulates worldwide were also made away from the public eye and without parliamentary scrutiny. One would have assumed such decisions would follow the recommendations of a formal committee, taking into account the ramifications of such a move to foreign policy and national security. However, when I asked the MFA Director General how the decisions were made, I discovered it was the Ministry of Finance that arbitrarily made the cuts without even consulting the MFA. In fact, the Ministry of Finance had originally planned to shut down twenty-two consulates and dismiss dozens of MFA employees from their duties, ultimately agreeing to settle for seven.
The same attitude applies to the salaries of MFA employees stationed overseas, which have not been updated in the past sixteen years. This has led to dire consequences, as the number of applicants for the MFA prestigious cadet training course has suffered a fifty percent decline during the past five years, and dozens of overseas consulates remain understaffed. Instead of offering an attractive and prestigious career, many MFA employees leave the ministry in search of job security.
Instead of offering an attractive and prestigious career, many MFA employees leave the ministry in search of job security
Many of the moves undermining our foreign service would have met stronger public and parliamentary opposition had they been transparent. But when consequential decision-making is hidden from the public eye, we, as the public’s representatives, cannot adequately police the executive branch and openly debate on what we find to be wrong. The smokescreen engulfing the action of those running Israeli foreign policy these days was not created ex nihilo. Though often justified as a strategic necessity of the state, it is in fact the parochial necessity of one person only – the Prime Minister. Mr. Netanyahu acts to guarantee he can govern without oversight, even when some of his actions contradict national interest.
Israel’s Deteriorating International Standing
It took the State of Israel a long time and significant effort to make most liberal democracies see the young state as an ideological ally. This, however, has been changing rapidly in the last few years. Consider, for example, the declining support of Israel among young American Jews. Recent polls show that nearly 40% of Jewish students aged 18-29 feel no emotional connection to Israel. That’s twice as many as American Jews aged 60 and up.
In another example, a January 2018 report by the Pew Research Center points to a similar trend among American Jews who identify as Democrats. When asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 27% of respondents claimed they sympathize more with Israel, while 25% say they sympathize more with the Palestinian cause. The report also states that only 18% Democrats have a positive view of PM Netanyahu, while 40% view him negatively.
This is still better than the situation in European universities, where the BDS movement’s presence is much stronger. A report published in 2014 in the United Kingdom showed a rise in public support for the Palestinians. When asked about the conflict, 16% supported Israel while 22% sided with the Palestinians. The gap was much wider specifically among Liberal Democrat voters.
Young people in the Western world are turning away from Israel. Students who in a decade will become leaders in their states will no longer understand the Jewish state’s security concerns and will refuse to stand up for its strategic needs. And even if Israeli diplomats succeed in making the political leadership understand why Israel’s security is important, those leaders will have no public mandate or political incentive to act accordingly.
Whenever there’s public outcry over the declining international support of Israel, government officials claim the solution simply reflects the need for investing additional resources in public diplomacy. Yet the citizens of Israel do not get uncensored and reliable coverage of the activity of these various government offices, who repeatedly claim state secrets are at stake.
Israel led by Begin, Rabin and Sharon's spoke in one voice. The signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House, 1993 | Photo: Avi Ohayon, GPO
It’s Time to Rebuild our Foreign Service
The security challenges Israel faces will change with time. In order to prepare ourselves when they arise, we need a solid strategy and to work to secure international support for our actions. But Israel cannot achieve its foreign policy goals without a capable and functioning foreign service. Nor without qualified personnel running it.
The citizens of Israel deserve to know the truth about our international standing, our future challenges, and the ways we can cope with them. They must know that while we keep closing consulates, the Palestinians have already surpassed us with the number of delegations they operate worldwide. And while Israel has merely 22 permanent staffers at the U.N., the Arab states are represented by over 600.
Israel is currently also one of the few countries in the world without a full-time Foreign Minister. Since the Mr. Netanyahu has decided to claim this position for himself, it is hardly too much to expect him to visit the Ministry headquarters occasionally and provide the public periodic reports on Israel’s activities in the international arena. It is crucial for the public to receive objective and reliable information, while considering the greater good of the state above all, which must prevail over the political agendas of the moment.
Transparency plays an important role here, and Israeli citizens should be better informed about our foreign policy choices. For instance, our leadership should inform the public about the many incentives Israel and the Palestinians have been offered to reach an agreement – including unparalleled financial and security assistance, as well as privileges giving Israel a special status in its relationship with the European Union. Furthermore, it is important for the people to be familiar with the initiatives on the part of our international partners, both old and potentially new ones in the Middle East. Playing our cards right, such partnerships might very well open new doors for the State of Israel, and unless the public and its representatives at the Knesset are informed only sporadically, our democratic process will not function properly.
The public deserves to know that beneath the populist headlines it constantly consumes, Israel has in fact signed international commerce agreements which imply it agrees to territorial concessions over large areas in Judea and Samaria. The public should understand the official stances of the MFA in times of crisis, like the metal detectors crisis at the Temple Mount in July 2017, or the security threats emanating from the northern front.
This information belongs to the public; the budget for our foreign policy programs is public money, and our ministers must be held accountable. The Israeli public needs reliable and professional information in order to restore the pragmatism and initiative which are the foundations of Zionism. All that is required is for Israel to stop being passive and start being active; to have leaders who follow the vision of our founders; to practice a foreign policy that does not shy away from making decisions, and does not make impossible demands to hinder the peace talks or claim the fault lies with what our government refers to as “non-partners.” We must act for the national interest – and simply lead.
Stav Shaffir is a Member of Knesset (Labor party, the Zionist Union). Known as the Leader of the 2011 social justice protests, Shaffir is the youngest female parliament member in the history of Israel. Currently serving as chair of the Committee for the Transparency and Accessibility of Government Information of the 20th Knesset, member of the Budgetary Committee, chair of the Committee of Government transparency of the OECD, and founder of a lobby for social justice, regulation of rental housing market, and promotion of Israeli youth.
(Photo: Nir Arieli, courtesy of the author)