In Policy Shift, Israel's FM Plans to Evaluate Ambassadors Through Economic Success

Some ministry staffers hope Minister Katz’s plan will persuade the treasury not to cut their budget but others fear the shift will harm the ministry's core diplomatic agenda

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Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Yisrael Katz, at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 12, 2019.
Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Yisrael Katz, at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 12, 2019.Credit: Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP

Israel's Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz recently ordered members of his staff to develop a new policy that would require members of the Israeli foreign service to focus their efforts mainly on promoting Israel’s economic ties around the world. Katz’s move follows ongoing cuts to the ministry’s budget and to its authority.

Under his plan, diplomats’ performance would be evaluated mainly on how successful they are at promoting economic relationships. The foreign minister also wants to attract more recruits to the foreign service course who have an economic background.

The stated responsibilities of members of the foreign service already include promoting trade relations, but the ties are mainly handled by economic attachés affiliated with the Economy Ministry, while other diplomats focus primarily on diplomatic issues.

Now, however, Katz wants them to shift their focus to economic issues as well and has also asked his staff to investigate how other countries address the issue.

Katz will soon be presenting his plans, which include goals through 2025, to the Finance Ministry in the hope that it would lead to an understanding with the Finance Ministry over his budget. The foreign service is currently suffering from a severe cash crunch that has led it to cut operations at embassies and consulates worldwide.

In the years during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also served as foreign minister, there were increasing complaints in the foreign service about repeated cuts to the ministry’s budget and to diplomats’ authority. The threat of another across-the-board cut combined with recent changes in diplomats’ benefits has led diplomats to send cables lamenting that they don’t even have money to travel to official meetings or to offer guests coffee at work meetings that they host.

The tight budget has forced Israel to suspend payments to some 20 international organizations. Division heads at the ministry have stopped traveling to the regions for which they are responsible and dozens of projects have been canceled.

Some Foreign Ministry staffers expressed the hope that Katz’s plan will persuade the treasury that the amount of money the foreign service brings in through improved trade relations far exceeds amounts that are being targeted in cuts, and therefore that the ministry budget should not be curtailed. But others fear that a greater focus on economic ties will necessarily come at the expense of the diplomatic issues that have been the ministry’s core job. They also fear that Katz’s plan will further reduce their influence over diplomatic decision-making.

The cash crunch has been exacerbated by the treasury’s recent decision to start taxing special payments to diplomats earmarked for the expense of hosting officials in the countries to which the diplomats are posted. To protest this change, Foreign Ministry personnel, along with economic and defense attachés, have recently announced that they will stop preparing for Netanyahu’s trips abroad. He had planned to visit both Japan and India before September’s election.

“To meet with senior economic officials in the areas I serve, I have to host them, and it’s not reasonable for this money to come out of my pocket, or for it to be terribly complicated to get reimbursed,” a senior Israeli diplomat in Asia said last week. “After all, we bring huge sums into the state’s coffers through these meetings.”

The ministry’s Asia desk has presided over an enormous surge in Israel’s trade with Asian countries in recent years. Katz is now seeking to replicate that model. But in Europe, economic relations don’t necessarily top many countries’ agendas.

Diplomats' responsibilities eroded

Diplomats’ responsibilities have been steadily eroded in recent years. Responsibility for fighting the anti-Israel boycott movement, for example, was transferred to the Strategic Affairs Ministry. Responsibility for ties with Diaspora Jewry was shifted to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, and ties with Arab countries are handled by the Mossad intelligence agency and the National Security Council. On occasion, ambassadors are not even invited to attend meetings between Netanyahu and officials from their host countries.

Katz was appointed acting foreign minister in February. That followed public criticism of Netanyahu for holding both the foreign and defense portfolios after Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense minister last fall. Katz subsequently received a permanent appointment as foreign minister. The plan to shift the ministry’s focus toward economic matters is his first major initiative since taking office.