Report card: A mixed bag inside the Foreign Ministry

Shalom made progress at the UN, less with the Islamic world.

shalom pensive 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
shalom pensive 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Silvan Shalom opened a Sunday press conference concluding his nearly three years as foreign minister by saying that Israel's position in the world has improved "immeasurably." He then proceeded to take credit for much of that improvement, ticking off areas of the world - Europe, the Arab and Islamic states, the UN and even the US - where the ministry, under his tutelage, had spearheaded this dramatic change. In an Israel Radio interview, he summed this all up by saying that a long list of actions taken by the ministry over the last three years had given Israel "the best international standing it has ever had." Shalom was indeed an active foreign minister - flying from capital to capital, hosting one international leader after the next - but what he didn't emphasize enough, according to officials in the ministry, was that it was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's disengagement policy, more than anything else, that led to this change in the way the world currently views Israel. And, moreover, disengagement was not a policy Shalom supported wholeheartedly. "There has definitely been an improvement in Israel's position," one diplomatic official said. "But it is clearly because of disengagement: the decision to carry out the plan, the way it was done and the respect this gained for Sharon. The improvement in our standing in the world must be seen within the context of disengagement." "Many things happened over the last three years," another official said, "but I'm not sure Shalom can take credit for them. What he was able to do was to identify certain trends, certain existing tendencies, and leverage them to our advantage." The best example of this, he said, was Israel's improved position in the UN and paving the way - after decades of trying - for Magen David Adom's membership of the International Red Cross. Regarding the UN, it was under Shalom's watch, and with a very proactive department in charge of ties with the UN, that Israel's attitude toward the world body went from always on the defensive to taking the offensive. As a result, Israel got its ambassador named one of the vice presidents of the General Assembly, was able to get the Security Council to condemn Hizbullah and Iran by name and move an Israeli-initiated resolution through the General Assembly. When Shalom entered office, he set two main goals for himself: improving Israel's difficult relationship with Europe and developing ties with the Islamic world. Indeed, he said over and over again that diplomatic ties were possible with no fewer than 10 Arab countries. Foreign Ministry officials said that it was not as if Shalom chose these two areas to become involved in, but rather this was what was left to him since the major theater - the US - was being handled by the Prime Minister's Office. Indeed, Shalom was unable to break the monopoly the Prime Minister's Office has on ties with the US administration, the most important relationship this country has. If anything, ministry officials said, because of spats Shalom had with two close Sharon confidants - Dov Weisglass and Ehud Olmert - Shalom was distanced even further from this center of power than some of his predecessors. This, in turn, produced a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more he was distanced, the angrier he became at those around that table, and the angrier he became, the more was he distanced. "I never got the feeling," one Foreign Ministry official said, "that he was one of the shapers of Israeli foreign policy." One area where he perhaps could have influenced, had he wanted, was on the Palestinian track, where his predecessors Shlomo Ben-Ami, Shimon Peres and even David Levy were active. But, as another official said, he barely met Palestinians. He met the foreign ministers of Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar, but not Palestinians. The reason, this official charged, was because "Shalom did not know how to separate politics from diplomacy," and didn't want to get involved with the Palestinians because this was not something that would go over all that well in the Likud central committee, the bastion of his political strength. Regarding Europe, Israel's relationship with the EU has indeed undergone a transformation - from talks of sanctions and boycotts to greater cooperation, as seen recently in Europe's involvement in opening the Rafah crossing. Though disengagement was plainly a major factor, the officials say, Shalom deserves credit for paying attention to Europe, to trying to bring it into the arena and balance its attitude toward the conflict. When Shalom came into office in 2003, Sharon had all but written Europe off as a lost cause. But Shalom's achievement in the Islamic and Arab world, another official said, was less than he took credit for. Indeed, he said, "Shalom talked about wonders and miracles, but where are they?" Shalom held a number of meetings with Arab and Muslim leaders, traveled to Morocco and Tunisia, and even publicly shook the hand of the Pakistani foreign minister - impressive developments. But because of his talk of the possibility of developing or upgrading ties with such countries, the lack of dramatic progress beyond the photo opportunities meant he was unable to meet the expectations he had raised. Shalom's critics say that while the overall atmosphere in a number of Islamic countries like Morocco, Tunisia and even some of the Persian Gulf states has changed for the better, normalization of ties with those countries seems almost as distant now as it did when he came into office. And, here too, of course, much of the change in the atmospherics had to do with disengagement. Still Shalom defended his record with the Arab and Islamic world at his press conference and said that during his term relations with 10 Islamic states did indeed improve. The states he mentioned were Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, Mauritania, Tunisia, Qatar, Oman, Pakistan and Indonesia. Furthermore, it was under Shalom's tenure that Egypt and Jordan returned their ambassadors, and he had spent a lot of time trying to make this so. He also successfully led the effort to get Hamas placed on the EU's list of terrorist organizations, but was unable to convince the Europeans to do the same with Hizbullah and also failed in early attempts to mobilize the world community against allowing Hamas to take part in the upcoming Palestinian Legislative Council elections. The lack of involvement with both the US Administration and the Palestinians meant that Shalom, and effectively the Foreign Ministry, were cut out of some of the major decision-making processes, something that adversely affected morale in the ministry. Ranking officials complained more than once that their voices were either not solicited or not heard around the tables where the final decisions were made. It was also under Shalom's tenure that the ministry's appointments procedure was taken to task, and a reform of the whole process was demanded. Shalom came under criticism from inside the ministry for promoting those close to him, at the expense of others who were more veteran and may have been more qualified, and for choosing individuals for political appointments abroad who were unsuited for their positions. According to one ministry worker, the appointments-process under Shalom "destroyed motivation" inside the ministry. Finally, his tenure was marked by those public spats - with Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon and consul-general in New York Alon Pinkas, as well as Weisglass and Olmert. At his farewell press conference, Shalom thanked the prime minister for what he said was consistent support, but chose not to refer to those various personnel disputes.