Gabi Ashkenazi has just 18 months to make his mark at the Foreign Ministry

Diplomatic Affairs: Gabi Ashkenazi dives into post-corona diplomacy – from the Trump plan to the Iranian threat.

Gabi Ashkenazi at the Foreign Ministry, May 2020.  (photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
Gabi Ashkenazi at the Foreign Ministry, May 2020.
(photo credit: FOREIGN MINISTRY)
Immediately after Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi officially started his new job on Monday, the messages started pouring in. One foreign minister after another started tweeting their congratulations at him.
In between meetings with the ministry’s various departments to learn more about what they do, Ashkenazi took calls from his counterparts in India, the UK, Russia, Germany, Hungary and more.
The phone calls made it clear that it’s not just Israelis who are relieved that we finally have a government. All the ministers said they want to meet with Ashkenazi, once the coronavirus crisis abates enough to allow international travel.
But becoming Israel’s top diplomat isn’t just about pleasantries and jet-setting, and Ashkenazi is set for a challenging year and a half, before the political rotation goes into effect and he’s replaced by Miri Regev.
That looming time limit could be a challenge of its own, though it seems that Ashkenazi will have ample opportunity to make his mark in the coming months, since there are plenty of issues on the immediate agenda, from adjusting to a post-coronavirus world to the Trump peace plan and the Iranian threat.
Ashkenazi’s first speech as foreign minister this week, given during a modest ceremony welcoming him to the job, gives us an idea of where he’ll have to focus his attention.
AT THE start of his remarks, the new foreign minister emphasized the importance of diplomacy as a tool to avoid war, the consequences of which he knows well as a former IDF chief of staff.
“It is the responsibility of a government that sends its sons and daughters to missions on our borders and beyond them to ensure that it is doing everything to avoid war and bring every chance of peace closer,” he stated.
That was the first of five times Ashkenazi said the word “peace” in his brief remarks, and it also gives an indication of how he, and Blue and White more broadly, are positioning themselves when it comes to the Trump peace plan.
Ashkenazi called the American plan a “significant milestone... a historic opportunity to shape the borders and the future of the State of Israel for decades.”
The foreign minister highlighted the need to move forward “responsibly and in coordination with the US while maintaining peace treaties and the strategic interests of the State of Israel.” He referred again to the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan at a later point in his speech, calling them a “strategic asset.”
Those who know Ashkenazi called him very measured and deliberate. The words he chooses are meaningful, and surely that’s even more true in such a sensitive issue as the possibility that Israel may apply its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank – which, to be frank, is mostly what people are talking about when they say “the Trump peace plan.”
But Ashkenazi views the plan as a whole, and as a basis for a peace agreement, not as a jumping-off point for unilateral action by Israel.
The Trump administration, most recently US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has made clear that it wants both sides of the unity government to buy into the plan in order to move forward with it, and therefore its messaging on possible annexation has become much murkier in recent months.
The problem is that Gantz and Ashkenazi aren’t entirely sure how they want to proceed, especially when considering the political reality that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely have an easy time getting a majority to do whatever he wants, which he currently says is to apply sovereignty.
The one thing they’re really firm about, which is why they emphasized it in their speeches this week, is that it’s not a peace plan that destroys the existing peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan.
Ashkenazi also tied his messaging on peace as well as working with the Americans to the role of diplomacy in fighting the Iranian threat, thanking the US for its strong stance against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and its proxies on Israel’s borders.
“The diplomatic arena for stopping Iran was and remains our primary mission,” Ashkenazi said. “We have to continue acting with all the diplomatic tools we have, along with security tools, of course.”
Both Iran and annexation are issues putting Israel on a collision course with Europe.
Ashkenazi reached out to the European Union, which, taken as a bloc, was Israel’s second-largest trading partner in 2019. He sent a friendly message, calling to “develop the relations and act together against many international challenges.”
“Israel and Europe are important partners, and I am certain that the relations between us will bear fruit to the advantage of both sides,” he said.
His message was deeply different from that of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who decided his congratulations statement to Ashkenazi was the opportunity for a lecture on annexation and international law. And there is growing pressure among EU member states to threaten Israel with sanctions if it proceeds with applying sovereignty.
Israel and the EU do not see eye to eye on Iran, either, with several European countries using a sanctions-busting mechanism to funnel funds to the Islamic Republic for humanitarian purposes, even while the mullahs’ regime spends a fortune on sponsoring terrorism and proxies around the region.
BUT NOT all of the challenges Ashkenazi will face are about war and peace, especially in the middle of a pandemic.
“Coronavirus is a global crisis, but also an opportunity for us in the Foreign Ministry to highlight Israel’s ability to help curb the global plague,” Ashkenazi said in his first speech on the job.
The remarks reflect one of the conclusions of a Foreign Ministry Policy Planning Bureau report on projections for a post-corona world – that Israeli medical research and technology will be in high demand. More broadly, Ashkenazi also mentioned a goal of expanding global partnerships in hi-tech, science and agriculture.
But COVID-19 could be a technical obstacle. News leaked at the height of the outbreak in Israel that Ashkenazi was going to be appointed foreign minister, and jokes abounded on social media and TV comedy shows that he won’t have anything to do, because he’ll be stuck in Israel.
Now that the outlook seems better, Ashkenazi probably will get to do some of the traveling and hosting necessary during his year and a half on the job, but it will be that much harder to get started when countries – many of which are not recovering nearly as well as Israel so far – are still taking precautions.
The other challenges Ashkenazi faces are within the Israeli political arena, as opposed to the rest of the world.
Earlier this month, a State Comptroller’s Report pointed to two major weaknesses relating to the Foreign Ministry: Israel has no overarching foreign policy, with 35 government bodies dealing in international relations, leading to redundancies and confusion, and the ministry is grossly underfunded.
Both of these are fights that Ashkenazi will have to bring to the cabinet.
The 2019 budget cut the Foreign Ministry’s funding by 14.7%, more than any other ministry except the Interior, which had conducted municipal elections the previous year.
The Foreign Ministry’s budget was down to NIS 1.385 billion, which is less than the NIS 1.53b. it costs to continue its core functions, such as staffing 103 diplomatic missions.
Ashkenazi will have to fight to increase his ministry’s funding in a time when across-the-board cuts are expected to pay for the added welfare costs needed after the coronavirus-induced economic downturn. He is the second-strongest person in Blue and White politically, which may give him an advantage in advocating for his ministry when facing off with the Finance Ministry, but it will still be a difficult battle.
The redundancies the comptroller’s report pointed out are also a point of political contention. In recent years, Netanyahu gutted the Foreign Ministry. The fight against boycotts and delegitimization went to the Strategic Affairs Ministry. The peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt that Ashkenazi values so highly – they’re in the Regional Cooperation Ministry’s purview. The Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Foreign Ministry’s Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions overlap. And ministries such as agriculture, science and technology, education and more have their own departments working on international cooperation.
The state comptroller suggested that there be one umbrella body that coordinates all of those efforts. It may seem like a no-brainer that it should be the Foreign Ministry, but Netanyahu’s distrust has brought about a trend toward decentralization, which means Ashkenazi will have to fight for it.
Ashkenazi may be a former IDF chief of staff, but in politics and diplomacy he’s a novice with a steep learning curve, who has until November 2021 to make an impact on foreign relations.