In Memoriam: The Troubled Times and Inevitable Fall of Israeli Diplomacy, 1948-2013

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The backbone of the newly established Israeli foreign ministry in 1948 was a cadre of Jewish immigrants from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Most of them belonged to families that had the prescience, the resources and in some cases the right connections to escape Nazi Germany in the 1930s. They were part of the 50,000-strong Central European contingent of the Fifth Aliyah, the so-called “yekkes” who were widely ridiculed at the time for their German decorum, obsessive punctuality and inability to master the Hebrew language but are now recognized as having laid the groundwork for much of modern Israel’s industry, banking, legal system, public sector and cultural institutions.

They were probably the most professional and best-educated cluster of immigrants to ever come to Israel, before or after its establishment. But they were bourgeois capitalists surrounded by dedicated socialists, too moderate and too refined to make any headway among the country’s rough and tumble political or military elites. Diplomacy was a natural outlet for many of them, and one in which they naturally excelled.

Theirs was a lost cause, however, almost from the outset. Led by the Russian-born Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister and second prime minister, their push for moderation and conciliation in Israel’s post-Independence relations with its Arab neighbors was rebuffed and discredited by David Ben Gurion, Sharett’s nemesis, who opted for daring military retaliations, the Sinai Campaign and collusion with the Great Powers instead.

When Sharett objected to a 1955 Ben Gurion proposal for mass expulsions from the Gaza Strip in retaliation for Fedayeen attacks, on the grounds that the world would object and the UN would condemn, the country’s founder retorted with two famous quips that put it in a nutshell: “It doesn’t matter what the goyim (gentiles) think, only what the Jews do,” and “Um-Shmum” as in, the UN can go jump in a lake. These have been the two cornerstones of the prevailing Israeli view of diplomacy and international relations ever since.

By the time negotiations and international pressure failed to reopen the Straits of Tiran, prevent expulsion of the UN Emergency Force in Gaza or reverse the Egyptian buildup in the Sinai, the die was already cast. The lightning victory of the 1967 Six Day War cemented the primacy of the use of force in Israel’s strategic and popular thinking, while the ensuing occupation of two million Palestinians consigned Israeli diplomats to henceforth concentrating on propaganda and Hasbara. They were now charged with explaining policy, not making it.

All of this is by way of saying that the utter decimation of Israel’s foreign service that is going on today has deep roots in the country’s history and ethos. The unprecedented months-long strike by Foreign Ministry employees that has paralyzed its operations abroad is the product of inexorable evolution rather than sudden revolution. Decades of degradation, marginalization and discrimination in favor of soldiers, spies, politicians and machers have yielded a demoralized diplomatic corps that finally feels it has nothing left to lose.

Seen in this light, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wanton decision to keep the foreign ministry in abeyance while Avigdor Lieberman stands trial – and, some might argue, his no less reckless choice to appoint Lieberman in the first place – are but a coup de grace to an already terminal entity, a mercy killing for a body without a soul, a corpse that is technically breathing but whose organs are already being carved up and distributed as consolation prizes for disgruntled ministers.

Like in most other countries, of course, modern technology and communications have played a major role in eliminating much of the need for diplomatic emissaries and personal middlemen in the conduct of international affairs, puncturing their prestige in the process. Nonetheless, there is no other Western country in which the status of diplomats has sunk so low, their trade made so irrelevant or their influence on making policy, even their own policy, turned so pathetically petty and inconsequential.

The last foreign minister to have had any foreign policy background or training was Abba Eban, 40 years ago, but even he, while idolized abroad, was a prime target of political scorn and public ridicule at home. Since then the ministry has been handed to three basic types of foreign ministers – those unfit for their jobs (like Lieberman and several others), those fit for their jobs but disdainful of the professional corps (like Shimon Peres), those who trusted the professional corps but viewed their main task as doing nothing (like Yitzhak Shamir) or laying in political ambush (like Ariel Sharon).

When the prime minister is from the Likud, he views the foreign ministry suspiciously as an enclave of weak-kneed leftist elitists dating back to the days of its founders. When the prime minister is from Labor, he takes the foreign ministry for granted. The leaders of both parties routinely exclude the country’s diplomats from plum tasks, such as managing relations with the United States and plum postings in the world’s most important capitals.

Finally, when a genuine diplomatic breakthrough finally presents itself, experienced diplomats are invariably shunted aside and kept in the dark as trusted personal confidantes or political hacks are entrusted instead. This was the case with the 1993 Oslo Accords, subsequently discredited, with the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, still held in high regard, and in any and all peace efforts conducted ever since.

In Israel, real diplomacy is off limits for diplomats as are military decisions. Diplomats are called in only after the fact, when things go wrong, to clean up the mess and to subsequently be blamed for Israel’s rotten image.

Today’s diplomats are a far cry from those of yesteryear, of course, but so are we all, a far cry from our own Greatest Generation that fulfilled their Zionist dream, The best and the brightest no longer view a life of diplomacy as either a career or as a calling, and who can really blame them. Even those who are enticed by the dream of representation abroad and who manage to make it through the ministry’s rigorous but conformist screening procedures are quickly confronted by the sad reality of professional irrelevance, insultingly low salaries and the constant jockeying, currying for favor and ideological flexibility that have become prerequisites for securing a decent position abroad.

My father was an adjunct and junior member of the so-called “Czech mafia” that played a significant role in the ministry’s first few decades. He was a dedicated idealist throughout his life and genuinely viewed his diplomatic career as a public service to Zionism.

By the time he retired, however, he was deeply disillusioned by the ministry’s diminishing stature on the outside and by its incessant political intrigue on the inside. And that was 30 years ago, when the ministry was only slowly sliding toward the edge of the cliff, before the current free fall from which, it seems, there is no more return.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Former U. S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, right, and former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban in Jerusalem, January 17, 1974.Credit: AP
Foreign ministry employees protesting in June, 2013.Credit: Emil Salman