Foreign Ministry shame

Historically, Israel has had well known foreign ministers befitting a country on the world stage. But in the last decade that has been eroded.

Israel's Foreign Minister Israel Katz (photo credit: SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/POOL VIA REUTERS)
Israel's Foreign Minister Israel Katz
(photo credit: SEBASTIAN SCHEINER/POOL VIA REUTERS)
The country is at the cutting edge of defense technology, cyber defense and life sciences. In many sectors, it has achieved unparalleled success.
However, when it comes to government bureaucracy and political shenanigans harming government ministries, the country also appears to excel – but in a negative way. The recent story that the Foreign Ministry – whose funding has been systematically undermined during Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure – may now go hat in hand to donors, is embarrassing.
Ostensibly, the ministry is merely being allowed to raise funds for Independence Day events at missions abroad. Foreign Minister Israel Katz made this decision and it was authorized by the cabinet.
This means donations can be made abroad within certain guidelines. Corporations can’t make donations and the sum total collected cannot make up more than 25% of an event’s budget. One donor cannot give more than NIS 100,000 per year. Considering the billions that the Jewish community in the US and other countries donate to charities, these sums are almost negligible.
But the context of this decision makes it appear less about innovative fund-raising and more about treatment of the ministry in general. The workers union slammed the move, asking: “Will we also have to fund-raise for Remembrance Day?”
The union says that the prime minister is harming the ministry through budgetary failures and that while the government gives the diplomats more work, it is at the same time cutting their pay. “The government needs to decide what international status it wants,” the union said.
Netanyahu appears to have a personal vendetta against the ministry and its professionals. This may be due to a perception that historically, the ministry was considered to be “Left” leaning.
It also seems to be part of an overall attempt by Netanyahu to concentrate power in the Prime Minister’s Office and take over the work of various ministries. Netanyahu does not like to have other members of his government be prominent in their own right, or appear to be potential successors.
Historically, Israel has had well known foreign ministers befitting a country on the world stage. But in the last decade that has been eroded. Even as Netanyahu brags about Israel making inroads in the Arab world, Africa and Asia, Israel lacks many of the resources needed to deepen those relationships.
A cadre of diplomats and large number of cadets is healthy for Israel. Powerful and emerging countries need to have well-trained diplomats. This enables cultural diplomacy and the emergence of soft-power initiatives. Israel is always in need of good public diplomacy. But it also has a lot to offer, and many countries are eager for connections.
A larger Foreign Ministry can help facilitate those contacts through consulates and embassies, linking up with the work of Israeli businessmen and artists abroad. That is how countries conduct a coherent foreign policy: when trade, defense and diplomacy work in concert.
It’s time to stop the erosion of the Foreign Ministry and the attempts to sideline its work – or embarrass it by making it raise funds for something as simple as an Independence Day event.
At a time when the government is taking pride in the activation of the Leviathan gas rig and the hundreds of billions of shekels this will bring into the economy, this is even more ridiculous.
As Israel faces an increasing Iran threat in an uncertain Middle East, it is essential to have a growing diplomatic corps, not a shrinking one. Israel wants support in international institutions.
It needs qualified and trained people abroad to help make that happen and to pave the way for Israel to continue being a success story in this complex century, dominated by uncertainty.
This is doubly true with Israel’s new relationships in places like India, China, Russia and Africa. Concentrating these relationships in the Prime Minister’s Office weakens continuity and makes the relationships become predicated on short-term goals over long-term maturation of relations.
A strong Foreign Ministry is needed now.