Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s stewardship of Israeli foreign policy has
been “scandalous,” “dysfunctional,” “mismanaged,” “irresponsible,”
“demoralized,” “confused” and “disorganized,” according to Prof. Aharon Klieman,
the Nahum Goldmann professor emeritus of diplomacy at Tel Aviv
This view is seconded by several current and retired senior
Klieman’s scathing assessment, “The Sorry State of
Israeli Statecraft,” is in the current Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs
which he is a senior editor, and is borne out in interviews I’ve conducted with
half a dozen top Israeli diplomats past and present.
Netanyahu is not
only the prime minister but also the nominal foreign minister while he keeps the
seat warm for Avigdor Liberman to see if the Yisrael Beytenu leader, currently
on trial for corruption, goes to jail or back to the
Responsibility for Israel’s relations with more than 160
countries and international organizations is supposed to be in the professional
hands of the Foreign Ministry, but “nothing could be further form the truth,”
writes Klieman. This follows a trend going back to Israel’s inception but has
reached a new and alarming low, he says.
“[T]he downward trajectory of
diplomacy under the third Netanyahu government is as unprecedented as are the
heights of irresponsibility it manifests – not only for allowing the situation
to go unchecked, but for aiding and abetting it,” Klieman charges. Making
matters worse, the prime minister, the media and the public seem unconcerned, he
The ministry’s responsibilities have been parceled out among a
dozen or more rival agencies, ambitious ministers and appointed officials “to a
dysfunctional and arguably dangerous extreme,” he says. It is the result of
“scandalous” coalition bargaining, turf wars, supreme egos and political musical
chairs. These scattered players, most with little or no experience in foreign
and security affairs, have overlapping portfolios, vague authority, no real
direction and haphazard supervision.
The foreign ministry is demoralized
and out of the loop as Netanyahu has devalued diplomacy and statecraft and has
been “playing fast and loose with foreign affairs,” Klieman says.
and abroad there is “an image of discord and confusion in Jerusalem,” leaving
allies often unable to “gauge Israel’s real intentions and official stand on any
The irony of Netanyahu’s trivializing the Foreign Ministry
is that he has served as deputy foreign minister and briefly even as minister,
as well as in two top diplomatic posts overseas.
I’ve personally dealt
with seven prime ministers, and all but one considered himself the desk officer
for North America, often bypassing the foreign ministry, but none has
micromanaged the relationship with Washington as intensely as
“The factionalized state of the making and execution of
Israeli foreign policy can only be described as a total disaster,” says a
retired ambassador who, like the others, several still on the job, asked not to
be identified by name.
It has worsened under Netanyahu but reflects “a
long erosion and derogation of powers” away from the ministry.
situation is systemic and irreversible,” he notes. The ministry has been
effectively dismantled and responsibilities widely dispersed among powerful and
competing fiefdoms “with scant coordination and oversight.”
Part of the
problem has been the appointment of weak and inept leaders who knew little about
foreign policy and cared less.
Two of the most notable are David Levy,
who a senior diplomat describes as “a totally illiterate boor,” and, more
recently, Liberman, “a thug and a Putin wannabe” who most world leaders didn’t
want to speak to. Says another diplomat, “Cronyism, corruption and incompetence
characterized Liberman’s service and his appointees abroad, and he wants his old
Several of the diplomats attribute the problem to what one
calls “Israel’s awful electoral system.” Each party is a fiefdom that demands a
piece of the pie and representation for its own parochial interests, and at the
top is a prime minister “locked down in a series of sterile concepts, given to
fear-mongering and hunkering down” and “only concerned with his longer-term
political survival, which gets more precarious by the day.”
Many of those
I contacted noted that foreign ministries around the world are losing their
relevance because of the communication revolution; leaders can speak to each
other on secret lines, they don’t need ambassadors, they meet each other several
times a year. Newspapers carry 90 percent of the information the ambassador has.
Besides, leaders don’t bother reading cables anyway; they don’t even know the
names of 95 percent of their ambassadors.
Klieman sees little prospect
for reversing the trend and restoring the influence of a professional diplomatic
corps; instead he expects the ministry and the government to continue “muddling
through” in its present state.
The consequence of a dysfunctional system
is diminished quality of diplomats and diplomacy as standards drop, resulting in
major embarrassments and adverse results, says one ambassador. Another is
confusion among friends and foes alike as to Israel’s policies and
“Israel today is ill-equipped” to address the variety of
foreign policy challenges – diplomatic, political, military, economic, global –
it faces today on all fronts: Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Europe
and the United States, says another top diplomat.
The US is “reasonably
sympathetic but liable to lose patience and interest very quickly if Israel and
the Palestinians don’t put up in fairly short order,” he adds.
ambassador says, “Henry Kissinger was right when he said, ‘Israel has no foreign
policy, only domestic policy,’ but I’d add to that Israeli leaders are actually
afraid of foreign policy.”
“It seems that the fear of our leaders is of
any foreign policy,” he added, “which will require the country to consider other
interests than our own. Thus it would be better to avoid listening to
professionals and just blame everything on lack of hasbara [public
Klieman cautions not to blame sinister external forces –
Arab intransigence, Islamic radicalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, a biased
UN, etc. – but to look at Israel’s own political system and remember the words
of Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is