Over the years, Israel has had several foreign ministers with enough status to strengthen the country’s standing in the international arena. Among these are Shimon Peres, Yigal Alon, Golda Meir, and many more. One of them, Abba Eban, aka “the Number One Diplomat of the State of Israel,” understood the potential weight of the office as a means to benefit the people of Israel economically, on the security front, and with a myriad of other pertinent issues. Eban made sure, therefore, to place the Foreign Affairs Ministry in its rightful place in Israeli politics.
Yet over time, there has been a continuous decline in the office’s status, which has become an attractive platform for political self-promotion and rarely receives the respect it deserves in the decision-making process in Israel. In recent years, some politicians appointed to the position of foreign minister have little or no qualifications for the job. The devaluation of the status and influence of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in decision-making has added to the continuously decreasing ministry’s budget in constraining creativity. This has made the joy of service for professional diplomats increasingly difficult to achieve – even when worthy politicians were appointed to the position.
In recent years, too, the meager salary paid to diplomats, especially when they return to Israel in between their missions abroad, is disrespectful to any civil service professional. It is hard to imagine how it is possible for diplomats to represent their country with the issue of their own basic economic survival constantly on their minds.
From my personal dealings over the years with many Israeli Foreign Service personnel, I am proud to say that, for the most part, we have had professional, hard-working diplomats imbued with a love of the country and the desire to serve and do their best in the world arena as far as Israel’s international relationships with allow.
The state comptroller’s report for 2022 magnified and highlighted the huge lack of manpower in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, especially in view of the increasing number of missions that the state has in countries around the world – while employees’ salaries remain stagnant.
Furthermore, and in light of the complexity of the domestic political arena and the constant need (real or imagined) to please coalition partners, repeatedly stripping the Foreign Affairs Ministry of its assets has become a pattern. Examples are strategic relations with the US; public relations; the struggle against the BDS movement; and more.
Israel's diplomats are underpaid, overworked, and face monumental challenges
The Israeli public is not sufficiently familiar with the steadfast stance of the “soldiers” of the foreign service and the challenges they face. Foreign ministers, however, receive quite a bit of attention from the media owing to their frequent high-level meetings with heads of state and senior politicians. Not all of them understand the art of diplomacy, the sensitivity involved in foreign policy and the need to leverage it in favor of promoting vital interests related to the strength of the State of Israel.
Let’s take the establishment of Israel’s diplomatic relations with Sudan. It is a failed state, through which Iran and other terrorist-supporting countries often transfer dual-use equipment and parts of equipment whose final destination is terrorist organizations. It is of great importance for Israel to establish some kind of diplomatic ties with Sudan, as the relations may provide significant benefits on a geostrategic level. However, as Sudan is on the US list of countries that support terrorism, the complexities and sensitivities that these relations comprise are many and complex, and any step that is not balanced and accurate could potentially cause a diplomatic crisis – not to mention a very significant security one.
Similarly, it is possible to mention Israel’s striving to establish foreign relations with other African countries with which it does not have diplomatic ties.
While China and Iran have been operating on the continent for years with the aim of strengthening their foothold there, Israel has been doing this for years behind the scenes, leveraging a long list of diplomatic measures such as courses in areas of added value for those countries, humanitarian aid and more. An aggressive attempt to establish open diplomatic relations, in a relatively short period of time, with a long list of countries in Africa (including Libya) not only does not always serve the purpose but can do the exact opposite.
The State of Israel has many assets, technological know-how, and innovations, as well as a special approach to the US, and more. Furthermore, there is much know-how and experience among Israeli diplomats and professionals in this field, regarding advancing relations with certain countries – and that knowledge is irreplaceable. Ignoring that accumulated knowledge and experience, in order to produce quick achievements for political purposes and PR, may endanger the status and security of the State of Israel.
In an era in which we are witnessing the attempts of China, Russia, and Iran to create an alliance against the power of the United States in the international arena, it is not difficult to understand that Israel has no place of honor in such an alliance. Although in recent years the US has shown weakness (at best) and is pursuing what is at times a wrong and problematic policy in the Middle East, it is still the best and most important friend of the State of Israel in the international arena.
Arrogant disdain for American intervention in what is happening inside Israel. Recent statements made by Finance Minister Smotrich are a harmful provocation. It is possible that such arrogance serves some politicians in the internal political arena and in the short term, but it is without a doubt harmful in the “real” world – the one outside of internal politics.
At this moment in time, when Israel’s security is being undermined by its countless enemies, and its internal arena is characterized by continuous strife, one can only remain hopeful that Israeli politicians will take care to make as few mistakes vis-à-vis their country’s foreign policy as possible – given its potential catastrophic repercussions.
The writer is a former MK and diplomat, and an expert on foreign policy and Arab affairs.