Understaffing in the State Department since the inauguration of President Donald Trump is affecting everyday communication between Jerusalem and Washington, with some of the slack being picked up by the US mission to the UN in New York, according to diplomatic officials.
There are some 200 key positions at the State Department that require Senate confirmation that have not yet been filled, including a large number of ambassadorial appointments. A number of the positions that have not been filled – deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and office heads – have traditionally been the everyday point of contact for Israeli Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry officials.
For instance, issues of interest to Israel that have arisen recently regarding INTERPOL and UNESCO – issues that in the past would have been dealt with by the State Department – are now being handled by the US mission to the UN, one diplomatic source said.
On the marquee issues, such as the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, there is direct contact between the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House, but not everything – according to one source – can be dealt with by Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner.
Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, has built strong relationships within the Trump administration, particularly with Kushner, who is tasked with rebooting the Middle East peace process.
But Kushner has several massive portfolios on his desk, and has become involved in an FBI investigation due to his communications with Russian officials during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. He has since delegated day-to-day work on Israel matters to Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special adviser on international negotiations.
“There’s basically only one guy – Jason Greenblatt,” said a source who advises the president’s Middle East team. “That’s it. There’s no office, there’s no bureaucracy. Ron might talk to Jared, and Jared might talk to Jason. But there’s no assistant secretary of state. There’s no special envoy. There’s no under-secretary, there’s no deputy secretary.”
Reuven Rivlin meeting with US Middle East Envoy Jason Greenblatt on March 15, 2017 (credit: GPO)
Previous strategic dialogue sessions– a formal method of communication between the two strategic partners– have been chaired by the US deputy secretary of state.
“There’s the ongoing bilateral day-to-day stuff – business that’s not terribly political,” the source said of Israeli-US dialogue under Greenblatt, who has earned a positive reputation among Israeli and Palestinian officials from his initial interactions. “He’s a serious guy and he listens, and he plays his cards very close to the vest. In the early months of an administration, you win a lot of points just by listening, and he’s done that. But the deeper you get in, the question is how well you swim in choppier waters.”
The last strategic dialogue session took place in June of 2016, at which time the US and Israeli delegations issued a joint statement.
“We look forward to continuing the Strategic Dialogue in 2017 as an important forum to study and address the serious issues facing the United States, Israel and the region,” the statement read.
A State Department official told The Jerusalem Post
on Thursday that no date had been set for a new dialogue. The official could not identify who would lead the meeting from the US side.
A second, Israeli, source confirmed that no date had been set, but expressed no doubts that formal strategic dialogue would continue.
One source said that having a key envoy like Greenblatt closely connected to the White House is a very valuable channel, but there are day to day issues that need to be dealt with that do not go through him.
“There is always a need to coordinate on issues that are not making the headlines every day, like getting a briefing on the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia, or responding to the Qatar crisis, or the political implications of the terror in Iran,” the source said. “There is a daily conversation that should take place a level or two down in the bureaucracy with people who are linked in with the top leadership.”
And those conversations, he said, are not taking place.
“Right now people in the Israeli government have no one to call” on those issues, he said. “There is no one empowered on counterterrorist policy, on other regional matters, on political- military issues, that Israeli officials can talk to with a feeling that they are speaking on behalf of the government.”
The official said that the channel between the Prime Minister’s Office and the White House is important, “but it can only handle so much, only the most pressing issues – they can’t get to the day-to-day things that are important.”
Michael Oren, deputy minister for diplomacy, said that the situation “does impact on us.” It is “important to have addresses,” he said.
Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said that the US-Israel relationship functions best when “there are multiple, senior-level channels for conversation that take place on a daily basis.”
These conversations, he said, “cover not only the first order of Israeli security issues, but matters relating to Syria, Iran, international sanctions, military assistance, counterterror, Russia, North Korea and on and on. And at the moment the lack of senior people at the State Department who have the authority and connections to the secretary of state to conduct those dialogues is a source of concern.”