Why Israel needs a strong Foreign Affairs Ministry

The crisis in our “diplomatic kingdom” is not unique to Israel.

The US embassy in Jerusalem is seen ahead of its dedication, May 13th, 2018. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
The US embassy in Jerusalem is seen ahead of its dedication, May 13th, 2018.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry was once one of Israel’s crown Jewels. Managing Israel’s foreign relations and the exposure that the office of the foreign minister offered, attracted ambitious politicians. Moshe Sharett, Yitzhak Shamir, Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon all served as foreign ministers before they became prime ministers. Benjamin Netanyahu paved his way to the Prime Minister’s Office through a number of prestigious diplomatic positions. He then served (briefly) as foreign minister between his two tenures as prime minister. Thousands of ambitious Israelis competed every year for the few places offered by the ministry in its prestigious cadet course.
However, it seems that the glorious days of the ministry, if they ever truly existed, have long passed. Ever since the current government was formed in 2015, there has been no full-time foreign minister. The ministry, which despite its prestige has always struggled for a leading role in the decision-making process, is generally excluded from significant aspects of Israel’s foreign and defense policy. Salaries of the ministry’s officials are low, especially when considering the strict screening process and job requirements. Moreover, some of the responsibilities it had in the past were transferred to other ministries such as the Strategic Affairs Ministry and the Ministry for Diaspora Affairs.
The crisis in the ministry is also radiating outward, and in recent years there has been a sharp drop in the number of candidates for the competitive cadet course. In 2012, there were 2,773 candidates, whereas in 2017, only 1,374 candidates started the screening process. In an attempt to change the situation, employees at the ministry decided to take measures and in 2014 shut down the headquarters and embassies for the first time in Israel’s history. In late August 2018, the support staff in the ministry (which accounts to some 60% of personnel abroad), staged another strike, with little notice.
The crisis in our “diplomatic kingdom” is not unique to Israel. Technology, especially the digital media, allows governments to interact directly with foreign officials and the public, making diplomatic interventions almost redundant. The decline of the nation-state and the rise of other important non-state actors, such as multinational corporations, international aid organizations, and even global cities, have weakened the need for conventional diplomacy.
But despite this state of affairs, Israel should not neglect its Foreign Service. In fact, it is needed today more than ever, first and foremost to prepare for global power transformations. The first change that requires a strong Foreign Service is the rise of important new global players such as China, but also India and in our region, Russia. We are transitioning from a world of American dominance to a world of multiple powers that are likely to intervene in regional politics such as ours. In such circumstances, small countries like Israel will be required to refine diplomatic skills in order to navigate safely among the various focal points of power.
In recent decades Israel was in a convenient position: The US was the dominant player in the global system and we were its closest allies. A vibrant Jewish community in the US has helped us and has been part of an effective pro-Israel lobby. It was often sufficient to appeal to Washington in order to achieve political goals in international forums such as the UN Security Council.
HOWEVER, IN the new world in which Israel is required to maintain good relations with both the US and China (in spite of the tension between them), a more sophisticated approach will be required. Israel needs a corpus of skilled diplomats that will be able to cut the right alliances and lead Israel safely among nations.
The second change that requires a strong Foreign Affairs Ministry is the identity of the emerging powers. After five centuries of European and then American dominance, the 21st century is expected to be the Asian century. China has already overtaken or matched the US on a number of indicators, such as high-speed trains and supercomputers. This will require a significant shift in our mindset.
The Euro-American scene is familiar to us, and to a certain extent we are part of it. For example, some of our prime ministers attended elite institutions in the US. The current prime minister (as well as the education minister) even had American citizenship in the past. Our familiarity with the Euro-Atlantic powers is a result of demography. In the past few centuries, most of the Jewish people have lived in Europe, North America and the Middle East. As a result, we share – in spite of some extremely difficult episodes such as the Holocaust – common cultural, religious and historical roots with the European world and its extension in the New World.
This is not the case in Asia. Despite the hectic backpackers’ travels and vipassana meditation workshops that Israelis attend, Asian culture, values and history are foreign to most Israelis. In order to conduct ourselves effectively in a world where Far-East countries are so important, a professional group of skilled and specialized diplomats is required. The Foreign Service is the natural place to build such a cadre of experts that will make it easier for Israel to face the rising powers. This will require the ministry to invest even more in training and in developing area specializations. 
Finally, dispersing the authorities of the Foreign Affairs Ministry between various institutions and ministries leads to duplication, inefficiency and the absence of a clear, sharp message. Logically, there should be a concentration of powers in one ministry with a broad outlook and an accurate reflection of the positions of international players with whom it is in continuous contact. One example is the current effort against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that targets Israel. Instead of the traditional leadership of the ministry on the matter, aspects of it were securitized. Recent reports indicated that the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) is guiding the security personnel in Israel’s airports with an eye toward limiting criticism of Israel’s control over the territories. This leads to some counterproductive outcomes such as an aggressive questioning at the airport this summer of a leading Jewish philanthropist, Meyer Koplow, and a leading Jewish American journalist, Peter Beinart.
In the past, the Zionist movement coped well with global power transitions and was effective in dealing with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, through to the Balfour Declaration and all the way to the alliance with the US in recent decades. We are facing a similar moment now, and the Foreign Ministry is perhaps the most important player to help Israel cope with the change. The Foreign Affairs Ministry, therefore, is very much needed.
Dr. Eiran is a board member at Mitvim–The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and an assistant professor at the University of Haifa.