Is Netanyahu out to destroy Israel's Foreign Ministry?

A threatened strike inside the Foreign Ministry to protest erosion of authority and work conditions did not materialize this week but morale is at a nadir.

By
September 16, 2016 19:11
jerusalem

PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to foreign press about Operation Protective Edge. (photo credit: GPO)

The Foreign Ministry, for at least the last decade, has not hosted the happiest work environment.

Regardless of the minister – Silvan Shalom, Tzipi Livni, Avigdor Liberman, Benjamin Netanyahu – casual conversations in the corridors of the ministry would elicit gripes about low pay in Israel, difficult conditions abroad because monthly salaries lag behind the high cost of living overseas, blocked paths to promotion as political appointments plucked plum jobs, and reduced ministerial authority.

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That is why over the years there has been a steady stream of sanctions inside the ministry, sanctions that have led to everything from inconvenience for the average citizen unable to access consular services abroad, to the cancellation of high-level visits, such as that of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in 2011.

But there is something deeper about the discontent being voiced these days by Foreign Ministry workers. It goes way beyond concern about the careers of spouses joining their partners abroad and has more to do with a feeling that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently the foreign minister as well, is out to undercut the ministry. Pure and simple.

“Demoralization is deep,” said one diplomat who has been at the ministry for almost three decades. “We have a leader who is antagonistic to the Foreign Ministry.”

Another diplomat, Hanan Goder – who is head of the ministry’s workers’ committee – was even more blunt. “Netanyahu has decided that he doesn’t want a Foreign Ministry. He has made that clear orally, in writing, and in the directives he has given.

“Show me another minister who has only met with the workers’ committee once over two years,” he said. “Show me another minister who does not come or sit in his ministry. Show me another minister who fights for cuts in his own ministry. [Education Minister Naftali] Bennett fights for education, [Health Minister Ya’acov] Litzman fights for health, [Finance Minister Moshe] Kahlon fights for his issues, as does [Interior Minister Arye] Deri. Netanyahu fights for his ministry’s budget to be cut.”

By virtue of his position as head of the workers’ committee, Goder will naturally be the most strident. But the sentiments he expressed, although toned down a bit, are heard in conversations with many others, including those in senior positions inside the ministry.

One department head said he has not met Netanyahu in his role as foreign minister since Netanyahu assumed control of the ministry in May 2015, giving him the feeling that his minister does not really care about or value what he is doing.

Those who feel this way had those feelings reinforced last week when Makor Rishon published a front-page article with quotes from the prime minister saying that the ministry’s diplomats were “not fighting, only reporting,” referring to the diplomatic cables that is the bread and butter of diplomatic work abroad.

The context of those quotes were efforts some years ago to find a third country to accept illegal African migrants, something the ministry’s legal department told Netanyahu would be impossible to do. Netanyahu was also reported as having said that there is “hidden unemployment in the ministry.”

Those quotes – along with reports last month that in the upcoming budget the ministry’s NIS 1.6 billion budget will be cut by an additional NIS 50 million, and 120 positions both in Israel and abroad will be done away with – led to an emergency meeting of employees on Tuesday. No strike was declared, partly because the Histadrut labor federation did not support it, considering that a new labor agreement was signed in 2014, but the meeting again sent a message from the workers of a need to “save Israel’s Foreign Service.”

The prime minister, who in his recent meetings with various media outlets has praised the work of the ministry on a number of occasions, disputed the Makor Rishon report, issuing a statement saying he appreciates the “dedicated and professional work” done by ministry employees here and abroad, and that they have “an important part in opening Israel’s diplomatic relations.

“I saw firsthand the work of the Foreign Ministry on the diplomatic front on my last visit in Africa, and also in other capitals around the world,” he said. “I am very appreciative of the achievements to fortify Israel’s international standing and security.”

But whether Netanyahu does or does not indeed hold the ministry in high esteem is quickly becoming besides the point, since inside the ministry – justifiably or not – there is a prevalent sense that it is being slighted, or worse.

ONE KEY reason for the ministry’s demoralization is that, over the years, more and more areas of responsibility have been taken from it and parceled out to other ministries or envoys. The most recent example was the appointment last month of Kulanu MK Michael Oren as deputy minister inside the Prime Minister’s Office dealing with diplomacy.

Asked what exactly this entails, Oren said that he is a “special envoy,” but was unwilling to spell out the details. In practice, it has already meant that Netanyahu has sent him on diplomatic missions to Europe and invited him to sit in on high-level meetings in Jerusalem, such as the meeting this week with the visiting Luxembourg prime minister, and last week with the Australian and Norwegian foreign ministers.

But Oren is just the latest manifestation of a much more widespread phenomenon.

In the current lineup of ministers, areas of authority that used to be covered by the Foreign Ministry are now being dealt with by others.

For instance, Education Minister Naftali Bennett is also minister of Diaspora affairs; Ze’ev Elkin is minister of Jerusalem affairs; Israel Katz is the minister of intelligence and atomic energy, and – most galling to many inside the ministry – Gilad Erdan is the minister of strategic affairs and public diplomacy, with a NIS 120m. budget to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, more than all the money available to the Foreign Ministry for programming.

In addition, Tzachi Hanegbi is a minister without portfolio and is also dealing with diplomatic issues, such as economic cooperation with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu, Goder said, has eviscerated the ministry, with numerous ministers and deputy ministers now in charge of areas that were once the staple of the ministry.

Though having ministry responsibilities parceled out to others is not unique under Netanyahu, he said the scope of the phenomenon is what is now so bothersome.

But one veteran diplomat who held a high-profile position abroad and since left the ministry said that the workers’ committee should stop complaining.

The malaise inside the ministry, he argued, is not Netanyahu’s fault, and indeed predated his taking over the ministry.

It has to do with the structure of the ministry itself.

“The ministry is done,” he said. “It has failed; it cannot fulfill the function for which it was created.

“If you ask the workers, they will say it is because they took away all the ministry’s authority. I think it is the other way around. They took everything away from the ministry because it is failing. No one takes anything from the Mossad,” he said.

“You know why? Because it is an excellent organization. People come to work with energy, they work hard. There is politics in every organization, but they are not afraid of change. This organization is afraid of change.”

This former diplomat said the ministry needs a complete reboot and reorganization.

“We have 23 embassies in Europe. In America we have nine offices – and they are understaffed and underbudgeted,” he said. “You’re going to tell me that Finland is more important than San Francisco? Can anyone in their right mind make that argument?” The official said that a generation ago an argument could be made for maintaining an embassy in Finland to engage in classic diplomacy. But today, with the heavy diplomatic issues being carried out by others – by envoys in the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council, or the Mossad – this is no longer necessary.

“The Foreign Ministry should be dealing with economic issues, public diplomacy – promoting Israel as a product, proactively, aggressively, instead of always being on the defense,” he said. “We are not litigators or defenders. We are marketing people. But they don’t get it, which is why the organization is finished.”

The former diplomat said that the problems inside the ministry predate Netanyahu and Liberman, who served before him.

“They have nothing to do with it. It is the bureaucrats killing their own organization because they resist change. This is a classic organizational problem. It is like Kodak,” he said, referring to the film giant that failed monumentally because it did not adjust in time to the advent of digital photography.

One senior ministry official, a former ambassador, dismissed this argument, however, and termed it “demagoguery.”

He said that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is unable to stop all terrorism, but that is not proof the organization is failing.

If the Shin Bet were seen as being inefficient, he argued, more budgets would be given to it, not less, to improve it.

Ministry officials lament that there is not enough manpower to adequately fill the positions abroad, and that in a number of embassies the entire staff consists of the ambassador and a head of security.

“You can’t do much with that,” one official said.

He noted that in some departments money exists for programs, but there is insufficient manpower to carry them out.

Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold, who was appointed by Netanyahu last year, acknowledges the ministry’s budgetary problems, saying they stem from the opening of 10 new missions abroad since 2010, and to across-the-board cuts the ministry – like all ministries – has suffered over the last six years.

“If we don’t have funds, our people have to live with less and cutting back on programs,” he said. “They are working with what they have.”

He said that part of what he does is fight for more budgets, “but it is not an easy fight,” especially considering the country’s “extraordinary security challenges.”

The money for security has to come from somewhere, he said, adding that it “comes from across-the-board cuts in all the ministries.

“It is not a simple task to protect the Foreign Ministry budget,” he said. “But I have found that when I spend the whole night in the Prime Minister’s Office, at the end of the day they will come through for us, but it is a long, tough process. Last year we were in bad shape, I saw the prime minister, and he gave an order to give tens of millions of shekels to the ministry.”

Gold said that the work of the ministry goes largely underappreciated, and that “there are plenty of nasty people who feel it is full of people who leak to the press, go to cocktail parties and do very little. Since I came to the ministry I can tell you that our work is central to the security of Israel.

While we don’t have the aura of the security agencies, we many times deliver direct contribution to its well-being.”

Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington from 2009 to 2013, said that the problem facing the ministry is not only budgetary, and that just throwing more money at the ministry will not necessarily make it better.

“Somebody has to come along and do a fundamental reform of the Foreign Ministry, and no one has been able to do that. It is geared for an Israeli foreign policy circa 1979. Even the way it is divided – a North American desk, Asian desk, European desk.

Maybe it has to be structured so there is a desk dealing with millennials, or emerging powers, or energy-producing nations. A different, more creative way of looking at the world.”

Oren argued that the problem is not that there is no full-time minister, but goes deeper to the way the Israeli public looks at foreign policy and how it allocates resources for diplomacy.

According to Oren, Israelis lean toward an over-compartmentalization, seeing the world divided into security, economic, and foreign policy issues. In this threesome, foreign policy is seen as the least important component, something reflected in the allocation of the budgetary pie where diplomacy, he said, is granted 60 times less money than that given the security establishment.

“Here’s an example,” he said. “We spend on all our diplomatic activity in the world less than we do on a company of Merkava tanks, and far less than on one F-16.”

In addition, he said, at NIS 200m., Israel allocates less for humanitarian aid abroad – a powerful foreign policy tool – than any other country in the OECD.

Israelis don’t fully grasp the importance of diplomacy, he said, something he attributes partly to the ethos of the early Zionist leaders encapsulated in a saying attributed to David Ben-Gurion: “It doesn’t matter what the goyim think, but what the Jews do.”

While that sentiment has its positive sides, Oren said, it does not capture the international reality of the 21st century.

Nor, he maintained, does the current structure of the ministry.

“The whole thing needs reforming,” he said. “It is responding to a reality of 40 to 50 years ago.”


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