Borderline Views: Job vacancies - Ambassadors to London and the UN

It is not going to be easy to fill the boots of two people – Prosor and Taub – who possess all the key elements necessary for such critical diplomatic posts.

July 13, 2015 22:24
ron prosor

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor. (photo credit: FACEBOOK)

In the coming months, two of Israel’s most professional ambassadors, Ron Prosor and Daniel Taub, finish their terms of office at the UN (in New York) and at the Court of St James (in London) respectively, and return home to Israel. Taub is due to return home in the coming days, while it is likely that Prosor will stay on for a few additional months.

The Foreign Ministry has not yet appointed their successors and it is possible that both of these posts will remain without a permanent ambassador for a time, until the final decision is made.

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It is not as though the return of the present ambassadors has taken the ministry by surprise – all Israeli ambassadors have fixed-term appointments after which they are expected to return home before taking up further ambassadorial positions.

This year has been a problematic year for key ambassadorial appointments, if only because of the March elections, due to which some of the decisions regarding key positions were put on hold.

In Israel, where up to 11 key diplomatic positions are designated “political,” rather than professional, the makeup of the political system and the identity of the foreign minister are crucial. In the past the number of political appointees was even greater, but during the tenure of the late Dave Kimche as ministry director-general back in the early 1980s (when Yitzhak Shamir was foreign minister), he was successful in reducing the number to 11.

Many would argue that even this is far too many – that there should be only professional appointments from within the ranks of the ministry. The diplomats begin their careers as junior diplomats and attaches, responsible for such matters as arts and culture, or science and trade, moving up the ladder to full ambassadorial positions in smaller, less significant countries and eventually reaching the pinnacle of their diplomatic careers as ambassadors to the key foreign legations in North America, Western Europe and elsewhere. Between their various postings, they also take on professional jobs within the ministry itself in Jerusalem, learning the trade as they advance up the professional ladder.

This is how it should be, but often isn’t.

Political positions can be one of two types. There are the cases where the prime minister will reward a politician or close political ally with an ambassadorial position, despite the person in question’s lack of experience. He/ she may have stepped down from a seat in the Knesset in return for a diplomatic posting, or it may be a “reward” to a close political ally of the prime minister toward the end of their career. In some cases, this has resulted in the embarrassing situation of ambassadors who lack the necessary linguistic skills, and are unable to deliver public addresses or interviews to key audiences, which is harmful to Israel’s profile in an increasingly hostile world.

But there are some political appointees who, while sharing the political confidence or friendship of a prime minister or foreign minister, also have a professional background. There is no shortage of neo-conservative academics or successful businessmen whose knowledge of world affairs and ongoing interaction with the international community make them suited to a political position, and who are prepared to sell and defend the present government’s view of events to the world. It can even be argued that some of the top positions (notably the ambassador to the US or to Brussels – the EU) may even benefit from a political appointee who is able to personally convey messages from his/her political superiors in Jerusalem, and whom foreign leaders know is speaking in the name of the prime minister or foreign minister (whether they like the message or not is another matter altogether).

But for every good example of a professional political appointee, such as that of Professor Itamar Rabinowitch back in the 1990s (who was also Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria and former president of Tel Aviv University), there are too many cases which don’t work out. The present example of the ambassadors to the US is a good case in point, where their direct involvement has contributed to a worsening of relations between Israel and the US administration, to an extent previously unknown.

There have been a number of cases where excellent diplomats who have come up through the ministry have decided to leave the diplomatic service at the point when their acquired skills from a lifetime of service are most highly developed, precisely because they know that the chance of landing one of the very top positions is almost nil given that the 11 political positions stand in their way.

None should understand this better than the recently appointed ministry director-general and former ambassador to the UN Dr. Dore Gold. A political appointee, a close confidante of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but someone who has the professional skills and background and also understands the inner working of the Jewish Diaspora and its diverse communities. Gold closely represents Netanyahu’s views of world affairs and of Israel’s positions vis a vis the Palestinians, but ironically is now perceived as a relative moderate when compared with deputy minister Tzipi Hotovely or Education Minister Naftali Bennett (who appears endlessly on international news programs), neither of whom have even a beginner’s understanding of what international diplomacy means.

As director-general, Gold will be influential in determining the vacant ambassadorial appointments. He should be wary of supporting the candidacy of professional colleagues who have a clear political agenda to sell, and who have made a career out of exploiting their professional and academic skills for political gain in the Knesset, the universities and in private think tanks and NGOs. Their rigid, often unbending ideological perspectives, backed up by their selective analysis and interpretation of world events, which gains them legitimacy in some political circles, does not necessarily come across well among foreign governments or the Diaspora Jewish communities.

Notwithstanding, it has been rumored that the new appointee to London will be a political appointee. In the case of Taub, one of the ministry’s senior legal personnel, a born-and-bred Londoner who studied at Oxford and grew up as part of the Anglo Jewish community before making aliya to Israel, there could not have been a better fit. He skillfully overcame the sly comments and innuendos concerning his “dual loyalties” (as did his opposite number, the first Jewish British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, who has also just returned to London) to demonstrate exactly why such a background, when used properly, can be beneficial rather than detrimental.

Beyond his successful public engagements (speaking the Queen’s English), in the back rooms of silent diplomacy where the real business takes place he had a head start in understanding the mindset and double talk of the other people in the room – something which can never be learned by someone without the appropriate background, at least not in the relatively short period of four years, and the lack of which no amount of preparatory training can compensate for.

It is not easy being an Israeli ambassador anywhere in the world these days, let alone in places where there are large and well developed Jewish communities. These communities often believe that they “own” the ambassador and attempt to create his/her agenda, when at the end of the day the ambassador’s main task is to represent his country to the government of the state to which he has been posted. Having the support of the local Jewish community is a great benefit when it is managed properly, but the balancing act between the two roles is a sensitive one, requiring as much (some would say even more) diplomacy than does the representation of Israel to the host government.

It is not going to be easy to fill the boots of two people – Prosor and Taub – who possess all the key elements necessary for such critical diplomatic posts. It is to be hoped that the ministry will not delay its decisions much longer, as this itself is a sign of negativity vis a vis the country in question. There are some excellent candidates within the ministry who possess similar qualifications to those of the two returnees, including ex-British olim who have worked their way up in the ministry to senior positions.

If, despite calls to the contrary, the selection committee is pressured into making a political appointment, then it is to be hoped that it will at least be someone with the requisite professional credentials, who will be able to represent Israel without getting bogged down in his/her own ideological preferences.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.

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