“A diplomat,” said English ambassador to Venice Sir Henry Wotton, “is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”
Though 420 years old, this quip is still cited as a definition of diplomacy, one of government’s most ancient arts. Even so, in the case of Israel’s diplomat-in-chief, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, it doesn’t work because the fiasco he concocted this week in Libya violated Wotton’s theorem in all its three parts: Cohen failed to lie when he was meant to do just that; his babbling happened not abroad but at home; and its aim was not to serve his country but to serve himself.
The result of a scandalous appointment, it is but part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s continuous debasement of the art, value, and very concept of good governance.
Eli Cohen's Libya disaster
COHEN’S FIASCO followed a secret meeting he held with Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush, thanks to the mediation of Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, who also hosted the meeting late last week.
By Sunday, eager to advertise himself, Cohen pompously reported the meeting to the press through a self-congratulating Foreign Ministry communiqué, which called the meeting “historic” and said that Cohen and his counterpart discussed Libyan Jewry’s heritage and the prospects of restoring its abandoned cemeteries and synagogues.
For several hours, the media took the news at face value and applauded it, but then reality arrived. First, it turned out that Cohen’s communiqué caught the Italians off guard or, as they put it, “surprised.” Then it turned out that the Libyans were also surprised and, in fact, livid.
Cohen’s communiqué quickly reached the streets of Tripoli, where a furious mob burned Israeli flags while Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh sacked the foreign minister, who had to be whisked abroad with her two daughters.
In this regard, then, Cohen’s failure was about discretion: Asked to keep a secret, he couldn’t resist publicity’s temptation, let alone lie, as he should have, that the meeting never happened. But discretion is only the second most important tool in a diplomat’s bag. The first is knowledge.
ANYONE WHO followed the past 12 years’ news from Libya knows that the country Muammar Gaddafi ruled for 32 years is no more. In its place, there are two rival governments – one in Tripoli and the other in Benghazi – surrounded by a collection of quarrelsome militias and tribes. Only a diplomatic ignoramus can assume that a meeting with one of this failed state’s officials can deliver anything solid, let alone final.
It was the same lack of diplomatic acumen Cohen displayed when, in response to US Vice President Kamala Harris’s criticism of his government’s judicial overhaul, he said publicly, “She didn’t even read it.” Never mind that this statement is speculative, it’s no way for a representative of 10 million people to talk about the representative of 330 million people who give us billions in annual aid.
Eli Cohen doesn't know how to be a diplomat
Following the Libyan fiasco, it turned out Cohen not only doesn’t know how to talk smoothly, like a diplomat, he also couldn’t lie convincingly like a diplomat – first when he claimed the Libyan meeting was agreed, and then when he had the Foreign Ministry claim its communiqué came in response to someone else’s leak.
Who else would be in the know about such a meeting? Yes, the Mossad. Would our spies share such news with the press? You’ve got to be kidding. Those people work far from the limelight, painstakingly building ties with enemy countries over years. They would never in their right mind expose an Arab interlocutor, not to mention a foreign minister, the way Cohen just did.
Finally, there is the motivation. Cohen, like most politicians, wanted to aggrandize himself. Fair enough, that’s part of the politicians’ vocation. Even so, when the national interest is at stake, a politician is demanded to detect it and set his personal goals aside.
COHEN IS not a bad man. His pre-political career as an accountant and corporate executive, and his military service as an Air Force officer are more impressive than those of other politicians. Still, this does not qualify him to enter the shoes of Moshe Sharett, Abba Eban, Yitzhak Shamir, Moshe Arens, or Shlomo Ben-Ami, to mention but a few of the foreign ministers whose knowledge of the world and understanding of diplomacy were thorough.
This view, it turned out this week, is shared by Netanyahu himself. The prime minister, his office said while the Libyan protests’ smoke billowed, instructed all ministers to pre-coordinate with him secret diplomatic meetings and their publicity. Cohen could hardly be humiliated more bluntly. Why, then, did Netanyahu make him foreign minister?
ELI COHEN was made foreign minister not despite his diplomatic inexperience but because of it.
It was the natural continuation of Netanyahu’s long record of chasing away strong and smart people – from Avigdor Liberman, Yitzhak Mordechai, and Dan Meridor to Moshe Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, and Ayelet Shaked – and replacing them with submissive lightweights. It’s all part of the absolutist mindset that makes him loathe the idea of sharing with anyone any power, credit, or limelight.
The quest to prevent power accumulation anywhere outside his hands is also what made Netanyahu make two pairs of politicians rotate the Foreign Ministry and the Finance Ministry, thus preventing in both of these vital agencies the sense of stability and continuity that their tasks demand.
This is besides the fun of toying with appointments and the people who crave their honor, while minimizing the appointees’ responsibility and maximizing their servility. That governance is thus devalued, neglected, and perverted is immaterial. What matters is that the king not be challenged, and that the dwarfs he hired to dance about him look this small, so he can feel this big.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.