Surprise was the key word in recent days in the public discourse regarding the new European Union sanctions against Israeli settlements in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Surprise in the Foreign Ministry, surprise in the Prime Minister's Office, surprise among cabinet ministers and surprise among the Israeli public.
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Every time someone expresses their surprise, what they are really doing is passing the buck, in the best-case scenario, or misleading the public, in the worst. The writing was on the wall. All we have to do is look at the events of the past four years with regard to Israel's relations with the European Union – the stalled peace process, for example, and the policy of continuing to build in the settlements.
And so, more than "surprise," the key word here is "failure." Or, to be precise, three failures.
For the diplomats at Israel's embassy in Brussels, identifying a political development like EU sanctions against the settlements is kind of like the Israel Defense Forces' signal intelligence corps Unit 8200 sending an alert when war breaks out with Syria. And yet, Ambassador David Waltzer and his staff failed to provide timely intelligence, and the little information they did relay failed to set off any alarm bells.
Foreign Ministry headquarters, particularly the Center for Policy Research, also failed. For at least six weeks the Foreign Ministry knew that the EU was working on a measure related to the settlements, yet a great deal of time passed before anyone understood its full significance. The Foreign Ministry's intelligence division was supposed to connect the dots so that it could give an appropriate warning to the government – a warning that might have made it possible to thwart the implementation of the sanctions – but it failed.
The neglect on the part of the Foreign Service and the shameful way the government treats Israeli diplomats are no excuse for the failure to identify the European sanctions against the settlements. That said, it is worth noting that for seven months now Israel has had no full-time foreign minister.
Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin has been serving in his current position for four months. He may be a qualified, serious man with many talents but he is not party to a large share of the political and national security deliberations held in cabinet meetings. Because Elkin is not a minister he has less authority, and his influence, naturally, is more limited.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been acting foreign minister during the past seven months, but he did not handle many of the diplomatic issues to which a foreign minister dedicates much of their time. He has also shunted aside the Foreign Ministry, shunted aside its people from discussions and ignored the ministry's position papers, preferring instead to rely on army officers and people from the intelligence agencies.
Netanyahu also neglected Israel's relations with the European Union and its member nations. In his previous government, Netanyahu stood aside and allowed former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to give European countries that criticized Israel a harsh tongue-lashing every few months. Netanyahu prided himself on attending summit meetings between Israel and European governments, but behind the cameras the conversations between them were hollow and lacking in intimacy and mutual trust.
In the past four years, the European Union and its member countries have tried to explain in every manner possible the damage that is being caused by Israel's settlement policy. Dozens of statements condemning construction in the settlements have been issued since May 2009. Dozens of sensitive phone calls and meetings have been held in which European leaders tried to explain to Netanyahu how much they opposed construction in the settlements and Netanyahu's lack of action with regard to the peace process. EU foreign ministers have also sent at least five joint messages that explicitly stated they would take steps against the settlements.
At the same time, most of the ministers in Netanyahu's previous government, and almost all the ministers in his current government, were blind to how low Israel's international stature had sunk. The Likud ministers competed with each other to see who could more faithfully serve the settler lobby and come out against a Palestinian state. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (who called the Palestinians a piece of shrapnel in Israel's backside) and the ministers from his Habayit Hayehudi party moved from lacking or repressing an understanding of the reality of the situation to attempting to create a new reality of one state for two peoples. Finance Minister and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid preferred to neglect the Palestinian issues and focus on drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Netanyahu saw the sights and heard the voices and preferred to ignore them and make do with empty words about the need for a two-state solution. His people said again and again that the European Union announcements were non-binding declarations. They said it would all turn out alright, that the Americans would come to our aid and that the Europeans would not have the courage to actually do anything. Even when the prime minister fully grasped the reality of the situation, he did not find the courage to the take the steps necessary to maintain Israel's friendships in Europe. This is the biggest failure of them all. At the end of the day, Netanyahu can only blame himself.