Missed diplomatic opportunities

The crisis the Foreign Ministry is experiencing is a real blow to Israel’s security.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu writes a message in the visitor's book as his wife Sara and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi look on during their visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India, January 17, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu writes a message in the visitor's book as his wife Sara and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi look on during their visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India, January 17, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE)
The cabinet’s discussions on the 2019 state budget ended last Friday morning, and only four ministers were present to vote in favor of the proposal. This is very significant. The cutbacks to which Prime Minister Netanyahu gave his consent include plans to close seven of Israel’s diplomatic missions, which will lower the number of embassies, consulates and missions from 103 to 96.
A few hours later, the prime minister could already be seen at Ben-Gurion Airport preparing for his important trip to India, where he was filmed celebrating a few days later. Netanyahu views Israel’s relationship with India as a great political achievement. That’s swell, but he is forgetting that political achievements do not grow on coconut trees, nor can they be found inside chocolate Kinder eggs. Rather, they are the result of both covert and overt diplomatic activity that is carried out over a long period by professional diplomats. Who will do this important work now?
At a meeting of the Lobby for Strengthening Israel’s Foreign Relations that I convened a few days ago at the Knesset, all of the participants – MKs, past and current diplomats, academicians and members of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies – voiced the obvious: no country can exist without a foreign relations network, and no foreign relations network can exist without its most essential component – diplomacy.
This emergency session was convened to discuss the Finance Ministry’s far-reaching plan to reduce the number of Israeli diplomatic missions around the world by 22, and to cut the Foreign Ministry budget by NIS 176 million. This daring plan was the perfect ruse to make us feel incredibly relieved that, in the end, only seven missions would be closed. But these closures are still being carried out with the same stupidity, ignorance and lack of understanding of how world affairs are conducted.
Not only should the Foreign Ministry budget not be cut, it should be expanded. For example, our hesitant contacts with African countries, which together have 54 votes in the UN, could be strengthened dramatically if Israel were to expand the budget for Mashav, the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, which currently stands at NIS 30m.
By the way, for the sake of comparison, Israel’s 103 missions are dwarfed by the Arab League and Iran’s missions, which total 1,941. How can we be expected to find friends now with even fewer resources?
FOR SOME TIME now, diplomacy has not been made up of political connections alone. It is a mixture of economics, social connections, and cultural and sports activity. We must not forget that exports account for 50% of production in Israel. This is important, is it not? Who will struggle to convince dockworkers abroad to unload cargo from Israeli ships? Who will challenge supermarket chains when they bow under pressure to not stock Israeli items? Who will navigate the halls of foreign governments in an effort to promote trade agreements that are favorable to Israel?
The average Israeli, a factory worker for example, does not make any connection between the products he’s manufacturing and where they’re being distributed and sold. From his point of view it’s a straight line. But in reality, the process that culminates in getting a product up on a shelf requires navigating many dangerous curves and resources to battle the BDS campaign and other boycotts of Israeli products. There are confrontations every step of the way: in shops, at ports, in shipping companies, and even with ambassadors and attachés. Suddenly, the assembly line worker understands that nobody’s willing to buy Israeli products. And if there aren’t any buyers, then there won’t be any selling, and that worker’s not going to have any money to bring home at the end of the month. It’s that simple.
True, the diplomatic world has changed immensely, and no longer operates along classic principles from the 17th and 18th centuries. At the beginning of the 21st century, new dimensions were added to traditional diplomacy, mainly due to technological advances. Traditional diplomacy was measured by relations between countries, whereas modern diplomacy is based on relationships between nations and between individuals. Diplomacy has not, however, been emptied of its basic tenets, only added new layers on top. We would be shortsighted to believe that meetings that take place on FaceTime or Skype could ever be a true substitute for a face-to-face discussion, which has always been the flesh and blood of diplomacy.
This may explain the difficulty in explaining the severity of the cuts being imposed on the Foreign Ministry, which were accepted without any serious opposition. After all, the average Israeli has almost no contact with the Foreign Ministry. People hear about other ministries, such as Public Security, Economy, and Tourism, which affect our lives more directly, and which carry out specific actions we can have an opinion about. The Foreign Ministry, on the other hand, is remote, and its activity takes place far away from us and out of the public’s eye.
Occasionally, and unfortunately mainly following a disaster, we suddenly hear how Israeli diplomats in a far corner of the planet found their way over mountains and through canyons to recover a body or rescue an Israeli citizen who went missing. Israel is the only country in the world that has developed an elaborate system that connects travelers with their loved ones at home. The many stories of daring rescues are wonderful. Because none of this falls within the parameters of normal political debate, which involves Haredim vs secular, Arabs vs Jews, or the rich vs the poor, it is difficult to attract serious attention to the subject of funding for Israeli missions overseas.
IT SEEMS that not only do mainstream citizens not know much about the Foreign Ministry, but neither do our government ministers. As a result, and with the help and compliance of the prime minister, it has lost its place and its status.
The Strategic Affairs Ministry has been allocated millions of shekels to counteract the BDS campaign, which is a very important concern. The Diaspora Affairs Ministry has also been allocated millions to promote Israel-Diaspora relations. Budgets for Jordan, Egypt, and the US were removed from the Foreign Ministry and are being covered by the Defense Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office. In addition, the Justice, Culture, Economy and Finance ministries have opened their own foreign offices and no longer rely solely on the Foreign Ministry. The result is self-fulfilling prophecy in which moral is way down and young Israelis are no longer eager to enlist in the foreign service, serve as cadets and become diplomats.
The absence of a full-time foreign minister has also been a serious drawback. In the past, we’ve had prime ministers who also served as defense ministers, but in this day and age this is no longer possible. Serving as prime minister and foreign minister is also not viable. Granted, a prime minister is responsible for everything, which includes foreign relations, but it is absolutely essential that a full-time minister be engaged in promoting Israel’s international affairs. What began as a coalition maneuver – keeping a portfolio available for a new coalition partner – has become the indefinite dominion of the prime minister, which will probably last until the end of his term.
Diplomats are not typical Israelis. They are good at their jobs because they know how to work well behind the scenes and in the shadows. They are skilled at reaching compromises and happy to find conflict-free solutions. Diplomats are not built for public struggles, and certainly not for demonstrations. It’s actually funny when they go out into the streets. The connections among them are also loose. There are hundreds of positions, but they are spread out over small groups. Many times it’s very difficult for them to find common ground with their colleagues and to turn their work into a collective effort, which is what is necessary now.
The crisis the Foreign Ministry is experiencing is a real blow to Israel’s security. In contrast to economic or security crises, this predicament is out of the public’s sight. We cannot, however, just shrug our shoulders and hope for the best.
If we are deprived of a functioning Foreign Ministry, without diplomats who are eager and enthusiastic, we’ll never know what diplomatic opportunities we missed.
Have we given up hope of improving our relations with other countries, rising in international status, or maybe even the chance to reach a peace agreement with our neighbors? Can we afford to let these opportunities slip through our fingers? By then it will be too late.
The writer is an expert in hasbara with many years of experience in the Israeli Embassy in Washington. He served as spokesman for the Israeli delegation at the UN, is chairman of the Knesset Lobby for Strengthening Israel’s Foreign Relations, and serves as Israel’s envoy to international delegations. He is an MK from the Zionist Union and a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. He published the book Milhamedia (“Media War”), and his doctoral dissertation deals with Israeli public diplomacy.