A need for a better diplomatic corps

While the prime minister makes the case for Israel regarding Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, MKs can be doing the same in a coordinated effort on a parliamentary level.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of Chad Idriss Déby, November 27, 2018 (photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of Chad Idriss Déby, November 27, 2018
(photo credit: AMOS BEN-GERSHOM/GPO)
Trumpets blared in the Knesset plenary this week when Czech President Milos Zeman entered alongside President Reuven Rivlin and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. There was a feeling of pride in the room as this foreign leader spoke in such glowing terms about Israel, and his country’s love for our country. There is no doubt that President Zeman’s visit one day after the arrival of President Idriss Deby of Chad indicates a positive development in Israel’s foreign affairs.
But there was also less positive news this week regarding our diplomatic efforts, and we cannot allow these high-level visits as well as invitations for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to visit other countries blind us to the many challenges that exist on the diplomatic front.
The first piece of bad news this week was the announced cuts to the salaries of our ambassadors. Yes, you read correctly. The people whom we entrust to be our front line of battle in the world of diplomacy were notified of a new tax on the funds which the state gives them to host and run activities. One ambassador reported that this new tax will cost him 30,000 shekel, while another reported that it amounts to a 35% reduction in his salary.
At a time when the Foreign Ministry reports that interest in serving in the foreign service among Israeli youth is at an all-time low, and at a time when Israel should be recruiting the best and the brightest to fight anti-Israel sentiment worldwide, cutting salaries and causing distress among the ambassadors is a catastrophic error. The worker’s union of the foreign service has turned to the courts asking for a restraining order on this Finance Ministry decision. Let’s hope that the court rules in favor of our ambassadors, and that the state makes it a priority to recruit and place well-trained and well-educated diplomats in our embassies and pays them well for their service, as part of a plan to think long-term in strengthening diplomatic ties and Israel advocacy throughout the world.
The second challenge that needs to be addressed is parliament-to-parliament diplomacy. The impact that well-trained and well-informed Knesset members can have when they establish relationships with members of parliament around the world cannot be overstated. When personal connections have been established, MKs and MPs around the world can work on joint legislation related to issues such as BDS, payments to terrorists, linking international funding of the Palestinians to an end of incitement to terrorism, and more.
While the prime minister makes the case for Israel regarding Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, MKs can be doing the same in a coordinated effort on a parliamentary level. MKs can invite and host MPs and show them the real Israel, enabling them to see for themselves the challenges Israel faces. Moreover, these MPs will likely become the next ministers and heads of state in their countries, so working on these issues on a parliamentary level can have massive influence on Israel’s future ties with these countries.
Where does the challenge lie? The current Knesset has 61 MKs in the coalition and 59 in the opposition. Because of this delicate balance in which any law can pass or fall due to the absence of one or two members, the heads of the coalition and opposition have announced that no MKs may take trips abroad until further notice. This means that a major component of parliament-to-parliament diplomacy – visiting parliaments and MPs on their home turf – will not take place, with the exception of when the Knesset is on regular recess or when the next elections are called, which could be a full year away. I hope that reasonable minds will prevail and solutions will be found to make exceptions for important diplomatic missions.
But a more significant challenge will remain even if we surmount the coalition issue. The Israeli public criticizes MKs who travel abroad. In fact, MKs will do anything not to appear on the list of top five MKs who travel, because they do not want to be criticized in the media. This comes from a lack of understanding of what the MKs do on these delegations, and the importance of their overseas work. They are not sitting back and having cocktails or touring capitals around the world. Rather, these trips – which must be approved by the Knesset ethics committee – are jam-packed with high-level meetings to accomplish all of what I explained above. And until the Israeli public and media ceases to vilify the MKs who travel on these important missions, Knesset members will shy away from them, and valuable parliament-to-parliament diplomatic opportunities for the present and future will be lost.
Presidents and prime ministers come and go, and while Netanyahu has done an excellent job in forging positive relationships with key world leaders, what happens when he is no longer prime minister, and the current foreign leaders no longer hold their positions?
Despite the recent “feel good” diplomatic pomp and circumstance, Israel sorely needs a well-thought out and professionally implemented diplomatic plan. Making sure we have the most talented and well-paid ambassadors and encouraging Knesset members to focus on effective parliament-to-parliament diplomacy are two important steps toward the development of a successful long-term foreign affairs strategy.
The author served as a member of the 19th Knesset in which he chaired the Knesset friendship group with the parliaments of the United Kingdom and South Africa.