Israel's Foreign Ministry Cadet Course Goes Begging for Applicants

1,300 candidates applied in 2017, a near 50 percent drop since 2012. And it’s not just because of the poor wages or the plummet in prestige - the Foreign Ministry admits not everyone wants to represent Israel in the world today

The Foreign Ministry this week opened its 34th cadets’ course, an event that both Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely and ministry director general Yuval Rotem marked with festive tweets. “Everyone wants to tell the amazing Israeli story,” gushed Hotovely. “Your success is our success,” wrote Rotem.

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But of the 20 slots that were available in the new course, the Foreign Ministry only managed to fill 15. Of those, only 12 ended up actually starting the course, and there is generally additional attrition during the five years of intensive training.

Data from the Foreign Ministry shows that only 1,374 people took the entrance exam for the course, which is considered the gateway to Israel’s foreign service (and of those, only 810 reached the next stage). This is a drop of some 50 percent compared to 2012, when 2,773 people took the entrance exam. In 2014, 2,448 candidates sat for the exam, while by 2016 the number had plunged to 1,473. The ministry did not give figures from before 2012, but former diplomats familiar with the issue say that in the past the number of applicants was even higher.

A senior Foreign Ministry official said the reason for the drop in demand is a combination of “a sharp decline in the Foreign Ministry’s prestige and the profession of diplomacy as well as more attractive alternatives in the private market or other government agencies, as well as a bleak economic future because of the salary and pension conditions.”

He added, “The profession is no longer so alluring because nowadays everyone goes abroad with ease. It’s also become more marginal because of the direct communication between leaders. Moreover, representing Israel abroad is not a simple challenge in our times, and not everyone wants to deal with that. In the past we got the best [people]. Today, in general, that’s not the case, because there are more attractive options elsewhere.”

The ministry’s training division rejects the claim of a drop in the level of the candidates, saying, “There is clearly no drop in the level because we are not lowering the quality threshold and are continuing to insist on the most qualified people.” Other sources in the ministry say the problem has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the profession or the quality of the candidates, but the concern in the ministry’s management that it won’t be able to find positions for all the course graduates once they finish. The cadets work for the five years of training without tenure, but then they must be given a permanent position that might not be available.

Ministry staffers also blame Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also serving as foreign minister in the current government. Diplomats say the lack of a full-time minister undermines the ministry’s status and its ability to battle the treasury for budgets.

Former MK and ambassador Colette Avital served as the director of the training division during the mid-1980s and many currently serving ambassadors were her students. “For many years the foreign service was considered prestigious and sought after,” she told Haaretz on Sunday. “It’s aggravating to watch the ongoing, systematic destruction, and it’s sad to see that young people who understand the current reality don’t want to gamble on an uncertain future. Those of us who served the country for many years, who always sought to improve our professional standards, don’t understand the logic of the prime minister’s desire to destroy the most skilled and effective tool available to the state.”

Ofer Bavli is the third generation of a veteran diplomatic family. His grandfather, Yitzhak Bavli, was Israeli ambassador to South Africa in the 1950s. His father, Michael Bavli, represented Israel in six countries over 36 years. “I grew up in this life from birth,” he says. “I was born during a diplomatic assignment and I’ve served half my life there. I dreamed of the Foreign Ministry since I was 13 and joined in 1991.”

His last foreign service job was consul-general in Miami. In the summer of 2014 Bavli decided to leave.

“It was a combination of the employment conditions, which were deteriorating, and the fact that the ministry was losing its centrality and its responsibility for traditional areas of diplomacy,” he says. “The fight against BDS, for example, which is a classic task for the Foreign Ministry, was transferred to [Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad] Erdan’s ministry; all the major things have left the ministry.

“In addition I saw the salary forecast after 20 years in the ministry and one cannot support a family on one salary. And then the pension is just for one spouse but then there are two 65-year-olds on a starvation salary,” he continued. “I saw that these things didn’t change even after strikes and sanctions, and there is no full-time minister to fight for the ministry and bang on the table in the cabinet. My childhood dream can’t be sustained when I have to raise children. It’s inconceivable that I would have to ask my parents for money to finish the month, to finance the missions abroad.

“I’ve seen how it was with my parents’ generation. They didn’t get rich but they didn’t have to beg, either. When I see today’s cadets entering the ministry, something like a third will drop out within their first decade of service. They come because of Zionism and leave because of the money,” Bavli concludes.

There are also complaints about the content of the cadets’ course itself. According to ministry employees, there are more lecturers identified with the right wing since Hotovely assumed her post. An examination of the list of external lecturers of the last two courses sent by the deputy minister’s office last April to the Knesset transparency panel headed by MK Stav Shaffir shows there’s something to the claim.

During each of the 32nd and 33rd courses, there were 70 external lecturers. They gave classes and led trips relating to current events and culture, government and security bureaucracies, economics and management, law (including the international status of the territories), consular training, training in Yad Vashem, censorship, high-tech and entrepreneurship, media and digital campaigns. Lighter topics on the list included a workshop on courtesy and manners, public speaking, cooking and wine tasting. There was also a lecture entitled “Behind the Scenes at ‘Fauda’ [the TV series],” a lecture by sportsman Arik Ze’evi on “Winning the Daily Battles,” and a meeting with members of the band Jane Bordeaux.

Among all these, there were only two Arab lecturers, Prof. Mohammed Alatawna of Ben-Gurion University, who taught basic concepts in Islam, and retired Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, who before his retirement spoke about “Checks and Balances Between Government Authorities.” There weren’t any lectures about the Arab community in Israel.

Among the lecturers and subjects identified with the conservative camp were Ben Dror Yemini on “The Industry of Lies,” Gadi Taub on “The Zionism of the Israeli Regime,” a tour with Noam Arnon, spokesman for the Jewish settlement in Hebron; a tour of settlement Elon Moreh with veteran settler leader Benny Katzover; a tour with Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council; a talk with Nadav Ha’etzni in Samaria; a tour with Oded Revivi, head of the Efrat Local Council in Gush Etzion, on “Settlement in Judea and Samaria;” a tour of Rachel’s Tomb as part of a survey of “Holy Places in Judea and Samaria,” and a tour with David Be’eri of the City of David association.

On the other side of the political map was a tour with Yoni Mizrahi, CEO of the Emek Hashaveh NGO. The 32nd course included a tour with Hagit Ofran of Peace Now on “Israeli Policy in the Territories,” but this was left out of the 33rd course. A lecture on the LGBT community was also dropped, as were talks on Christianity and Islam.

MK Nahman Shai (Zionist Union), who heads the Knesset caucus for strengthening the foreign service and has lectured to cadets in the past, convened an emergency meeting last week to discuss the state of the Foreign Ministry. “This is part of the price of many years of neglect of the ministry and its human resources,” he said. “The cadets’ course, which for years was a symbol of the excellence of Israel’s foreign service, which is sinking, can’t attract the best.”

He added that other government ministries as well as NGOs offer the opportunity to serve abroad. “It’s clear under these circumstances the Foreign Ministry is losing its status and young people are avoiding it,” he said.

Dr. Nimrod Goren, head of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policy Studies, who attended the emergency meeting, believes that “the growing disdain for diplomacy by senior government officials, the exclusion of the Foreign Ministry from the core diplomatic issues and the dispersal of its authority, and the increasingly political use of the foreign service are an integral part of the reasons for the declining interest in the profession.” That the ministry couldn’t even fill its cadets’ course is an indication, Goren said, that “joining the Foreign Ministry isn’t considered as attractive as in the past, and this can’t just be attributed to low salaries.”

Hotovely said in response, “I’m proud of the change in values that I’ve made to the cadets’ course. There’s no doubt that diplomatic training must include components of Jewish identity in order to be familiar with our roots as a people.

“We must distinguish between the diplomatic training and the service conditions of Israeli diplomats,” she continued. “The difficulty in recruiting workers to the foreign services stems in part from the heavy price families must pay as a result of the long years that diplomats serve abroad, along with the fact that the wages of the envoys do not match what is customary nowadays in the private sector. We made great efforts to improve the emissaries’ salaries this year, and as part of the ministry’s Project 2025, we are examining ways to improve the status of the Israeli diplomat and to adapt diplomacy to a job market that’s very different from the job market of 20 and 30 years ago.”

Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely.
Tomer Appelbaum