Middle Israel: Netanyahu's problem with Israel's diplomats

The war on the elites, famous for its fronts in the judiciary, media, academia, and bohemia, is raging in the Foreign Ministry as well.

Yuval Steinitz  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Yuval Steinitz
Diplomacy, as defined by American journalist Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), is the patriotic art of lying for one’s country.
That may be true for other diplomats, but for Israel’s it’s the other way around, since in their case the lying is done by their enemies, which is why their task is not to conceal the truth about their country’s situation, but to expose it.
The Jewish state faces a global assault on its image that resembles the medieval effort to demonize the Jewish faith. Israelis used to belittle this threat, in the spirit of David Ben-Gurion’s dictum that what the Gentiles say is less important than what the Jews do. This attitude changed in 2001, when Israelis saw the UN conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, hijacked by activists from multiple lands who – in the very days when Israelis were braving suicide bombers day in, day out – accused Israel of genocide.
It was then that mainstream Israelis understood that Israel’s character assassination is a strategic problem, and that fighting it demands serious people, money and plans.
However, under the mantle of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s most effective representative since Abba Eban, the Foreign Ministry that should lead this struggle underwent repeated cuts, such as the current budget’s cut in its personnel from 969 employees to 944, and closure of seven foreign missions.
Israeli diplomats’ claim that the ministry’s NIS 1.6 billion-budget is insufficient for running 103 missions worldwide is debatable, but there is no arguing the Foreign Ministry has been robbed over the years of duties that should be its bread and butter.
The Diaspora Affairs Ministry meddled in relations with Jewish communities, the Mossad and National Security Council encroach on the management of relations with Arab countries, the Intelligence Ministry snatches research activity and, most embarrassingly, anti-BDS strategizing has been handed to the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
Disempowered, insulted and demoralized by their steadily diminishing duties, the diplomats point to their steadily diminishing resources, and say they will now do even less than their remaining duties demand.
Claiming the ministry already faces a NIS 330 million deficit, an unnamed diplomat told Yediot Aharonot that next year the foreign service won’t open its annual diplomatic cadets’ course; that foreign policy-makers and journalists will not be brought to see Israel; that embassies won’t hold Independence Day receptions; and that vocational courses that Israel has been offering throughout the Third World since 1957 will be canceled.
Something, in short, is rotten in this kingdom, and the national interest demands that it be addressed, now that Netanyahu, having become defense minister, is seeking a full-time foreign minister.
THE ROOT of the Foreign Ministry’s predicament lies not in its trimmed budgeting and assignments; these are merely symptoms. The problem appears to lie in Netanyahu’s attitude to the Foreign Service, with which he has interacted since 1982, when ambassador to the US Moshe Arens made him his deputy.
Rubbing shoulders with numerous Israeli diplomats over the decades, Netanyahu emerged with the impression that most of them, at least at heart, are lefties; like the late Yochanan Bein, Netanyahu’s deputy at the UN, who after retiring joined Meretz; or Alon Liel, the consul-general in Atlanta when Netanyahu was deputy minister, who after retiring asked the government of Brazil not to accredit Danny Dayan as Israel’s ambassador, because of his record as a settler leader; or Collette Avital, ambassador to Portugal when Netanyahu was deputy minister, who later became an MK for Labor; or Danny Scheck, ambassador to France during Netanyahu’s second premiership, who later joined Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua; or Ilan Baruch, who established the ministry’s Palestinian desk while Netanyahu led the opposition, and after retiring lobbied the European Union to mark Israeli products from the West Bank.
Justly or not, when Netanyahu sees and hears the Foreign Ministry’s diplomats, such adversaries come to his mind. Even when he appreciates his diplomats professionally, he doesn’t trust them ideologically.
Facing the ministry’s creeping castration, one has to suspect that the Foreign Service is for Netanyahu what the Supreme Court, academia, bohemia and the press have long been for him – vehicles of national defeatism, whose drivers, engines and navigation systems had better be replaced, whether by blitz, as in the Supreme Court, or by attrition, as in the Foreign Ministry.
Netanyahu would surely deny this conspiracy theory, whose evidence is indeed merely circumstantial. Then again, if he does think that Israel’s diplomats are unfit to represent his policies and to lead the war on Israel’s image, he should say so.
Conversely, if he does appreciate his diplomats, he must appoint a foreign minister who will restore this agency’s lost clout, dignity and sense of purpose.
Of the current contenders, one best suits this task: Yuval Steinitz.
A PHILOSOPHY PhD who has been a minister for a decade, including four years as finance minister and seven as a security cabinet member, the current energy minister would bring to this position three assets: thought, focus and loyalty.
As a thinker Steinitz is head and shoulders above most Israeli politicians, a polyglot whose writings range from a best-seller about proofs for God’s existence, to a thesis in military affairs journal Ma’arachot arguing that Israel’s strategic depth lies in the sea.
As a minister, Steinitz displayed an ability to study thoroughly an issue as complex as the planning and regulation of Israel’s gas extraction, before conceiving the program that was ultimately activated. While at it, Steinitz also produced the pipeline deal that will lead Israeli gas to Europe through a partnership with Cyprus, Greece and Italy.
As a politician, Steinitz has no prime ministerial aspirations, knowing he is an uncharismatic intellectual who owes his ministerial career to Netanyahu. His loyalty to Netanyahu will therefore be unquestioned, while the Foreign Service will get the hard-working builder and unassuming visionary its dire situation begs.