In his appointment this week of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' deputy general for administration, Nissim Ben Sheetrit, to deputy to the director general of the ministry, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom gave suitable expression to an emerging situation: The main test of the Israeli foreign service is no longer in the diplomatic arena but rather at home, among the citizens, as a service provider plain and simple to Israelis abroad and their worried families.
The citizens, after all, are the voters, and their interest in the renewal of diplomatic relations with Lower Zimbabwe is dwarfed by their worries about their child in Goa. Years after it lost its primacy in international relations to the Prime Minister's Office and the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry has been afforded an opportunity to reinvent itself.
The immediate context is the tsunami disaster, but this was preceded by natural disasters and terror attacks abroad, and events that were criminal in nature that aroused the need for help from envoys of the country to the injured, the missing and the out of touch. As was seen in the event closer to home - the double terror attack on the Sinai shore - the question in principle of the extent of the state's responsibility and the obligation to implement and pay for it is sidelined at a time of need. At such times there is an immediate reversal of the general trend to privatize behavior and assets (among them the "national" airline) by contrary demands to nationalize the care of those who have found themselves in trouble.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is split into two divisions, diplomatic and administrative. The people of the diplomatic division, envoys who have grown up in the ambassador track in the diplomatic division, often relate to the people of the administrative division arrogantly, the way combat soldiers relate to quartermasters and adjutants. This is an attitude that is both obsolete and silly.
Many of the diplomatic staff, at the legations and in the ministry administration, are not exceptionally gifted with talent and creativity. They are downhearted. The misery of the policy, which is shaped without them but which it is incumbent upon them to represent, is multiplied by the ministry's misery in the power struggles for the budget. The best among them, who are few, outshine their colleagues in the other official agencies, but the reckoning at the Foreign Ministry ensures, as always, that the whole will be less than the sum of its parts.
Against the backdrop of the ministry's wallowing on the fringes of getting things done, and also in comparison to well-manned foreign ministries in established and comfortable countries, its success - under the orchestration of Ben Sheetrit and with the support of minister Shalom and of director general Ron Prosor - in dealing with the tsunami was outstanding, despite the lack of an adequate infrastructure.
One of the lessons of this experience is that an operations wing should be set up at the Foreign Ministry. Last week the coordination with the Israel Defense Forces was helped by the coincidence that two decades ago brought together into the same building and into close working collaboration Ben Sheetrit, as administrative officer at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, and major Yisrael Ziv, as administrative officer at the office of the military attache there (Ziv is now major general and head of the Operations Directorate in the Israel Defense Forces). This time it worked, but a country cannot rely on interpersonal coincidence.
It would also be a good idea - parallel to an organization at the Foreign Ministry for the needs that have been caused by the times - to ask all Israelis who travel abroad to provide themselves with a double copy of a personal identity card that contains essential details for information and communications, including a genetic sample. One of the copies will remain in Israel, and with it the telephone numbers of the ministry's offices in the destination countries. Travelers will be encouraged to keep the offices informed about their whereabouts and their travels - an encouragement that will not always do any good when there are people interested in privacy and secrecy, for personal, business or other reasons - just as reserve soldiers were required to do after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 in order to facilitate emergency call-ups.
For a decade now - perhaps too long a period in a powerful position that justifies more frequent rotation - Ben Sheetrit has been the most effective and experienced administrator at the ministry. He has, predictably, rivals as well, who tried to thwart his advancement. Shalom did not knuckle under to them. It appears that he realized that the reality has changed: Just as Interior ministries were originally intended for the central government's control of its citizens and have gradually been compelled to adjust to the expectation that they turn from being masters to being servants, so too the Foreign Ministry has to update itself, or wither away.
Henceforth Ben Sheetrit will be only one step below the most senior position for a civil servant at the Foreign Ministry, and his future advancement is no longer imaginary, even though it will be said of him that he has never served as an ambassador or consul-general. The appointment of a director general depends on circumstances and on the identity of the foreign minister. From 1948 to 1975 the director general came from the foreign service staff. After that there were 15 years of outside appointments, from academia (Shlomo Avineri), from the security establishment (Yossi Ciechanover, major general Avraham Tamir) and from the Mossad (David Kimche, Reuven Merhav).
Since 1990, the director general has again come from within the ministry, but if he is not clearly a confidant of the minister (like Prosor, and before him Avi Gil and Uri Savir, and even before them Yossi Beilin as diplomatic director general), his influence is minimal, just as the entire ministry's influence on policy is minimal. Sources of information and agents of influence are still necessary, as are talented representatives to do the talking, but in fact the foreign ministry's relative advantage could breathe new life into a waning mechanism.
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