The Knesset: 120 potential diplomats

Delegations of parliamentarians work to strengthen Israel’s diplomatic position abroad – even if they disagree on how to do it.

Knesset 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On the surface, Israel’s ties with other countries are managed by the Foreign Ministry, and sometimes the Prime Minister’s Office, or the recently established Public Diplomacy Ministry. However, for decades, there has been another channel, by which public figures have represented Israel abroad to very little fanfare: parliamentary diplomacy.
Throughout the year, delegations of MKs travel to international organizations and present their views on various issues – though, usually, they’re asked to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Often, they meet representatives of countries that do not have formal relations with Israel, including Arab countries, and attempt to block decisions – such as recognition of a Palestinian state – that would cause problems for the government.
According to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, the main advantage of MK participation in interparliamentary groups is that it builds personal relations with decision-makers in other countries.
“When two people have personal, mutual trust in each other, they are more willing to listen to each other’s points of view, even if they disagree,” he explained.
Rivlin said that when he explains a concept like settlements to foreign parliamentarians, they are able to understand the reasoning behind it, instead of jumping to label Israeli policies as “imperialism or right-wing ideology.” Even if they disagree, he added, they take the Israeli position more seriously when they have personal ties to an MK.
“Today, there is opposition to Israel’s right to exist,” Rivlin said. “Interparliamentary connections help Israel explain the facts and show that we are not bloodthirsty – we want to strengthen our state.”
MK Meir Sheetrit (Kadima), who returned from an Interparliamentary Union (IPU) Committee on Middle East Questions in Geneva on Wednesday, has been attending IPU meetings regularly since he was a Likud MK in the 13th Knesset.
The Kadima MK extolled the value of such meetings, saying that in his opinion, as Israel is increasingly diplomatically isolated, and European countries identify with the Palestinian position, the IPU is an important forum in which Israel can defend itself to the world.
One of Sheetrit’s major accomplishments at the IPU took place in a meeting last October, in Bern, Switzerland.
Sheetrit convinced the “Twelve Plus Group,” which includes the US, Canada, Australia, most of Europe and Israel, that it would be more important for it to participate in a discussion on hunger in Africa than on Palestinian statehood. With key states absent from the vote, the Palestinian Authority withdrew its bid for recognition as a state in the IPU.
MK Majallie Whbee (Kadima) is vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM) and leads the Israeli delegation to the EU-affiliated Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EUROMED), where he has often found himself debating parliamentarians from countries like Syria, Lebanon and Libya.
The Kadima MK and former deputy foreign minister pointed out that many members of interparliamentary forums become ministers, which increases the chance that a positive experience with an Israeli delegation could have an influence on future policies abroad.
Although there are many discussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in PAM, Whbee says he has also represented Israeli positions and expertise on other issues. For example, in 2011, he brought an expert on earthquakes to lecture representatives of other Mediterranean countries.
“Everyone is willing to listen to the Knesset, because it is, first and foremost, a symbol of true democracy,” Whbee explained.
MK Einat Wilf (Independence), who leads the delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and has participated in delegations to EUROMED and the European Parliament, quipped that the OECD Parliamentary Budget Officials was the most refreshing of the various international organizations because it “treats Israel so normally, that it’s abnormal.”
“Israel is an equal member in economic matters [in the OECD], which creates a better atmosphere,” she said. “Everywhere else, people only want to talk about the Palestinian issue.”
Wilf pointed out that, in a way, MKs “shoot themselves in the foot,” because they often bring up conflict, rather than building bilateral ties in other topics, like the environment.
For MK Arye Eldad (National Union), however, conflict with the Palestinians is the only real reason to participate in interparliamentary forums, which he called “mostly nonsense” and “overinflated organizations that steal the public’s funds.”
“Most international parliamentary meetings are about as important as the neighborhood parliament in Afula over coffee and burkeas,” Eldad quipped. “The real diplomats are foreign ministers and ambassadors, and parliamentarians do not represent their government’s positions.”
He also pointed out that decisions made by such organizations usually are not legally binding, and opined that they often cause Israel real harm.
The only reason to join these delegations, according to Eldad, is to “cut our losses” when “Israel-hating Arabs” use them as a stage to bash Israel.
MKs must point out to the world that “they are our enemies, who want to destroy us,” he said.
All of the MKs leading continual delegations to interparliamentary organizations are from Kadima, except for Wilf.
In addition to Sheetrit and Whbee’s activities abroad, MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima) leads the delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) and MK Nahman Shai (Kadima) chairs the group of MKs at the European Parliament.
The coalition is more limited in its ability to send MKs on delegations, because 31 of them are ministers. In addition, MKs are often bound by coalition discipline to be present for important votes.
Rivlin explained that most Likud MKs, including those that he personally invited, turned down offers to join these delegations, but highlighted MK Tzipi Hotovely and Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom as members of his party that are active on the interparliamentary stage.
Rivlin pointed out that in the opposition, there are numerous MKs with experience in the international arena who are qualified to represent Israel abroad, but those with similar experience in the coalition are almost all ministers.
Similarly, Sheetrit said that many coalition MKs who are not ministers do not feel comfortable defending Israel in English, and are not willing to commit to traveling to meetings abroad several times each year.
Sheetrit explained that he always makes sure to present his views as his own and not as those of the government. He added that IPU delegations must always include coalition and opposition members, and encouraged more MKs to join him at the IPU.
Despite the seemingly apolitical reasons for Kadima’s dominance on the interparliamentary scene, Eldad warned that Rivlin should not give the party all of the responsibility in this matter, arguing that it hurts Israel to give the Left control of parliamentary diplomacy.
Since the Knesset is composed of varied members, parties and positions, there have been cases of friction between delegation members on different sides of the political spectrum.
Eldad, for example, left a delegation to PACE in October, because its leader MK Doron Avital (Kadima) supported the forum’s raising the PLO’s status to “Partner for Democracy,” and would not allow Eldad to voice his opposing opinion.
Avital, at the time, responded that Eldad’s opinion – that Jordan is the Palestinian state – is irresponsible and does not represent the government’s point of view as reflected by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, in which he discussed a future Palestinian State.
Wilf also recounted situations in which there were “problems with delegation leaders’ behavior,” in that they harshly slammed Netanyahu and said he does not want peace. Such criticism led to Israeli delegations to argue in front of their hosts.
“Some say this shows how democratic Israel is,” she stated, “but I think that if you’re sent to represent Israel, you shouldn’t engage in opposition activities.”
Rivlin praised the pluralism of Knesset delegations, pointing out that they usually include MKs whose views are “at the center of the political map.”
“Some may favor compromise more and some less, but most present Zionist views, and their disagreements only emphasize Israeli democracy,” Rivlin said.