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Israel's Systematically Sidelined, Budget-slashed Foreign Ministry Is Doing Heroic Work on Coronavirus

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Passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport, Lod, Israel, March 5, 2020.
Returning Israeli passengers at Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel. March 5, 2020Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Thousands of Israeli families recently heaved a sigh of relief: their loved ones, traveling abroad, have been repatriated, thanks to combined efforts led by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. Israelis heeded the calls of envoys worldwide to leave at once before curfews and lockdowns go into effect and outgoing flights are cancelled. 

Israeli representatives the world over have moved heaven and earth to allow Israeli citizens to return home. Unusual methods, such as leasing ferries, police-escorted bus convoys and convincing authorities to open shuttered airports have became new emergency tools of the trade for Israel’s diplomats. The ministry’s "Situation Room" in Jerusalem has become an operations hub. 

Very few foreign ministries (if any) are so intensely committed to their citizens abroad. Our foreign ministry is proudly embracing the Israeli values of mutual responsibility and protection. In tandem, the Foreign Ministry continues to engage in other aspects of the national effort to curb the spread of coronavirus

Both Jerusalem and missions abroad and the MFA’s Jerusalem Headquarters are part of the effort to locate vital medical equipment needed in Israel. The Foreign Ministry is actively involved in Israel’s massive procurement endeavor, using its diplomatic skills to facilitate the airlift of essential goods to Israel. From respirators to antibacterial gel, from protective gear to overalls, from face masks to raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry. No stone is left unturned. Some embassies are also facilitating scientific cooperation in fighting the pandemic.

The essential role of the Foreign Ministry in emergencies is not new. One of my earliest memories of working there was its massive activity during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, helping mobilized reserve soldiers get home. I also remember Israeli missions obtaining essential inputs for the economy. At the same time, the ministry maintained its "traditional" roles, mobilizing diplomatic support in international arenas, blocking initiatives to curtail Israel’s military room for maneuver, and engaging in public diplomacy to influence world public opinion. 

Israel's Foreign Ministry building, Jerusalem, 2018.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Foreign Ministry continues to play a vital role in our national endeavors and in ensuring Israel's interests and national resilience. But running a complex system of some 100 representative offices requires a fully functioning main office. 

A former senior defense official recently acknowledged the Foreign Ministry has lately been weakened and its budgets slashed (as had Israel’s health ministry, he noted). Indeed, the status of the ministry has suffered persistent, severe and debilitating erosion in recent years. It was not given basic tools to fulfill its tasks as its responsibilities were consciously shifted to other agencies for political reasons, with the finance ministry enthusiastically curbing budgets.

We live in an era of globalization and global challenges, and solutions cross borders – from countering terrorism to fighting epidemics. That means we must ensure an active physical presence in international forums and access to decision makers in all sectors, bilaterally and multilaterally. The personal dimension is an irreplaceable added value of the foreign service. 

Preparation for the "day after" the coronavirus crisis is also important, ensuring continuity. Once the storm abates, we will require stable infrastructure for economic recovery and growth in the international arena, too. That obviously means having a strong Foreign Ministry in time of crisis – and in normal times as well.

A September 2019 Mitvim Institute poll indicated that 48 percent of Israelis agreed that their Foreign Ministry’s status had declined. Of these, far more respondents (30 percent) thought this downgrading significantly undermined national security than those who did not (18 percent). 

The importance attributed by the public to diplomacy is encouraging considering its insufficient awareness and knowledge about the scale and scope of the ministry’s work. Public understanding of the link between a good foreign policy and national security (national resilience) is also encouraging. National political leaders, too, must recognize the need to strengthen the ministry, back it, and translate this recognition into practical terms, in good times and bad.

Perhaps the Foreign Ministry doesn’t do enough domestic public relations, as opposed to its bread and butter public relations endeavor abroad. It won’t tweet about "clandestine night-time operations," or brag about every defense or civilian deal involving an Israeli ambassador.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 8, 2020.Credit: POOL New/ REUTERS

But our diplomats abroad, men and women, work relentlessly to ensure Israel's needs and interests. They operate with humility, discretion and determination, often under the radar, including in countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, often under complex security conditions for themselves and their families. 

The decision to designate Israel’s Foreign Ministry as an essential workplace in times of national emergency should go without saying. Yet, when the government started reducing public sector activity in light of the crisis, the initial 30 percent cap was imposed also on the Foreign Ministry, ignoring its essential and unique contribution to the national efforts. The foreign minister had to personally appeal this decision, which was eventually reversed.

This should serve as a wake-up call regarding the need for renewed recognition of the need of a strong and significant Foreign Ministry. This should be translated into restored responsibilities and proper budgets.

The current crisis, with its unique, unparalleled characteristics, creates new and unfamiliar challenges. Addressing them requires activity abroad which brings into play the capacities and capabilities of the Foreign Ministry.

The last thing the government should be doing now is adopting the recommendations of bean counters who define the Foreign Ministry as a non-essential agency. Adopting such a classification, continuing to undermine its authority and stealing its budgets will undermine national interests. Let us hope Israel's new government will rectify a years-long neglect of our foreign service.

Amb. Carmon served in Israel’s Foreign Ministry from 1973 to 2018, amongst others as Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN, head of Mashav (the ministry’s International Development Cooperation Agency) and Ambassador to India and Sri Lanka. Twitter: @danielocarmon

An earlier version of this article was written for Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies

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