Reality check: Where does Netanyahu stand on the defining foreign policy issues?

Netanyahu has chiseled away at the responsibilities of the Foreign Ministry, parceling them off to politicians whose sense of self-importance is greater than their talents.

Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Let’s assume Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely was talking tongue-in-cheek when she said in a weekend newspaper interview she had no problems shaking the hand of a male diplomat (Hotovely is religiously observant and avoids physical contact with the opposite sex) because, as she put it, there was no danger of there being any affection in the contact.
Given Israel’s standing in the world, it’s fair to say that any foreign diplomat on the receiving end of Hotovely’s handshake would probably make the same claim. Which, in the eyes of many, makes it scandalous that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has chosen not to appoint a full-time foreign minister to make Israel’s case on the world stage, preferring to keep the portfolio to himself for now and leaving the relatively junior politician Hotovely as a deputy minister to run the ministry.
Moreover, in a desperate move to keep his more senior Likud colleagues onside, Netanyahu has also chiseled away at the responsibilities of the Foreign Ministry, slicing and dicing its various activities and parceling them off to politicians whose sense of self-importance is greater than their talents.
See the latest opinion pieces on our page
Silvan Shalom, whose day job is interior minister (as well as holding the meaningless title of vice prime minister), is also the minister responsible for Israel’s strategic dialog with the United States and negotiations with the Palestinians. At least this latter title is unlikely to take up much, if indeed any of Shalom’s time in the foreseeable future.
Yuval Steinitz, meanwhile, the minister of national infrastructure, energy and water (yes, the longer the title, the less important the position), is also theoretically responsible for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat, an appointment which has not been met with any signs of discernible concern in Tehran.
And finally, Gilad Erdan has been rewarded for his long sulk by having the ministries of public information (or hasbarah to use the Hebrew term) and strategic affairs (but obviously not the strategic dialog with the US, do keep up here, because that’s with Shalom) added to his duties as minister of internal security. All that’s needed now is for Netanyahu to create a new ministry for rescuing Israelis caught in earthquakes abroad, and there really will be no reason for the foreign ministry to exist.
BUT THE truth of the matter is that the foreign ministry has always been at the mercy of the whims of the prime minister of the day. Having a full-time foreign minister, as the dismal record of Avigdor Liberman in this position shows, is also no guarantee of diplomatic success.
In fact, this year we’ll be spared the embarrassment at the United Nations annual general assembly of having the country’s foreign minister publicly contradict positions laid out only a few days earlier by the prime minister, as Liberman used to do to Netanyahu.
The example of Shimon Peres as foreign minister best highlights how success in this role depends on the backing of the prime minister. While foreign minister under Yitzhak Shamir, Peres signed the 1987 London Agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein, which aimed to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict via what was known as the “Jordanian Option,” the resolution of the Palestinian issue through Jordanian sovereignty over the entirety or most of the West Bank.
While Peres had Shamir’s approval to negotiate with Hussein, Shamir refused to support the agreement reached. As a result, it was never brought to the cabinet for discussion and Hussein, frustrated by Peres’ failure to deliver, soon after relinquished any claim to sovereignty over the West Bank, paving the way for Yasser Arafat to win international recognition as the legitimate Palestinian representative.
But Peres, as we know, never gives up. As foreign minister under Yitzhak Rabin, he gave his backing to secret talks being held between two Israeli academics and three senior PLO officials, the beginning of the Oslo process that eventually led to Israel’s recognition of the PLO and direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Despite the long and bitter history of disputes between Rabin and Peres and their diametrically opposing characters, Rabin shared Peres’ view of the need to change the status quo vis-à-vis the Palestinians and the two men jointly created a new reality. Peres, his deputy Yossi Beilin and the foreign ministry director- general of the time, Uri Savir, were rightly seen as the front-runners of the Oslo process, but they could not have progressed without the support of Rabin as prime minister.
The issue facing the foreign ministry today is not whether it needs a full-time minister in place, or whether Israeli diplomats arguing Israel’s case should rely on the Bible and Rashi for proof of their argument, as Hotovely has suggested (this time not tongue-incheek), but rather a clear sense of direction as to where the prime minister stands on the defining issues of Israel’s foreign policy.
Is Netanyahu in favor of a two-state solution or against? Is the Bar-Ilan speech relevant or not? Without knowing the answer to this, no foreign ministry, no matter how well-staffed or in control of all diplomatic- related activities, stands a chance of success.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.