A Year Into the Job, What Has Yisrael Katz Done as Foreign Minister?

Foreign Ministry staff say Katz is uninterested in diplomatic matters, has failed to rehabilitate the ministry, and has his hands tied by Netanyahu: 'We can say the disappointment is as great as the expectations were'

Foreign Minister Israel Katz addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, September 26, 2019.
Frank Franklin II / AP

Exactly one year ago, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding multiple ministerial portfolios, the premier appointed Yisrael Katz to replace him as foreign minister. The appointment subsequently became permanent. After almost four years during which Netanyahu filled the plum position himself, Israeli diplomats hoped his successor in the post would at long last restore their lost status, together with significantly eroded funding. After all, Katz is a senior Likud official, close to the powers that be, and he certainly wouldn’t want to head a government ministry whose wings are clipped, they thought.

Over the past year, they discovered just how wrong they were. Not only is Katz excluded from most of the activity of his office by Netanyahu, who refuses to cede control of Israel’s foreign affairs in every possible arena, but he also failed to rehabilitate the ministry. If at the beginning of his term Foreign Ministry officials were careful not to attack Katz directly, in a bid to get him on their side, the exceptionally harsh responses from of the trade union representing the country’s diplomats showed their real opinions.

“Minister Katz came in a year ago to high expectations considering his achievements as transportation minister. Today, a year later, we can say the disappointment is as great as the expectations were,” representatives of the diplomatic staff told Haaretz. “If the issue in question doesn’t have a high media profile, like meetings with representatives of the Gulf states, or the coronavirus, which he can use for public relations, as far as the ministry’s employees are concerned it’s as if he doesn’t exist. Israel needs a ministerial figure who, together with the skilled professionals in the ministry, addresses the huge challenges facing Israel in the international arena.” No less important, they say, is that the ministry “is fighting a last-ditch battle against the Finance Ministry. ... Only recently we were told of another cut in the salaries of envoys, and the foreign minister isn’t fighting for us.”

The response of Katz’s office to Haaretz’s request for a comment on the complaints against him and for more information on his work this year was: “You will continue to besmirch and we’ll continue to work.”

In Netanyahu’s shadow

Retired diplomats also expressed disappointment with Katz, and foreign ambassadors with whom Haaretz has spoken over the past year say he does not meet with them and that they have met more with Meir Ben-Shabbat, the head of the National Security Council and Netanyahu’s right-hand man, than with the foreign minister.

The foreign policy think tank Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, recently issued a report on Katz’s work over the past year. The report concludes that Katz operates mainly under Netanyahu’s heavy shadow and is having a hard time resolving the crisis in the ministry – even considering the budgetary constraints under which all government agencies operate under the caretaker government. “A year after Katz came into office, the Foreign Ministry is still weak and lacking in resources and the crisis there will continue to deepen,” says Mitvim director Nimrod Goren.

According to the report, Netanyahu continued to lead foreign policy after Katz’s appointment, “not only in making decisions but in implementing them,” the report states. The main reason for this is of course the endless election season. Netanyahu sees foreign policy as his greatest asset and won’t let go. His campaign is directly served by his photos with world leaders, from Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to countries in Asia and Africa that had once been left to foreign ministers to deal with. For this reason, Katz has held relatively few diplomatic meetings or visits.

Haaretz found that since Katz’s appointment, Netanyahu has flown on at least 11 known diplomatic trips (some visits are secret and are therefore unreported): Russia at least four times, the United States twice, Greece, Portugal, Britain, Ukraine and Uganda. Meanwhile, Katz has flown only seven times: twice to the United States, to the United Kingdom, to Italy, to Switzerland, to Greece and to the United Arab Emirates. Katz does not accompany Netanyahu on these trips, while other senior cabinet ministers do.

The English requirement

For the first time in nine years, Netanyahu did not address the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly last fall. Katz took his place and was roundly lampooned for his poor English. Some foreign ambassadors in Israel say they believed Katz’s poor English was the reason he avoids meeting with them. But on this point, former senior diplomats defended Katz; many world leaders speak their own language and use interpreters, they said, German Chancellor Angela Merkel for example. It’s even considered patriotic. The fact that Netanyahu turned fluency in English into an essential skill for politicians they say is embarrassing Katz and not necessarily justifiably.

As for Katz’s two trips to the United States, he and his wife did have a photo op with the U.S. president and first lady, but that was at a large UN reception. Ties with the United States are reserved for Netanyahu and his close associate Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer. At another conference in the United States, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the foreign ministers of Greece, Bahrain, Tunisia and Colombia but not with Katz – when it comes to Israel, Pompeo only meets with Netanyahu. “He knows I have to get something out of it too,” Netanyahu told associates at the time with a smile.

The Mitvim report notes that Netanyahu even dominates statements on the Foreign Ministry website. Of over 350 of these, 250 mentioned Netanyahu in their headline and only 20 mentioned Katz.

In only one instance did Katz deviate from Netanyahu’s line, when early in his role he criticized Poland on the commemoration of the Holocaust, while Netanyahu had hoped to compromise with them. Katz has not done so again. According to Mitvim, Katz’s decision not to challenge Netanyahu has weakened Katz.

Railway to the Gulf

Katz launched the two projects with which he is most clearly associated long before he became foreign minister: building an artificial island off the coast of the Gaza Strip and a railway connecting the Arab Gulf states with Haifa. On the one hand, they sparked interest in the international community but on the other, they are seen as unrealistic. Two other projects have so far remained on paper only: his “national plan to move embassies to Jerusalem” and his “nonbelligerence agreement with the Gulf states.”

Katz has in fact been trying to advance ties with the Gulf states through the railroad project. But the Mitvim report states that in contrast to his work in this area, “he has been conspicuously absent from other areas in the Middle East.” For example, the report notes, it was National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz who visited Cairo several times over the natural gas project, and not Katz. And when tensions ratcheted up between Netanyahu and King Abdullah, it was President Reuven Rivlin who went to Jordan, not Katz. Ties with the Palestinian Authority are being led not by Katz, but by Finance Minister Moshe Minister Kahlon.

Former and current diplomats, who asked that their names not be used for fear of publicly clashing with Katz, say that he has also been absent in the crisis over the appointment of Amira Oron as Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, which has been waiting for over a year for approval. Netanyahu desire to keep open posts for his political allies as well as the limitations of a transition government have also left Israel without permanent ambassadors in Paris and Moscow.

As Goren concludes in his report: “The past year has proved that [Katz’s] appointment alone is not the solution. It is important that there be a minister with political power along with the motivation and ability to make change.”