JPost Editorial: Full-time foreign minister

Israel is facing major challenges and flux both in the region and in its relations with the US and Russia.

December 15, 2016 20:16
3 minute read.
Israel Azerbaijan

Netanyahu with Azerbaijan President Ilham Heydar Oghlu Aliyev. (photo credit: CHAIM ZACH / GPO)

Israel’s foreign policy options have changed radically – and largely for the better – in recent decades. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit this week to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan underscores the opportunities created by the changing geopolitical map.

Relations with Azerbaijan, a majority Shi’ite state, have gotten closer as a result of the threat posed by Iran. They are not unlike the “special relationships” with Iran in the 1950s and 1960s; with South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s; and with Turkey in the 1990s.

Israel has also fostered ties with other states on the Middle Eastern periphery, such as Greece and Cyprus.

Netanyahu met with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades recently in Jerusalem for their second trilateral summit in less than a year.

The countries are collaborating on issues such as natural gas and emergency response to natural disasters.

Perhaps the most interesting development in recent years has been the improved ties between Israel and moderate Sunni states, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as the Iranian threat looms.

Other major foreign policy challenges include the recalibrating of relations with the US following Donald Trump’s victory and dealing with Russia’s increasingly active role in the Middle East.

The prime minister, who also happens to be foreign minister, needs to take advantage of this rapidly changing geopolitical map. Unfortunately, serving as foreign minister is not his only job, nor is his role as communications minister. Israel’s many foreign policy challenges and opportunities must vie for Netanyahu’s attention.

This state of affairs is unacceptable. Today more than ever Israel is in need of a full-time foreign minister who can cope with Israel’s numerous foreign policy challenges.

A number of options are open to Netanyahu. One possibility is to rehabilitate the Foreign Ministry. Over the years the standing of the Foreign Ministry has deteriorated.

The most recent casualty was Dore Gold, who served as director-general of the ministry until October, when he stepped down.

Though Gold cited personal reasons, he might also have suffered from the reduced importance Netanyahu has attributed to the ministry. The prime minister seems more comfortable using private advisers such as Yitzhak Molcho in relations with the US and countries in the region such as Egypt, and outsiders like Joseph Ciechanover to hammer out a reconciliation agreement with Turkey.

Netanyahu has also parceled out the traditional duties of the Foreign Ministry to other ministers and politicians in the coalition, such as Minister-without-Portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi, who has received some foreign ministerial duties, along with Michael Oren, who was appointed a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Other politicians who have received quasi-diplomatic roles include Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also minister of Diaspora Affairs. Transportation Minister Israel Katz is also minister of intelligence and atomic energy. And Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan is also minister of strategic affairs and public diplomacy, which has a NIS 120 million budget to fight the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement – more than all the money available to the Foreign Ministry for programming.

If Netanyahu has made a strategic decision to do away with the Foreign Ministry, he should say so and put in place an alternative. Perhaps Netanyahu feels the position of chief diplomat is too sensitive to rely on a politician and should instead be a professional appointment; perhaps he believes the Foreign Ministry is in need of a major overhaul before it can be trusted to carry out foreign policy decisions.

We don’t know because Netanyahu has confided his reasoning.

In most Western countries the position of chief diplomat is considered one of the most important political appointments that a head of state can make. The controversy and speculation surrounding the appointment of Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for secretary of state, is evidence of this fact.

Israel is facing major challenges and flux both in the region and in its relations with the US and Russia. The Jewish state must rise to these challenges. This is not a part-time job. The nation needs a full-time chief diplomat.

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