Washington watch: Israel’s dysfunctional diplomacy

The foreign ministry is demoralized and out of the loop as Netanyahu has devalued diplomacy and statecraft.

July 10, 2013 22:53
Netanyhau arrives for weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusaelm, May 26, 2013

Netanyahu walking 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Menahem Kahana/Pool)

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 University.

This view is seconded by several current and retired senior Israeli ambassadors.

Klieman’s scathing assessment, “The Sorry State of Israeli Statecraft,” is in the current Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, of 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 ministry.

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 adds.

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.

At home 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 given issue.”

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 Netanyahu.

“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.

“This 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 job back.”

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 intentions.

“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.

One 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 diplomacy].”

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 us.”


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