Crippling the Foreign Ministry

The current government is picking the ministry’s bones to resolve narrow party personnel problems.

Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (R) waits for European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini ahead of a meeting at King David Hotel (photo credit: AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (R) waits for European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini ahead of a meeting at King David Hotel
(photo credit: AFP PHOTO / GALI TIBBON)
IN THE earliest days of statehood, the prime minister didn’t always like the Foreign Ministry’s output. As Israel was being built, decision-makers avidly read the Hebrew press, while in the Foreign Ministry they read the foreign press and even the Arab press as well.
Moshe Sharett, the first foreign minister, fashioned a more moderate foreign policy than prime minister David Ben- Gurion, who was more security-minded, and famously expressed his contempt for UN (UM in Hebrew) condemnations of Israel with the derisive phrase “UM-shmum.”
Nevertheless, there was still a great deal of respect for the young institutions of state Israel was building and the division of authority among the various ministries was meticulously observed.
The significant erosion of the Foreign Ministry’s ambit and responsibilities began in the 1970s. As ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin bypassed the legendary foreign minister Abba Eban, reporting directly to prime minister Golda Meir. Then, as prime minister just back from his ambassadorial stint in Washington, he sought to retain control of ties with the strategic American ally.
It proved to be the thin end of the wedge. When the prime minister is so intimately plugged into the White House, there is no reason for him not to handle American-mediated peace talks with Israel’s neighbors. And so the powers and staff work related to the peace-making process meandered across to the prime minister’s office.
That was just the beginning. In due course, the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were signed. Because of the security-based nature of the relations, the Defense Ministry stepped in to take control, the way it had done with the big arms importing countries at various times: Iran, South Africa, Turkey and more recently India.
When the tide turned and Iran became the chief strategic threat to Israel, again the Foreign Ministry found itself by-passed, as a new ministry for “Strategic Affairs and Intelligence” was created, charged specifically with coordinating the struggle against Iran’s military nuclear program. Soon other spheres, like relations with the Jewish communities in the Diaspora, the fight against anti-Semitism and the international struggle over Jerusalem, were also appropriated.
Nevertheless, there has been nothing like the current Netanyahu government’s depredations, picking the ministry’s bones to resolve various Likud party/narrow government personnel problems. It has left the ministry without a full-time minister, without the peace process, without America and without the PR campaign against efforts to delegitimize Israel.
The one sphere of activity that no government succeeded in taking away from the Foreign Ministry for any length of time was diplomatic PR. Every time a special PR minister was appointed, it was quickly understood that effective PR is not possible without the ministry’s professional input. The ministry fought tooth and nail to retain the PR mandate and, for the most part, managed to keep it.
In her maiden speech to the frustrated ministry staff in late May, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely promised to restore the ministry’s centrality and status. Yet less than 24 hours later Netanyahu transferred the PR portfolio and the struggle against delegitimization to recalcitrant Police Minister Gilead Erdan, who is also responsible for “strategy.” Incredibly and incongruously, despite the seriousness of the boycott threat, Israel’s representatives across the world will be working for the Minister of Police.
I will let you in on a secret of what’s going to happen in the next government. There is one sphere of activity in which the ministry has been very successful and which has yet to be taken from it: Israelis abroad in distress.
This makes a lot of headlines and could help promote a political career. In the next government, there will be some malcontent who will demand responsibility for this, too. It could be the welfare minister or the minister of tourism, neither of whom have yet received any of the Foreign Ministry booty.
The government is so concerned about Israeli sovereignty, yet it doesn’t stop hammering the ministry whose job it is, more than any others, to project and protect that sovereignty on the international stage. 
Dr. Alon Liel, who teaches international relations at Tel Aviv University and the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, is a former director general of the Foreign Ministry