Their Excellencies, the Ice Sellers

A substantial number of ambassadors... have very limited contact with the public in their assigned country. Even worse, their connection with what is happening in Israeli society becomes weaker over the years.

Remember the ice sellers who used to pass through our streets? A horse and wagon, wagon driver, bell, ice tongs and a third of an ice block for the refrigerator. They brought considerable charm to the streets, but the advent of electric refrigerators led to their disappearance.

Such is the way of the world: There are professions that vanish from our lives due to technological, cultural and other changes. This time has now come for another profession: the diplomat. There is no longer much connection between the pompous packaging of the job and its real essence. With all due respect, the time has come to dismantle the pack of ambassadors and bring them back home. In the current technological era, the need for them is steadily diminishing.

We mentioned their due respect? There are not many other jobs in which respect fills such a central role. Is there any other government official who is referred to as "Your Excellency?" Is there any other government employee who enjoys such conditions of power? Why does diplomacy have to be always associated with luxury? With an official residence and vehicle, even in hostile countries? But not only has the time passed for these artificial and ridiculous manners, the job itself has become redundant.

The recent embarrassing affairs featuring Israel's representatives in the world have focused attention on their ethics. But the discussion in the Foreign Service should extend beyond the behavior of the ambassador's wife in Washington, the business of the consul's son in Miami, the ambassador in Budapest or the consul in The Hague. These wild weeds in the Foreign Service have grown from the fact that the diplomat's role and mission have become increasingly blurred in recent years, leaving the arena open for various and sundry undertakings. This wild outgrowth can also be traced to the ostentatious lifestyles of the diplomats.

The real question, therefore, is what is the role of the consul in The Hague and the ambassador in Budapest, and why are they needed? The problem is not just a handful of diplomats who acted corruptly; it concerns the hundreds of honest and talented envoys whose expedience is waning. "The house is burning and the management is silent," wrote Foreign Ministry representatives in regard to the recent affairs, but their house is ablaze mainly because their relevance is disappearing.

Some 3,000 people work in the Israeli Foreign Service. In Israel's 95 delegations abroad, there are 326 emissaries from Israel and about 2,000 local employees, both Israelis and foreigners. The other employees of the Foreign Ministry work in Jerusalem. David Ben-Gurion called them "cocktail shmocktail boys," but the scorn for them at that time was less justified than it is today. Their role was more important then, before the development of today's sophisticated means of communication.

Some of the ambassadors do not identify with the policies of the government they serve, but nonetheless continue in their jobs. They are dishonest with themselves, a fact that certainly must affect the way they do their work. Others are compelled to idleness. After all, what tasks could be assigned to Israel's ambassador in Yaounde, Cameroon, where the embassy was only recently linked to the Internet? And how much can the ambassador in Stockholm influence the way that Swedes view Israel, when the Swedish media devotes such wide coverage to what happens here? A single picture of children rummaging through the rubble of their demolished home in Khan Yunis carries a much greater impact on world opinion than the public relations efforts of all of Israel's ambassadors. Every soldier at a checkpoint is much more of an ambassador of Israel than a graduate of the Foreign Ministry's cadets' course. Why would Japanese television interview the Israeli ambassador when the Japanese media has many crews in Israel, and why would anyone listen to his propaganda? Is there still a place for "hasbara" [Israel's official public relations efforts]? A good public relations firm would be sufficient, one that knows the local media.

From the perspective of statecraft, the ambassadors also have little to do. When the visits by statesmen are so frequent, and communication between them so accessible, the role of the ambassador becomes marginal. This is definitely the case in important countries. What remains is the economic sphere. More and more diplomats in the world, not only Israelis, perceive their main role as promoting the economic interests of their country and the interests of its private companies. This is a problematic area. In the era of multinational corporations, it is not always clear what constitutes an Israeli company. And it is even less clear why the state needs to pay to promote the interests of private companies. In any case, economic attaches would suffice for this role.

A substantial number of ambassadors spend their days mainly reading the local newspapers and attending insignificant social events. They have very limited contact with the public in their assigned country. Even worse, their connection with what is happening in Israeli society becomes weaker over the years. When did their excellencies see the separation fence? When did they visit an Israeli dance club? Israel does not need 95 delegations throughout the world. Its image is mainly a function of its actions. Israeli companies can look after their economic interests, and bilateral relations with Helsinki can be nurtured via the telephone.