Time for increased transparency in the Israeli Foreign Service

The Israeli Foreign Ministry is currently at a significant point of weakness – not only in terms of budget and manpower, but also due to a deliberate move to weaken it by dispersing its authority.

The Knesset's plenum (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The Knesset's plenum
The Foreign Ministry has been weakened in recent years, and is seeking ways to reverse this trend and increase its relevance and importance. Sharing more information with the public about what it actually does, as other foreign ministries in major countries are doing, can contribute to these efforts. The opening of the new Knesset session is a good time to start this process of change.
The diplomacy of the 21st century is increasingly different in nature from that of past decades. It is no longer the exclusive domain of ambassadors and diplomats but is characterized by the larger involvement of civil society organizations, business entities, private entrepreneurs, ordinary citizens and members of parliament.
This poses challenges for foreign ministries worldwide, whose share in implementing foreign policy becomes less significant. To cope with this phenomenon, some of them are taking steps that will emphasize – to decision- makers and the public alike – that even in the present age there is no substitute for professional diplomacy and the bodies that lead it.
A review of the steps taken on this issue by foreign ministries in various countries points at a common denominator: the use of public appeal and greater public participation. Foreign ministries, which are used to influencing public positions in foreign countries, have started investing effort in fostering relations with the public in their home countries.
Recent steps taken by the foreign services of Germany, England, Australia, Sweden and the EU, for example, include: formulating and presenting foreign policy paradigms and guidelines; leading campaigns that emphasize the importance of diplomacy; explaining to the public the work of a diplomat as well as the work of the foreign ministry and its achievements; holding regular media briefings on current political issues; appearing before a variety of local audiences; and carrying out formal consultations with the public.
It is no coincidence that one of the most prominent signs of the weakening of the US State Department under President Donald Trump was a significant reduction in the scope and number of media briefings.
Reduced interaction with the media entails reduced presence in the public discourse and therefore less exposure of its work and importance to the public.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry is currently at a significant point of weakness – not only in terms of budget and manpower, but also due to a deliberate move to weaken it by dispersing its authority. Some of the measures needed to empower the ministry require the government to make decisions and take action.
However, with regard to enhancing its transparency and sharing more information with the public about its work, the ministry can take action right away.
The 2017 Israeli Foreign Policy Index of the Mitvim Institute showed that within the Israeli public there is a desire to know more about the ministry’s activities, and a belief that being more transparent will help in the empowerment of the ministry. Achieving this requires a different mindset. Today, the ministry sometimes regards its weakness as a factor that prevents – rather than encourages – more transparency, and this needs to be changed.
The ministry is on the defensive against an acting foreign minister (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) who has taken steps in recent years to deliberately weaken it, against a deputy foreign minister (Tzipi Hotovely) who advances an agenda that is further to the Right than that of the government, and against other ministries that provide financial means for ministry activities, but in a manner that creates dependence and limitations.
The ministry has recently been recognizing the importance of increased transparency. For the first time, its 2018 work plan includes a chapter dealing with improving the ministry’s public positioning and sharing information with the public. While this is a positive development, its implementation still lies in the future. Currently, the ministry does not publish annual reports that summarize its activities and achievements, does not conduct regular media briefings, does not make its annual assessment public (unlike some security bodies), does not provide its representations abroad with clear evaluation criteria for its representations abroad, and excessively tends to seek immunity for the (few) discussions that are held in the Knesset on foreign affairs.
The reasons for this conduct partially lie in the need for a conceptual change within the ministry, as well as in the difficulties facing the ministry in the current political context. In such a reality, the Knesset should play a more important role in encouraging and promoting transparency in the foreign service, and in making diplomacy more central to decision making. The ministry, for its part, must open up to the Israeli public, and continue its adaptation to the modern diplomacy of the 21st century. Doing so will also prepare the ministry for the day when a new Israeli government takes shape, hopefully with a full-time foreign minister, who will seek ways to empower the ministry and not further diminish it.
The author is head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.