Resolving an unprecedented political crisis that lasted 18 tumultuous months and included three general election cycles, vicious campaign attacks and numerous broken promises on both sides, the Netanyahu-Gantz “unity government” was officially sworn in last month. Perhaps overshadowed by more pressing and compelling news events – such as the historic commencement of the prime minister’s bribery trial and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – many prominent ministries and government portfolios changed hands as a result of the newly formed coalition, none more important, perhaps, than that of Foreign Affairs.
Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi's entry into the Foreign Ministry marks the first time in over 11 years that a non-Likud MP has been appointed to the position. He enters this much beleaguered and poorly funded office with high hopes – and a hint of uncertainty – surrounding him. We spoke with foreign policy experts and a close friend of Ashkenazi’s about the most urgent challenges and opportunities facing the Foreign Ministry in the coming months, the diplomatic capabilities, experience and knowledge Ashkenazi may bring to the table and what we can expect from the Blue and White party’s second in command in his new role.
“The Foreign Ministry has for years been battered and bruised, gutted of its budgets, responsibilities and powers,” says Yaniv Cohen, executive director of the Abba Eban Institute of International Diplomacy at the IDC Herzliya. “The core of its mission was stripped away and scattered among other ministries and organizations.”
Cohen identifies another problem – and possible solution – “on the internal level” as he puts it: “The ministry has failed to adapt itself to the 21st century in terms of digitalization and innovation. Ironically, the coronavirus was an outlier in this regard. It provided an opportunity for the diplomatic corps to flex its muscle and display its relative advantages – the embassies centered in over 100 locations around the globe, the special relations forged between diplomats and their foreign counterparts, the ability to act quickly and effectively to attain assistance in a crisis.”
According to Cohen, the incoming foreign minister is faced with three distinct challenges, in no particular order of importance.
The first is US President Donald Trump’s peace plan and the proposed annexation of the West Bank settlements: “While the final details have yet to be determined and agreed upon, it is clear Israel is on its way toward a massive change, a move that no doubt will have profound implications on international relations,” Cohen explains. “A tremendous amount of work – preparation and planning – will be needed both by the ministry’s local staff and by its embassy posts around the world. This is urgent work that will not be finished anytime soon. July 1 [Netanyahu’s declared date of annexation] will only be the opening gun.”
The second major challenge is the continuous handling of the coronavirus aftermath. “Understandably, states around the world closed off during the outbreak,” remarks Cohen. “The exit strategy for the world must take the opposite approach – one of cooperation and international dialogue and assistance. The cooperation is expected to be not only medical but also financial, academic, cultural, and humanitarian. Israel has an opportunity to place its knowledge and innovation at the forefront of the international stage. The engine for all this is our Foreign Ministry. It can leverage this crisis into opportunity.” Yet Cohen is not wholly optimistic: “At its current state, it’s doubtful the ministry has the tools to achieve this.”
“Finally,” says Cohen, “there are the day-to-day tasks. The ongoing management of the diplomatic work, the hard work of bringing back funds and authorities. This, in and of itself, would have been a huge undertaking even without the added responsibility of the previous two tasks.”
As for the new minister, Cohen is cautiously hopeful. “One can view the ministry’s poor state as an opportunity for Ashkenazi – to lift the office back on its legs, to retrieve its confidence and affect real change. Having a full-time minister – one that seems like a reformer, knows how to get things done, has experience in administrating large organizations and is one of the most prominent members of the government – is a good start.”
One of Ashkenazi’s closest friends and former IDF colleague, Brig. Gen. (ret.) Avi Benayahu, seems to agree with this.
“He knows he only has 18 months. He’s already spoken to his peers around the world, including a one-on-one meeting with [US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo during his visit to Israel,” says Benayahu. According to him, the change, in some areas, is already palpable. “The Americans realize the one-man show era is over, and Israel’s government is not run solely by Netanyahu anymore. One of Ashkenazi’s chief responsibilities is to ensure our special relations with the US remain intact, regardless of which party occupies the White House.”
Benayahu, who served in several military positions with and under Ashkenazi, the last of which was IDF spokesperson while Ashkenazi was chief of staff, claims the former general has all the tools necessary to excel at the position. “He’s a military man, the people in his office are diplomats – they can’t keep up with him,” he jokes. “Already he’s demonstrated the seriousness of his intentions: managed to prevent further budget cuts that were planned last month.” While the government did enact budget cuts for all ministries, including Foreign Affairs, Ashkenazi successfully lobbied to minimize those reductions to 4.8 million shekels (around $1.4 million) – less than half of their original amount. In addition, six diplomatic posts that were slated to be cut remained untouched, thanks to Ashkenazi’s protest.
“People in the Foreign Ministry tell me, ‘He nailed it. He won a lot of respect and admiration in the ministry for that budget battle. We finally get the feeling our minister is fighting for us.’”
Benayahu also expands on Ashkenazi’s past experience in diplomacy: “As GOC Northern Command, he was in ongoing contact with UNIFIL [the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon]. As a general in the Operations Branch at GHQ, he worked closely with military attachés around the world. As IDF chief of staff, he met regularly with NATO forum members and established personal and close ties with foreign commanders and defense ministers from around the world.”
According to Benayahu, Ashkenazi has always viewed the diplomatic arm of the government as vitally important. “While visiting diplomatic posts abroad, he went out of his way to recognize and laud the embassy staffs. He refers to them as “soldiers without uniforms.” He has always treated them with respect and appreciation to which they were frankly not used to by many others.”
Even so, Benayahu admits that the Foreign Ministry was probably not Ashkenazi’s first choice, given his military background. “If Gantz would have been appointed prime minister, Ashkenazi would be defense minister,” he explains. “Once that came off the table, they had to change course. At one point, there was talk of him being appointed health minister, to oversee and handle the coronavirus crisis.” Nevertheless, says Benayahu, Ashkenazi is far from disappointed with the way things have unfolded: “He’s happy and enthusiastic about the job.”