The Foreign Ministry deserves support from the Knesset

The Knesset could and should play a more significant role in bolstering the foreign service.

Even Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was excluded from the decision-making process on the UAE normalization deal. (photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)
Even Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was excluded from the decision-making process on the UAE normalization deal.
(photo credit: OREN BEN HAKOON/FLASH90)
Now more than ever before, Israel needs a strong foreign service. Global and regional changes require the steady hand of a permanent and experienced diplomatic corps. But, the foreign service confronting these massive challenges is weakened.
As indicated by the normalization of relations with the Emirates, significant aspects of foreign policy have been farmed out to other nuclei of power. Indeed, even the foreign minister was excluded from the decision-making process regarding the deal with the Gulf state.
Some of the ministry’s authority has been poached by the prime minister, acting as a “king-diplomat,” while others have been handed to relatively new agencies, such as the Strategic Affairs Ministry.
The low pay of Foreign Ministry diplomats even prompted an unprecedented 2019 strike at all Israeli missions abroad.
The 2020 appointment of a new, energetic minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, has raised hopes of change. However, power struggles within the coalition signal the challenges he is facing in advancing the Foreign Ministry, and indeed may lead to his early departure from his position.
In the US and the UK, where once-glorious foreign ministries have also been weakened, legislators were the ones who pushed for the restoration of the foreign service. In the US, lawmakers blocked President Donald Trump’s proposed 30% cuts in the State Department budget in recent years. The Democratic minority in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations even issued a comprehensive report recently providing in-depth analysis of the difficulties confronting the State Department and proposing 10 concrete recommendations for its rehabilitation.
The parallel British parliamentary committee conducts relatively close oversight of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The committee is conducting eight probes these days (including the hearing of witnesses and study of documents) on issues such as UK-Iran relations and the foreign ministry’s response to the global health crisis.
The Knesset could and should also play a more significant role in bolstering the foreign service. The Knesset can help with legislation, parliamentary oversight, implementation of the public’s right to know and spotlighting important issues.
In practical terms, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee should hold hearings for ambassadorial appointees and ambassadors ending their terms in order to obtain a better understanding of Israel’s ties with various states. The committee could also take advantage of the research capabilities available to lawmakers to examine in-depth fundamental issues such as the status of the Foreign Ministry, its vision and its approach and possible adjustments to the changing world order.
It could also commission studies from the Knesset’s research arm, and ensure they receive the public attention they deserve. If need be, a Knesset commission of inquiry could be established to examine particular issues.
The coordination between the foreign policy conducted by the Knesset itself (such as inter-parliamentary relations) and the foreign policy of the executive branch also bears scrutiny.
There is also room to establish regular Foreign Ministry briefings of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, similar to the ones provided by senior defense officials. The current Knesset did recently form a subcommittee on foreign affairs and public diplomacy – an important step but one that must not limit discussion of foreign affairs by the full committee, especially given that seven other subcommittees deal with defense issues.
More broadly speaking, consideration should be given to possible legislation to strengthen certain foreign policy aspects. Several proposals have come up over the years to regulate and anchor the position of the foreign service, for example, by MK Yossi Beilin in 1998 and by MK Ofer Shelah in 2018, but neither materialized.
At the same time, the Knesset could take advantage of government-sponsored legislation related to foreign policy in order to examine the entire constellation of relations with relevant states. One example is the status of laws enacted in recent years to enable the deployment of Greek and Cypriot soldiers in Israel.
Finally, the staff of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee should reflect the importance of the foreign service. For example, traditionally many committee directors are former defense officials, and directors of different fields deal mostly with security issues. Given the significance of the committee’s staff’s “hidden hand,” bolstering the handling of foreign policy issues also requires bolstering the staff involved.
The writer is a board member at Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and an Israel Institute fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. He served as assistant to the prime minister’s foreign policy adviser.