The war we will lose

Thank God, Israel has been very successful at achieving military victories. But, unfortunately, we are on the verge of losing one of our most critical battles – the public diplomacy war.

August 13, 2015 21:12
United Nations

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations. (photo credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP)

Thank God, Israel has been very successful at achieving military victories. But, unfortunately, we are on the verge of losing one of our most critical battles – the public diplomacy war.

The current government’s decision to cut the Foreign Ministry budget by NIS 55 million in 2015 and 2016 amounts to waving a white flag of surrender in the battle against BDS, and in the battle to win support from those who are undecided on Israel. Those cuts will necessitate the closing of Foreign Service locations including the embassy in Cameroon and consulates in Philadelphia, Atlanta and San Francisco.

Budget disputes are often a result of petty politics, so I decided to ask a non-political, high-ranking official in one of our more important embassies for his thoughts on this budget cut.

The official explained that decision-makers in the government view the Foreign Service “as a luxury,” when in actuality this work “is at the core of Israel’s national security. Today – with BDS, the Iran deal, challenges at the UN, threats to drag Israeli leaders before the International Criminal Court, and talk about sanctions regarding the territories – Israel needs friends more than ever, but our diplomats are not given the tools to develop relationships and preserve friendships.”

This official explained that when “an embassy or consulate is closed, the host country is usually insulted and tends to be less supportive of Israel – and there is no longer someone ‘on the ground’ to repair the insult. Developing countries see Israel as a rich OECD member, as the Start-up Nation, and they see the budgetary ‘claim’ as just an excuse for downgrading the relationship.”

Cameroon serves as a perfect example for this point.

Israel has been in the midst of developing a closer relationship with its leaders and there is strong potential for them to support Israel. Closing the embassy there can have a devastating impact when it comes to critical votes in the United Nations and regarding the nuclear deal with Iran.

Another Foreign Ministry official told me that ministry representatives worldwide are already working shortstaffed, and have been pleading for increased budgets.

That request first and foremost is to increase our presence internationally: out of 195 countries in the world, Israel has an official presence in only 100.

Iran, on the other hand, has officials in 167 countries – and when Tehran decided to start presenting its case to the world, it increased its Foreign Ministry budget by 20 percent. How can Israel afford to decrease its Foreign Ministry budget for diplomatic efforts at a time when Iran is increasing its budget and be expect to defeat Iran in the public diplomacy battle? Another reason for the increased budget requests was to fund public diplomacy initiatives throughout the world. The current budget to use in this battle provides $6,000 for small-size Foreign Ministry offices, $12,000 for mid-sized consulates and embassies, and $30,000 for the largest ones. What kind of public relations war can we fight in New York, California and London with a measly budget of $30,000 dedicated to this effort in these critical locations? This pathetic allocation is akin to laying down our arms before the battle begins.

The request for a budget increase was also meant to fund a Birthright-type project for non-Jewish reporters, academics, religious leaders, school principals, agricultural experts, hospital administrators and other professional figures who impact societies worldwide, so they can experience Israel and its successes firsthand. Just as Birthright wins hearts, souls and minds toward a greater understanding, connection and support for Israel, this project – coordinated through the Foreign Ministry – would do the same, thereby helping win the public relations war.

But the Finance Ministry rejected this request, and the prime minister – who has already weakened the Foreign Ministry by dividing its authority among many different ministers, and has yet to appoint a full-time foreign minister – has played a crucial role in the development of this disaster.

The most difficult part of this “surrender” is that diplomats have asked Finance Ministry officials to visit Israeli missions to witness firsthand the critical nature of their work in fighting the public diplomacy war for Israel, so they understand the implications of cutbacks and closing embassies. The invitations were turned down, and they are making these cuts without even researching their devastating impact.

As someone who has been involved in the public diplomacy battle for the past few years, I decided to study the proposed state budget, approved by the government this week, and closely follow its development, to see if there is, indeed, a need to cut the NIS 55m.

This led me to the saga of Miri Regev, minister of culture and sport. Regev announced very publicly that she would vote against the budget in the Knesset if her ministry did not receive a budget increase. Since the governing coalition consists of only 61 members, her vote against the state budget would mean it would not pass, and a budget not passing would send our country back to elections.

Regev won. The Finance Ministry promised her a NIS 50m. increase in 2015, and another NIS 50m. in 2016 – a 15 percent increase in her ministry’s budget! She was also granted a one-time allocation of NIS 160m., bringing the Culture and Sport Ministry to an all-time budget high of close to NIS 1 billion! I love sports and believe that culture is important. But how can our government find NIS 50m. for the annual budget of sports and culture, and then claim it has to cut NIS 55m. from the Foreign Ministry budget? How did our government find NIS 160m. for Regev to use on sports and culture programming, while rejecting the funding of Foreign Ministry missions to Israel for influential people in leadership positions from around the world? This is not simply disgraceful – it is impossible to accept. The citizens of Israel must rise up and make their voices heard. It is not too late. This budget must still pass in the Knesset. We must do something to convince the prime minister and the ministers of the Likud, Bayit Yehudi and Kulanu that they must find at least NIS 55m.

per year to assist our Foreign Ministry officials in their critical work on Israel’s behalf.

If we don’t, our country will have declared its surrender on the public diplomacy front. Not only will that war be lost, but with that loss, Israel’s security and existence will be in grave danger.

The writer served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.

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