An Imbalance of Foreign Policy Powers

The built-in dispute between the Foreign Ministry and the security apparatus is related not only to power and influence, but also to the sources of policy as well: is it enough for Israel to use its military power or does it have to consider international legitimacy?

The new Foreign Ministry building at Givat Ram in Jerusalem, which was dedicated at the beginning of the week, overlooks the Prime Minister's Office. But their differences in height do not reflect the balance of powers in the formulation of Israel's foreign policy. This balance remains similar to the situation during the first years of the state. The country's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, decided in the 1950s that the role of the Foreign Ministry was limited to explaining our security policy to the great powers and to the "Oom-Shmoom" [a derogatory reference to the UN]. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a disciple of Ben-Gurion, tends to praise Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as "an excellent PR man" and refuses to involve him in decision making.

At a memorial service for the "number one diplomat," the recently deceased Abba Eban, that took place two days ago in Tel Aviv University, former foreign minister Shimon Peres said that in diplomacy there are compromises rather than victories, and therefore, it is not as exciting as war. Foreign ministries throughout the world suffer from this compromising, non-patriotic image, since they are attentive to the opinions of foreign countries. That is how U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell led President George W. Bush to pass through the legitimate international filter of the UN on his way to Iraq, contrary to the position of the Pentagon, which wanted to attack Saddam alone and immediately.

In Israel, the foreign minister does not chalk up such victories. Israeli diplomats have to live with the dominance of the security apparatus and the intelligence community. The cabinet table is always surrounded by men in uniform and by their opposites in the Shin Bet security services and the Mossad. The Foreign Ministry, if it is invited to a discussion at all, will be in a minority position, even if its assessments are closer to the mark. The Israel Defense Forces thought that the United States would attack Iraq by the end of November and ignored common knowledge such as the dates of the American holidays, which are not a convenient time for wars and casualties. In the Phalcon affair with China, the Foreign Ministry warned about American pressure to cancel the project, but the security apparatus insisted on continuing, until Washington forced its hand.

The built-in dispute between the Foreign Ministry and the security apparatus is related not only to power and influence, but also to the sources of policy as well: is it enough for Israel to use its military power ("What the Jews will do") or does it have to consider international legitimacy (What the non-Jews will say")? And what is the proper balance between them? Yoav Biran, director general of the Foreign Ministry, said at Eban's memorial: "Every IDF officer knows today that the diplomatic element and the ability to provide information to the international community play an important role in the military arena as well." But the army prefers to take care of PR by itself, instead of relying on the broad deployment, the professionalism, and the experience of the Foreign Ministry.

Israeli diplomacy's second obstacle stems from the political tradition that grants the foreign minister post to the political opponent of the prime minister. That's how it has been from the days of Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett to the pairs Yitzhak Rabin-Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon-Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime ministers prefer to conduct their "foreign policy" via a direct line to the White House, or by sending personal emissaries such as Israeli-American businessman Arie Genger. The establishment of the Council for Public Security gave the prime minister another private diplomatic arm free from the obligation to report to the foreign minister. Even in the rare instances that foreign ministers have played an important diplomatic role, such as during peace talks with Egypt and the Palestinians, they left ministry employees out in the cold, and were aided by a handful of personal assistants.

In recent years, the Foreign Ministry has been making an effort to streamline and to present a professional counterweight to the security arm. There is still room for improvement, especially in the method of promotion and assignment, which often gives preference to seniority and status over talent. But the organizational and administrative changes, as successful as they may be, will not solve the basic distress of the Israeli foreign service. Even in their new and well-appointed home, its members can expect to suffer from the frustration of those who have often seen the political situation correctly, but who could find nobody to listen to them.