From Turkey Reconciliation to Palestinian Talks: How Netanyahu Made the Foreign Ministry Obsolete

The prime minister has taken to bypassing the Foreign Ministry by using personal envoys and making it irrelevant to the decision making; Israeli diplomats’ appalling pay and benefits is closely tied to the Foreign Ministry’s deteriorating status.

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Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

The Foreign Ministry is becoming more irrelevant under Netanyahu. And so far, officials have been unable to halt the slide

Last week, the state told the High Court of Justice that it has reached an agreement with an African country to absorb Eritrean labor migrants currently in Israel. This announcement shocked the Foreign Ministry’s Africa department.

Israeli diplomats were bewildered that they hadn’t even been told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had appointed Hagai Hadas to coordinate talks with this country.

But bewilderment quickly turned into real anger, which was directed at Hadas. “We worked with Hadas and helped with everything he asked,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “We were running around African capitals for months trying to find a country that was willing to take in Eritreans, and we suddenly got a smack in the face − from our own side. We really feel idiotic.”

A similar event occurred a few days beforehand, when National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror held a special briefing for European Union ambassadors serving in Israel. The Prime Minister’s Office did not even bother to inform the Foreign Ministry, much less invite a ministry representative to the briefing. The ministry only found out that the event had taken place after it was already over.

“The foreign ambassadors get the message and understand that the Foreign Ministry is irrelevant to the prime minister,” a senior ministry official said.

Several senior Foreign Ministry officials who talked to Haaretz for this article said they weren’t actually surprised by these two events. They see them as another stage in the slow disintegration of Israel’s foreign service. Bypassing the Foreign Ministry by using personal envoys and making it irrelevant to the decision making that shapes defense and foreign policy has become customary during Netanyahu’s tenure.

While Hadas was busy in Africa, Netanyahu sent Joseph Ciechanover to Turkey as his personal envoy for the reconciliation talks with Ankara − almost completely excluding the Foreign Ministry from the process. Netanyahu also entrusted his personal lawyer, Isaac Molho, to act as his envoy with the Palestinians; the Foreign Ministry only learns about his activities through rumors, or conversations with foreign diplomats.

Netanyahu conducts himself similarly with regard to the relationship with the United States. Other prime ministers also confined relations with the White House to a small inner circle, but Netanyahu has taken it much further. The Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, was a political appointment by Netanyahu. He deals with both the U.S. administration and the Prime Minister’s Office on his own, while leaving the embassy staff and the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem out of the loop.

Over the last few years, whole areas of foreign policy have been transferred out of the Foreign Ministry. The battle against anti-Israel boycotts and the delegitimization of Israel − a subject that used to fall under the ministry’s purview − was transferred by Netanyahu to the Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Ministry, along with budgets worth tens of millions of shekels. The Foreign Ministry’s Diaspora division has been weakened and paralyzed, but the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry has a yearly budget of tens of millions of shekels.

Things have gotten even worse since Netanyahu established his new government in March. There is a palpable sense of demoralization in the marble corridors of the impressive building at the entrance to the government complex in Jerusalem. The Foreign Ministry of June 2013 is a humiliated, beaten-down organization without a parental figure. Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister, has visited it once over the last three months.

The condition of Israel’s foreign service can be compared to that of a luxury vehicle waiting for its owner in the parking lot, but being dismantled into spare parts that are handed out on a first come, first served basis in the meantime. Since making a political deal with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman under which no full-time foreign minister would be appointed until the end of Lieberman’s trial, in hopes that he would be able to return, Netanyahu has created a type of replacement foreign ministry called the Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Ministry as a political prize for his friend Yuval Steinitz. Netanyahu has also officially severed the Foreign Ministry’s connection to the Palestinian issue by transferring that responsibility to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

Missing Lieberman

At the moment, quite a few people in the ministry are missing their former minister, Lieberman. He drastically increased its budget, opened a new office and also tried to improve the diplomats’ pay and benefits.

On the other hand, he wasn’t particularly interested in the ministry’s political work. Lieberman did not throw his political weight behind strengthening the Foreign Ministry’s role in decision making as opposed to that of the defense establishment. He scolded diplomats on a regular basis for capitulating to other countries and not upholding the national honor. He heard the ideas submitted by members of his ministry, but he rejected most of them out of hand, shoved them into a drawer and didn’t take them to cabinet discussions.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s attitude toward the ministry is even worse − a combination of disgust, disrespect and suspicion. He does not see any need for the ministry to really engage with defense and foreign policy issues.

The best demonstration of this was the army’s botched raid on a 2010 flotilla to Gaza. Netanyahu preferred to rely on the defense establishment rather than the diplomats, and we all saw the result on the decks of the Mavi Marmara.

Similarly, Amidror told an ambassadors’ convention that the Foreign Ministry would be better off focusing on public diplomacy, cultural activities and international assistance in the areas of agriculture and medicine.

Netanyahu, who served as ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s and then deputy foreign minister, has cultivated the image of being a media expert and an outstanding diplomat. He believes that most professional diplomats don’t come close. Like Lieberman, he also believes that Israeli ambassadors across the world aren’t properly dealing with criticism of Israel, especially when it comes to the Palestinians.

But Netanyahu’s paranoia about information leaking to the media is the source of much of his suspicion of the Foreign Ministry. While he dislikes keeping minutes of policy meetings and avoids sharing information, the Foreign Ministry’s work is based on composing and sending diplomatic cables to a wide range of people in order to encourage dialogue and an exchange of information and ideas. On more than one occasion, Netanyahu and his people have instructed ambassadors not to keep records or send cables summarizing his meetings with foreign leaders.

The feeling of disgust, in contrast, stems from political reasons. A few months ago, Amidror attacked ambassadors who dared to ask questions about the government’s policy on settlement construction. He told the ambassadors, “Whoever dislikes the government’s policies can quit or go into politics.” His outburst won’t be forgotten anytime soon at the Foreign Ministry.

“The bottom line is that Netanyahu sees us as a bunch of bleeding-heart liberals,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official who has spent many hours with the premier. “His fantasy is to dismantle the ministry and rebuild it with new employees in his image, who share his opinions.”

The defense establishment is also playing a major part in the process of weakening the Foreign Ministry. Like Netanyahu, high-ranking army officers are convinced that anything the ministry can do, they can do better. Instead of working with it, the army excludes the Foreign Ministry, while at the same time blaming its members for leaks.

It’s no wonder that the Israel Defense Forces, the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service didn’t think twice about helping Netanyahu break the Foreign Ministry workers’ strike. Later, they also accused the diplomats of harming the country’s security.

“It’s an impossible situation,” a senior diplomat said. “We are fighting delegitimization of Israel abroad and fighting delegitimization of the Foreign Ministry at home.”

But the blame doesn’t rest only with Netanyahu, Lieberman or the defense establishment. Part of the blame for the situation the Foreign Ministry finds itself in also belongs to its employees. Instead of pushing for new initiatives and being assertive, the ministry’s corporate culture encourages mediocrity and suppresses creativity. This weakness and lack of backbone are part of the Israeli foreign service’s DNA.

On Tuesday morning, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will hold a special session on the Foreign Ministry strike. Immediately afterward, the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee will hold a meeting on Netanyahu’s use of the defense establishment to break the strike. At the same time, hundreds of diplomats will demonstrate outside the Knesset to demand an improvement in their pay and an end to what they have dubbed “the dismantling of the Foreign Ministry.”

The diplomats’ appalling pay and benefits in comparison to that of their peers in the intelligence services and the defense establishment is closely tied to the Foreign Ministry’s deteriorating status. When the ministry doesn’t have a full-time minister, when ministry employees are excluded from the decision making that shapes defense and foreign policy, and when the prime minister gives the impression that he thinks the ministry is utterly irrelevant, there’s no chance that the Finance Ministry will lift a finger to improve diplomats’ salaries.

Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman walks under a screen showing him and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the inauguration of their election campaign, Jerusalem, December 25, 2012.Credit: AP
Members of the newly former Foreign Ministry workers’ union.Credit: Emil Salman

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