Diplomats on the dole

It is high time Israel reempowered its diplomacy and its diplomatic arm – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Ministry of Foreign Affairs521 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / REUTERS)
Ministry of Foreign Affairs521
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / REUTERS)
The fact that Israel has no full-time foreign minister and the Foreign Ministry’s most important diplomatic functions have been farmed out to all and sundry should come as no surprise. Israeli diplomacy has always played second fiddle to the country’s perceived national security needs.
US President Barak Obama’s recent visit to Israel and the apology to Turkey he managed to extract from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Mavi Marmara debacle, says it all: Israel is not a normal state. It is high time it reempowered its diplomacy and its diplomatic arm – the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Ever since the 1948 War of Independence, the security leadership has dictated foreign policy. Ties between the Prime Minister’s Office and the Defense Ministry and the intelligence branches have traditionally been close, whereas the Foreign Ministry has invariably been assigned a secondary role. Indeed, its main task has been damage limitation in the international community after controversial military operations or failures. The primary role of a normal functioning Foreign Ministry – reinforcing national security through diplomatic alliances and international partnerships – was marginalized from the outset.
Israel’s first foreign minister Moshe Sharett regularly complained in his diaries about the domination of the “security-minded people” led by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, whose blinkered securitymindedness produced a policy of cross-border military reprisal and undercut nascent peacemaking efforts. This approach reached its tragic apogee under Golda Meir in the early 1970s, when peace feelers from Egypt encountered a brick wall in Jerusalem. It was only after the 1973 Yom Kippur War that Israel’s defense doctrine, with a firm lead from Washington, underwent a radical change. With the ensuing accommodation with Egypt, Israel, for the first time, accepted a peace treaty rather than military deterrence as a basis for national security.
The internal structure of the Foreign Ministry reflects its secondary status. The hasbara or PR branch is dominant and advocacy considerations are paramount. In contrast, research and policy planning get far smaller budgets and have frustratingly limited influence over the architecture of Israel’s foreign policy. The diplomatic branches and the missions abroad serve as bulwarks in defense of government actions rather than as initiators of policy.
However, the ministry’s task in international discourse is becoming increasingly difficult, partly due to the social networks revolution, but mainly because of government policies in which the ministry has so little input. Delegitimization of Israel on the web as well as the expanding BDS movement in Europe and on American campuses threaten Israel’s very existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
These developments are fueled by the occupation and the denial of sovereignty and statehood to the Palestinians and their impact is growing rapidly, despite the ministry’s best efforts to brand Israel as an enlightened, technologically advanced and peace-loving nation.
The new government shows no sign of abandoning the hawkish approach which flies in the face of modern international norms and the overwhelming global demand to end the occupation. Israel is perceived as the last country on earth investing resources and applying military means to deny a neighboring people the right to self-determination, while harboring annexationist designs on its territory.
During his visit, Obama made it clear that in its own interest, Israel must recognize the limits of its security doctrine, both vis-à-vis Iran and the Palestinians. It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu takes his advice.
Given the fact that Israel’s national security is still based predominantly on military deterrence, even when this undermines the already narrow base of its international relations, it should come as no surprise that relations with the US have been given to Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. Similarly, Israel’s ties with Egypt and Jordan will be handled by the Defense Ministry and negotiations with the Palestinians entrusted to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.
All that’s left for the Foreign Ministry is PR. And it’s only right for it to be left in the hands of two settlers, the temporarily suspended hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and his equally hardline deputy Zeev Elkin. For now, they show Israel’s true face to the world. The onus is on Netanyahu – who appointed them – to prove otherwise. Ilan Baruch, a former Ambassador to South Africa, is currently a peace activist and a political adviser to Meretz leader Zahava Galon.