Let’s be diplomatic and ask: What does an ambassador do?

Foreign Ministry Vice Director-General and Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff explains.

November 5, 2016 23:13


Most people think being a diplomat means running to cocktail parties and enjoying the good life, says Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff, vice director-general at the Foreign Ministry.

But the cocktail party circuit is only a small part of a diplomat’s life, although it does offer opportunity for public diplomacy, networking and outreach.

Diplomats at parties engaged in animated conversation may look as if they are having a good time – and maybe they are – but they are also working.

The ambassadors profiled thus far in this current series of articles have all been foreign envoys. But, as Issacharoff pointed out, Israelis do not know enough about what their own diplomats do, or what the work of a diplomat entails.

Essentially, there are two kinds of ambassadors: career diplomats who rise through the ranks and are promoted accordingly, and political appointees. Issacharoff is the highest ranking diplomat in the Foreign Ministry. Unlike the foreign minister, deputy foreign minister and director general – who are appointed by the foreign minister, while the vice director-general is chosen by committee.

Issacharoff was born in London in 1955 and attended Hasmonean Grammar School. He later graduated with honors from the London School of Economics with an degree in Law.

In his fifth day as a law student, the Yom Kippur War broke out.

The then 18-year-old Issacharoff, whose father was an Etzel resistance fighter against the British, unsuccessfully sought to volunteer for the IDF. Since he had already delayed university studies, in December of 1973 he volunteered for a month on a kibbutz instead. Upon the advice of family and friends, he decided to complete his university studies first.

Instead of becoming a barrister after earning his law degree, as initially intended, Issacharoff obtained a master’s degree in international relations specializing in strategy and Cold War deterrence.

He then came to Israel with plans to be admitted to the Israel Bar Association, but first spent a year in the IDF. It was his good fortune at that time to meet up with the late Meir Rosenne, who was then legal adviser to the Foreign Ministry.

Rosenne suggested that Issacharoff interview with the Foreign Ministry, which led to an 18-month internship in the ministry’s legal department. By that time, Rosenne was serving as ambassador to France before being posted to Washington as ambassador.

Issacharoff first worked under Ruth Lapidot, one of Israel’s foremost experts on international law, then under Elyakim Rubinstein, who today is vice president of the Supreme Court. Issacharoff describes that period as “amazing,” especially as his work entailed formulating normalization agreements with Egypt.

He then spent six months in the Justice Ministry before being admitted to the Bar.

However, instead of joining an established law firm or going into private practice, he applied for training as a diplomatic cadet in the Foreign Ministry.

After being accepted, he gravitated immediately toward strategic issues, using his training to draft legal justification for Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor.

By that time, he was working in close cooperation with the ministry’s vice director- general Hanan Bar-On, “one of the cleverest people I’ve met.”

Issacharoff finds it difficult to hide his pride in holding a position once held by a man he regarded as his mentor and who had a great influence on his life.

Another person of great significance to the young lawyer-cum-strategist was the late Shalheveth Freier, former head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

In 1986, Issacharoff was sent to New York as political counselor to Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, and was subordinate to the ambassador, a young man by the name of Benjamin Netanyahu.

When Issacharoff sat down with Netanyahu, they didn’t write a speech, they simply went over points that Netanyahu wanted to make, and he was able to effectively elaborate on them. “They were the most amazing speeches he ever gave,” said Issacharoff.

Even the British ambassador at the time complimented Issacharoff on “the speech of your ambassador.”

Issacharoff was in his element during his three years in New York. It was a very intense period involving many visits to the Security Council.

In early 1986, Israel still had no connection with the Russians, other than meeting delegates in the UN, saying hello and moving on without any interchange. One day, Issacharoff bumped into his Russian counterpart, who invited him for coffee.

They were surrounded by Arab delegates and people from the PLO, who raised their eyebrows and cocked their ears. “There was a buzz through the lounge because that kind of thing simply didn’t happen.”

It was a very delicate situation. Issacharoff thought that, at best, they would be sitting together for half an hour. Instead, they spent three hours discussing their countries’ break in relations and reestablishment of dialogue.

Issacharoff was hesitant to take notes during the conversation, so he concentrated intensely to remember all he could, then wrote everything immediately after for inclusion in a seven-page cable to Jerusalem.

At that time Israel had no connections with the Chinese or the Egyptians, but unofficial contacts were made in the corridors of the UN, and the people with whom they were made often went on to become influential figures in their respective countries.

In the years that followed, Issacharoff was personal adviser to the foreign minister and to the director-general of the Ministry; a member of the delegation to peace talks with Lebanon in Washington pursuant to the Madrid Peace Conference; a member of the delegation to the Multilateral Working Group on Arms Control and Regional Security established at the Madrid Peace Conference; minister-counselor for political and strategic affairs at the embassy in Washington; a member of the Strategic Policy Planning Group and Joint Strategic Planning Committee; deputy director general for strategic affairs dealing with arms control, non-proliferation, counter-terrorism, export controls and regional security.

Issacharoff also worked with Shimon Peres when he was foreign minister, just before the Oslo accords.

One feather in Issacharoff’s cap was his 2003 appointment by the UN secretary- general to a five-year term on the UN Advisory Board for Disarmament Affairs.

The UN was quite hostile toward Israel at the time, so it appears the appointment was made on the basis of Issacharoff’s professional expertise, not for political reasons.

Issacharoff has spent much of his diplomatic career in the US, where he met his wife, Laura Kam, a communications specialist who was then working in Israel’s New York Consulate. A journalist had asked her whether PLO leader Yasser Arafat could be arrested if he came to New York, but no one in the consul-general’s office knew the answer.

She was referred to a bright young lawyer working with the UN delegation. It was love at first sight. This diplomatic union produced three children: Dean, David and Ella. The boys served as commanders of combat units in the IDF.

In 2005, Issacharoff was appointed deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Washington, where his duties entailed those of an ambassador.

The Washington embassy is Israel’s largest and most important, and the division of labor between the ambassador and the deputy chief of mission is well understood. It was at this time that Issacharoff was promoted to senior ambassador.

On his return to Israel in 2009, he became a senior research fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, and the following year was appointed deputy director-general for strategic affairs at the ministry.

One thing of which he is particularly proud is how an idea he put forward after Iran emerged on the diplomatic agenda has mushroomed. Issacharoff realized the importance of having a strategic affairs department in the Foreign Ministry.

The department started off very small in 2002, with Issacharoff as founding director. It has since grown to a five-department division dealing with arms control, non proliferation, counter terrorism, arms exports and regional security. “It has become one of the most important divisions in the ministry,” says Issacharoff.

The strategic division coordinates with the Defense Ministry and all government agencies working in these areas. “The strategic affairs division has injected a new sense of relevance into the foreign service, in the sense of what the Ministry was able to bring to the table,” he said, emphasizing options it has been able to present to other agencies “before committing our soldiers to anything that would put them in harm’s way.”

In his current position, Issacharoff is involved in policy and budgetary issues and other decision-making processes. He also deals with the grievances of the workers’ union, which wanted to strike before Netanyahu’s trip to address the UN General Assembly in New York. Issacharoff opened a dialogue with the union and the strike was averted.

Other issues he deals with include public diplomacy, Israel’s Agency for International Development (MASHAV), economic affairs, international organizations, international aid, Interpol, UNESCO, the UN Security Council and encouragement of exports.

He also gives briefings to ambassadors, and does his best to attend ceremonies in which new ambassadors present their credentials to the president.

Does he have any advice for budding diplomats? “It is important for every diplomat to keep his credibility,” he says, emphasizing the need to be cautious “and not detract from the truth.”

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