Israel’s Foreign Service is being weakened and we are paying the price

Netanyahu has repeatedly boasted of his alleged foreign policy achievements. At the same time, the Foreign Affairs Ministry has recorded yet another low in an ongoing process meant to weaken it.

By ROEE KIBRIK,
July 31, 2019 11:13
Flag of Israel

Flag of Israel. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Would we ask a farmer to grow crops without water? Would we ask a surgeon to operate without a scalpel? Would we send a soldier into battle without a rifle? If not, then why are diplomats being sent on missions critical to our future without the most elementary tools? Israel's Foreign Service, a key to ensuring our national security and prosperity, is verging on collapse. We are paying the price for its weakening and will be paying even more absent a speedy and substantive change of course. The upcoming elections provide an opportunity to reverse this decline.

During his two election campaigns this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly boasted of his alleged foreign policy achievements. At the same time, Foreign Affairs Ministry, of which he has been in charge for the past four years, has recorded yet another low in an ongoing process meant to weaken it and decentralize its authority, thereby undermining Israel's ability to implement diplomatic goals and improve its international relations. The ministry is over NIS 300 million ($85m.) budget deficit makes it hard for diplomats to carry out their work.

However, the essence of the crisis is not budgetary. It lies in the ministry;s ongoing exclusion from the core issues of Israeli diplomacy and the scattering of its roles and budgets among various government ministries and entities. Its public standing has been undermined with deliberate intent, and Israelis are insufficiently aware of the ministry's importance. The voice of diplomats is marginalized in Israel's decision-making processes, which therefore lack the broad diplomatic angle that Foreign Ministry professionals could bring to the table. This has a direct negative impact on Israel's national security.

There is a price to be paid for an enfeebled Foreign Ministry and its inability to promote Israeli interests in the international arena, such as creating diplomatic alliances and expedient terms for cooperation with other countries, forging ties with international organizations and institutions, identifying economic opportunities and helping Israel fulfill its potential. Among the ministry's other core tasks is aiding Jewish communities around the world and Israeli citizens abroad, promoting foreign aid that contributes to Israel's sense of self-worth and public image abroad, and carrying out the public diplomacy essential to explaining Israel's cause and mobilizing international support for its survival and prosperity. The weakening of the Foreign Ministry harms all these missions and damages Israel's future.

The recent appointment of Israel Katz as a full-time foreign minister, after four years of Netanyahu holding the position among his many other duties, was a positive development that underscored the importance of staffing this post. The new minister is rightly seeking to identify measures to bolster his ministry and help resolve the dispute it has with the Finance Ministry. However, the reform he is proposing, as reported in Haaretz, reportedly consists primarily of shifting the ministry's focus to the economic realm and is therefore unlikely to solve the issues at stake.

FIRST, REGARDLESS of the proposal itself, a reform in the Foreign Affairs Ministry should be carried out by a minister appointed for a full term, and not as a caretaker in a transition government. It should also be conducted in coordination with the ministry;s professional directors, taking into account the planning work undertaken by them in recent years to prepare it for the future.

Second, the reform as reported merely perpetuates the trend of shrinking and weakening the ministry's work, undermining the core of its activity: diplomacy. Strengthening the economic component in the ministry's work and its ability to measure and assess its performance are positive steps, appropriate in the era of modern diplomacy; but only in accordance with additional important measures designed to strengthen the ministry's impact on foreign policy design and implementation, and boosting its voice at the decision-making level. Presenting Israeli diplomats with new economic demands that are far from the added value they are able to provide is not the solution.

The campaign ahead of Israel's September 17 elections is an opportunity to reiterate the importance of Israeli diplomacy and foreign relations. It provides an opportunity to demand that the political parties and their candidates boost the standing of the Foreign Service. This is an opportunity for the candidates to explain to voters the importance of a strong diplomatic apparatus and the opportunities that it can help promote, and to present concrete foreign policy goals and action plans. In addition, civil society organizations dedicated to Israeli foreign policy and its Foreign Service are growing in number and strength, representing varied professional and ideological backgrounds, and they can also help shape the conversation during (and after) the elections campaign.

The formation of a new government and ministerial appointments are an opportunity to empower Israel's Foreign Service, also by restoring to the Foreign Affairs Ministry the foreign policy responsibilities and budgets farmed out to other agencies in recent years, appointing a full-time foreign minister and forming a ministry-led inter-agency committee to coordinate all government activity in the field of foreign relations. This is also an opportunity to ensure that the voices of diplomats and foreign policy professionals become an integral part of decision-making processes.

The swearing in of the next Knesset will be a time to ensure that its committees, especially the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, deal with foreign relations issues properly, and do not allow them to be overshadowed once again by Israel's security-focused discourse. Israel can follow the example of other countries and establish a parliamentary committee solely dedicated to foreign affairs. This may also present an opportunity to promote structural change in the National Security Council that would ensure a role for diplomats within it, and to encourage the cabinet to demand regular briefings on foreign affairs by the ministry.

The incumbency of a new foreign minister also provides an opportunity to define clear goals for the ministry, build a work plan and set measurable targets with which to assess its achievements, its ethics and equity for Israel's citizens. The Foreign Affairs Ministry must improve its cooperation with civil society organizations, the media and the Knesset; share information about its ongoing activities and its annual assessments, enable parliamentary and public oversight and encourage transparency, professional freedom and sound administration.

In summing up, Israel's Foreign Service is weak and is deliberately being weakened even further. We are paying the resulting cost to our diplomacy, economy, civil society and security. None of this is preordained. It stems from a political decision and thus can be transformed. The coming elections are a chance for change. We as citizens must demand that our candidates and parties, from across the political spectrum, pledge to repair the damage and bring Israel's Foreign Service back to the forefront.

Dr. Roee Kibrik is director of research at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies; Dr. Nimrod Goren is head of the institute.


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