The Foreign Ministry has issued instructions to all Israeli diplomats abroad on how to explain the government’s deeply controversial judicial overhaul: “The government of Israel is promoting a reform aimed at strengthening the legislative branch, which has been weakened in recent years by a shift in the balance between the branches of government,” according to these talking points. “As the prime minister made clear, Israel must remain a strong democracy, it will continue to preserve individual rights for all, and will not turn into a halachic state. The courts will remain independent rather than favoring one side or another.”
This is a skewed, false message formulated by those seeking to task Israeli diplomats with whitewashing what is essentially a regime coup championed by an extremist government that is leading Israel to the brink of dictatorship. In other words, the Foreign Ministry is demanding that Israel’s official representatives around the world portray Israel as a “strong democracy” even as the government is removing the checks and balances of the democratic system and severely undermining the independence of the judiciary. This is a genuine Orwellian attempt to portray a campaign to crush the judiciary as “preserving the independence of the courts.”
These messages make it incumbent on all diplomats to ask themselves whether this was the reason they joined the foreign service and whether they really want to describe a coup d’état as a measure to “strengthen democracy.” Our representatives abroad who are anxious about what amounts to a regime coup should refrain from defending a policy that endangers themselves, their families, and their country. This is not a call for their resignation; it is a call for soul-searching and for establishing boundaries.
After all, the diplomats are not being asked to ignore a policy disagreement on a specific issue. They are being told to soft-pedal a fundamental contradiction between the foreign service of a country that purports to be based on democratic values that are articulated in our Declaration of Independence – and the direction in which the government of Yariv Levin, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and Benjamin Netanyahu is leading us.
These extremists are aiming to eliminate the separation of powers that is the underpinning of the democratic system, destroy judicial review, promote discrimination and misogyny, divert state budgets to serve ultra-Orthodox and nationalist constituencies and shatter the Zionist ethos on the basis of which the democratic nation-state of the Jewish people was established.
The role of diplomats is to represent their country, including the government and its policies, but also the cultural, economic, and political totality of the society and country they serve, in all its diversity. As long as the government adheres to its basic contract with the public, diplomats can do both, despite the challenges involved. Such is the case in all democratic countries, and the same is true in Israel.
The role of diplomats, like all other civil servants, is not only to broadcast the government’s messages to the world but also to clarify to the government in a professional and courageous manner the implications of the policies it adopts for its interests in the international arena.
Those applying for foreign service training know that they will be called upon at some point in their career to represent policies with which they disagree. Diplomats are civil servants serving democratically elected governments that come and go. Therefore, the ability to serve different governments is a prerequisite for anyone who wishes to represent the State of Israel. Such service involves a willingness to represent and promote the policies of any government, not necessarily the one for which they voted as long as the basis of our democracy is maintained
This challenge faces anyone sent to represent Israel abroad. I myself faced it when I served as Israel’s consul general to the states of New England (at the consulate in Boston). When I disagreed with the Israeli government’s handling of its relations with the US administration, I voiced my criticism behind closed doors in internal forums (although they turned out to be more porous than I thought and my criticism was leaked to the media).
“The government of Israel is promoting a reform aimed at strengthening the legislative branch, which has been weakened in recent years by a shift in the balance between the branches of government,”Israel Foreign Ministry
However, I always knew that I would draw the line when I felt that my views were no longer just a policy disagreement, but a fundamental rejection of the messages I was told to convey and of the policies I was required to promote. I did take early retirement from the Foreign Ministry, partly because I felt I could promote my country’s interests better from outside the system. My decision was right for me personally, but may not necessarily be the right choice for all of my many friends at the Foreign Ministry who have achieved wonderful accomplishments for many years from within the system.
Deepening tensions between government policy and civil servants’ personal beliefs can pose a heartbreaking dilemma. They require difficult personal decisions that involve complicated implications for lives and livelihoods, and therefore no one has a right to judge them. Moreover, when a government undermines democratic values, it makes no sense for those who seek to promote such values from within the system to resign, since they will clearly be replaced by officials willing to help the government crush our democracy.
Notwithstanding this argument, civil servants have both the right and the duty to voice their opinions forcefully and describe the implications of government policy on the matters under their purview. Those who can influence from within should do so and make their voices heard.
A large liberal democratic camp has emerged in Israel in recent months under the current government, a citizenry unwilling to sacrifice its future and that of its children and grandchildren for a dictatorship in the making. Right now, the role of democracy lovers is to help preserve the basic values of democracy, if possible, from within the government and if not, from the outside.
The current government’s policy cannot and must not be justified or “explained,” not even in diplomatic language.
The writer is a board member of the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and the director of J Street Israel.