Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi has already rehabilitated one important Israeli institution in his career – the battered IDF following the Second Lebanon War in 2006. He now has an opportunity to do the same for another significant institution – the Foreign Ministry. Three key factors have coalesced to provide a rare opportunity to revitalize the ministry. The first is the ministry’s serious decline in recent decades, with some of its responsibilities parceled out to other agencies, such as the Strategic Affairs Ministry, and its ongoing exclusion from decision making on foreign affairs and security issues. The ministry further faced deep budget cuts that forced our diplomats to declare an unprecedented labor dispute, and even threaten a strike in 2019. The crisis was further exacerbated as throughout most of the previous government’s term, the ministry operated without a full-time minister at its helm.
The combination of these factors greatly eroded the ministry’s standing as reflected, inter alia, in the halving of applicants to its prestigious cadet training between 2012 and 2017. We are not alone in this regard. Foreign ministries the world over have experienced declines in recent decades. Globalization has weakened the nation-state and significantly eroded the need for a unique state institution dedicated to conducting its foreign affairs, while technological developments have undermined the centrality of some of the ministry’s most significant roles, such as managing communications between states, monitoring developments abroad and analyzing their impact. In the US, for example, President Trump has consistently sought to slash the State Department’s annual budget, although Congress has blocked some of the cuts.
However, the emerging global reality of recent years increases the need for strong, effective foreign ministries. The post-World War II global order is being eroded. The US, which held a leading role in creating and leading that order (especially since the end of the Cold War) has withdrawn inward. China, the rising power, has yet to affirm its standing and the nature of its relationship with the US is unclear. The growing frostiness between Washington and Beijing has weakened globalization further, even before the coronavirus honed understanding of its limitations. Nation-states, as an idea and social institution that many had already dismissed as defunct, are experiencing a resurgence while competing frameworks, such as the European Union, are in decline. Meanwhile, the Euro-Atlantic world from which we emerged and within which we exist, is losing its centuries-long predominance, a continent we understand far less, is rising.
These systemic shifts will affect us as a small state. For example, the declining volume of international trade resulting from shrinking globalization could damage leading economic engines, especially the hi-tech industry. What is more, Israel’s room for maneuver in the global system stems, inter alia, from its close alliance with the US over the past 50 years. The decline of the US, the reservations some of its political elite have about Israel and the rise of a competing power are likely to shrink our room for maneuver accordingly. A significant measure of the Zionist movement’s success was its ability to navigate within the stormy international reality of the 20th century and to adapt quickly to the rise and fall of great powers, especially after the two world wars. The same is true today. The significant global change that is taking place around us requires a strong, confident cadre of diplomats capable of analyzing shifting trends and playing a leading role in shaping Israel’s response. Yet, again, early
signs of a resurgence in foreign ministries around the world is already evident. For example, after years of decline, the British government has undertaken a series of measures designed to bolster the Foreign Office, including a comprehensive review to be completed this year of its foreign affairs, security and international development goals and institutions. Just as important, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced in mid-June the folding of the Department for International Development into the Foreign Office in order to “mobilize every one of our national assets, including our aid budget and expertise, to safeguard British interests and values overseas.”
The third part of the opportunity structure is the current internal political reality. In his debut as an elected official in a key cabinet post, Ashkenazi has a chance to lead a substantive change. His personal and political standing, along with his past leadership of Israel’s most important security organ (and his prospective appointment as defense minister starting in late 2021) will enable him to restore the Foreign Ministry to the nexus of decision-making processes. His impressive stand as IDF chief in pushing back against the prime minister regarding a strike on Iran a decade ago reflects his potential, and that of his ministry, to shape crucial policy issues. His overall dignified public record and the esteem with which he is held in Washington will help him shape a new relationship with a Democratic Party administration, especially given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close relationship with the current Republican one. Finally, his success as foreign minister could well pave his way to further political advancement.
A strong and leading Foreign Ministry is essential for Israel. A combination of institutional, international and domestic circumstances is making that possible for the first time in years. Ashkenazi rehabilitated the IDF. He now has an opportunity to do the same for the Foreign Ministry.
The writer is a senior lecturer of international relations at the University of Haifa and a board member of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies