Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, and Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman – two men who could have been foreign minister had either joined the government – slammed the country’s foreign policy at a joint meeting in the Knesset on Monday, drawing a response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claiming things have never been better.
“We are in a situation where grave harm is being done not only to the Israeli foreign service and foreign policy, but to Israel’s national security,” Lapid said at the meeting.
“The deterioration is dramatic.”
“Our international situation has never, since 1948, been as bad,” he claimed.
“And what makes the situation even worse, is that the government does not admit it, and tries to say everything is okay.”
National security rests on two pillars, he said – the Israeli soldier and strategic alliances.
“These alliances have been hurt,” Lapid maintained. In the past, he noted, these alliances led France to help build the nuclear reactor in Dimona; the Germans to provide Israel with Dolphin-class submarines; and the US to give Israel a total of $240 billion over the years.
“All of those are achievements of the past,” he said. “Today, we would not have gotten that.”
Shortly afterward, however, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded that Israel’s standing in the world has never been better, citing a US study calling Israel the eigh th most powerful country in the world.
Netanyahu – at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset – cited the January study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, US News & World Report and BAV Consulting called Best Countries Rankings, which attempts to rank countries much the way universities are graded.
The study was broken into nine categories, including one entitled most powerful, based on the following metrics: leadership, economic influence, political influence, strong international alliances and strong military alliances.
Israel was ranked the eighthmost powerful country, and 25 out of 60 on the overall best country ranking. To debunk the claim that Israel is isolated, Netanyahu pointed out that he met Monday with the new Egyptian ambassador and with numerous African envoys who want closer ties with Israel. He also said US Vice President Joe Biden will be here for a meeting next week, and that Israel is strengthening its ties with the large powers in Asia and Latin America.
“The chairman of the coalition informed me that the parties of the Left held a political meeting today,” he said of the Lapid-Liberman parley. “So there are those who choose to prattle and hold political gatherings, and there are those who rebuff the pressures on Israel and strengthen Israel’s international alliances to ensure our future here.”
Lapid said the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement is gaining strength; that international organizations are taking anti-Israel positions; that there is a crisis with the US and EU; and the international media has taken a sharp anti-Israel line with the help of Israeli organizations like Breaking the Silence. To fight that, the former finance minister said the Foreign Ministry’s budget is less than half a percent of the entire state budget.
He bemoaned that the country’s public diplomacy is split up between five different government ministers and that “each one does not know what the other is doing.”
“Israel is losing the struggle in the world,” he said. “We can win. We can win on BBC, CNN and international forums if we work and know how to work.” he said.
“Israel can be respected and admired, and accepted and liked and its position heard as it was in the past, but we have to work at it. Today, nobody is working at it.”
Liberman, who was foreign minister from 2009-2015 – with about a year’s absence in the middle – was even harsher.
“The Foreign Ministry is not anyone’s private possession, including the Netanyahu family, and it is not possible to take it and destroy it,” he said, accusing Netanyahu, who is the foreign minister, of doing just that.
Liberman decried that the ministry’s public diplomacy budget was only NIS 5 million, and slammed the decision to close five representations abroad, including in Philadelphia, Marseilles, Minsk and the roving ambassador to the Caribbean.
Citing a story in German daily Die Welt on Sunday claiming that Chancellor Angela Merkel is angry at Netanyahu for “twisting” her words by saying that she, too, realizes that now is not the time for a two-state solution, Liberman said Netanyahu has “burned” relations with Israel’s best friend in Europe. He also accused the prime minister of being indecisive regarding mending ties with Ankara, adding that while Netanyahu favored rapprochement with Turkey, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked was talking about the need for a Kurdish state.
“How one works with the other is not clear to me,” he said of the two ideas, using it as an example of a government at odds with itself over policy.
A number of MKs from the two parties, and a few Foreign Ministry officials, including the head of its workers’ committee Hanan Goder-Goldberger, took part in the meeting. The only participating coalition member was Kulanu MK Michael Oren, former ambassador to Washington, who attended just briefly to say a few words.
The deterioration of the position of the Foreign Ministry, Oren said, is something that “has continued for many years.”
He also bewailed a lack of sensitivity in Israel to the fact that what is said in the internal Israeli debate is also heard abroad, but understood differently.
The former ambassador mentioned the play Return to Haifa and the documentary The Gatekeepers as two of the most harmful events for Israel’s image that he faced while in Washington.Return to Haifa, based on the book by Ghassan Kanafani, spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, compared the establishment of the state to the Holocaust and the Nakba, Oren said, adding that its run in Washington was funded by the Foreign Ministry while Liberman was foreign minister.
He said The Gatekeepers, a highly critical documentary of Israel’s policies in the West Bank featuring interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, was co-funded by Channel 1.
That film, he said, lacked any historical context, such as Israeli peace offers, troop withdrawals and evacuation of settlements. What it did have, he said, was one former Shin Bet head (Carmi Gillon) saying, “Israel is causing unbearable suffering to millions of Palestinians,” and another (Avraham Shalom) saying Israel has become a brutal occupation force similar to the Germans in World War II.
“I had to explain [to the Americans] how former heads of the Israeli FBI – that’s the way the Americans see it – see Israel like the Nazis,” he said. “I saw good American Jews who support Israel leaving a screening and say that they will never support Israel again.”
Oren said these incidents “show a lack of understating that did not start just in the last year, but many years earlier, about how our internal debate is seen abroad. It is our obligation to sow deep into the Israeli consciousness that we are not alone in the world, and that what is said here is also heard abroad, but in a very different manner.”
Yesh Atid MK Yaakov Peri, who was one of the six Shin Bet heads in the documentary, was at the meeting but did not respond directly to Oren’s comments.
Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich issued a statement mocking the new Lapid-Liberman alliance to “save” Israel’s foreign service, saying Liberman, who in the past threatened to blow up the Aswan Dam and said that then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak could “go to Hell,” is a “walking diplomatic disaster.”
She also pointed out that when Liberman served as foreign minister Lapid once called him an “embarrassment,” said he was causing Israel diplomatic damage and that because of him much of the world was laughing at the country.
Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, meanwhile, attacked Lapid and Liberman at his faction meeting.
“No public diplomacy campaign for Israel will work as long as people go around the world and say our land must be divided,” Bennett said. “The world respects people who want to keep their land. The world will be with us when we will stand up for ourselves.” Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), also a former foreign minister, said she agreed with Bennett that the problem with Israel’s public diplomacy stemmed from the government’s policies, warning that if the Knesset takes steps against its Arab MKs, it would be a tool used by Israel’s enemies around the world.
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog told his faction: “Israel is fighting efforts to boycott, divest and sanction it with a fly swatter. But the real solution to our problem is to drain the swamps.”Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.