Israeli Diplomats Concerned by FM's Plan to Evaluate Envoys Through Economic Success

Minister Katz’s plan, which was first reported by Haaretz on Tuesday, has been given a mixed reaction, with some uttering praise while others lament 'serious deterioration'

Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz during his visit to Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, July 2019.

Israeli diplomats, both past and present, have mixed feelings and fears about Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz’s plans to shift his ministry’s focus toward economic matters and to evaluate Israeli diplomats primarily based on their promotion of Israel’s commercial ties, as reported by Haaretz on Tuesday.

Some diplomats have called the plan a step in the right direction for the Foreign Ministry, which has already been stripped of much of its budget and responsibilities in a number of traditional diplomatic areas. Those who favor the move say Katz’s changes could provide the ministry with clearer and more up-to-date goals, adding that the step might even convince Finance Ministry officials to relent on some budget cuts.

Associates of Katz said the plan is not designed to pursue economic interests at the expense of other diplomatic matters, and it would buttress the Foreign Ministry’s ability to address other diplomatic areas. If the embassies do more work on economic issues, it will only strengthen their standing and diplomatic capabilities, officials close to Katz told Haaretz.

Some diplomats have said that in practice a similar shift began years ago, while Benjamin Netanyahu served as foreign minister, in addition to being prime minister. Netanyahu stepped down as foreign minister with the appointment of Katz in February of this year.

Economic attachés from the Economy and Industry Ministry already serve at many embassies and their job is to promote commercial relations alongside Foreign Ministry diplomats, so it is unclear what the new division of responsibility will be between them.

A number of serving diplomats, including ambassadors who preferred not to be identified, said an exclusive focus on economic issues would be a mistake in many countries where other foreign relations issues are more important. And evaluating diplomats’ performance based on their economic achievements would overlook their contributions in other areas, including issues involving political, military and cultural ties. “Diplomacy is a more complicated art than just the bottom line,” one of them said.

In response to Katz’s proposed plan, the union representing Foreign Ministry diplomats said: “We commend the foreign minister’s intentions to promote steps to restore the ministry to its top position among government ministries leading the State of Israel’s foreign relations. The ministry’s representatives and employees have always performed economic functions as one of its main goals.”

The statement added that promotion of Israel’s commercial interests needs to be built on a foundation of diplomatic activity. “We are partners in any step the minister is interested in advancing, and this includes refocusing the activities in cooperation and agreement with the employees.”

In response to Haaretz report on Katz’s plan, Labor Party Knesset member Stav Shaffir claimed that Netanyahu embarked on a campaign to eliminate the Foreign Ministry a decade ago. “He divided up its responsibilities, cut its budgets, weakened its ability to operate around the world and worsened Israel’s diplomatic relations with the West – particularly with the younger generation in the American leadership, something that within a few years we will pay for dearly.”

The entry of a new full-time foreign minister was supposed to be welcome, but from his first actions, it has already appeared that he is sticking with Netanyahu’s approach, Shaffir said. “Instead of seeing to our strategic interests, the foreign minister will continue the campaign to eliminate [the Israeli diplomatic presence overseas]. And, as usual, the younger generation in Israel will pay the price.

Meretz Knesset member Tamar Zandberg said: “It seems that as far as Katz and Bibi [Netanyahu] are concerned, diplomacy is left-wing. Like ‘economic peace,’ now Katz wants to base all foreign relations on profit and loss. The real profit for the State of Israel is developing international relations that are based on diplomatic arrangements with liberal democracies that support human rights. The Netanyahu government is actually running away from this like from a fire.”

Former diplomat Eran Etzion, who served as deputy head of the National Security Council, said: “Over the past decade, led by Netanyahu, there has been a serious and unprecedented deterioration in the status and functioning of the Foreign Ministry.” Netanyahu has personally pushed for the change for political reasons, “and out of a sense that the Foreign Ministry is not staffed by ‘our type of people,’” he added.

There was some logic for a shift in approach, Etzion acknowledged. When it comes to promoting Israel’s economic interests abroad, there should be a shift to a “profit center” model, he said, citing Denmark as an example of a country that has taken such an approach. “But it requires a long list of changes, including transferring the Foreign Trade Administration from the Economy and Industry Ministry to the Foreign Ministry to coordinate and focus the national activity in this area under the wing of a single professional entity,” he said.

Noting that Katz is serving as foreign minister in a transitional government until a new Knesset is elected on September 17, Etzion said it is impossible for Katz to carry out such a plan under the current circumstances. And, he added, it is unclear if Katz will remain foreign minister following the election.

Former Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor warned against overreliance on economic issues in evaluating diplomats’ performance, saying, “Diplomatic ties of all kinds – political, economic, scientific and cultural – cannot be treated like the business targets of a company with a balance sheet of income and expenses.”

Nimrod Goren, who heads the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, made reference in his reaction to the Foreign Ministry’s ongoing dispute with the Finance Ministry over the Foreign Ministry’s budget.

“It’s good that the new foreign minister is investing thought and effort in identifying steps that would strengthen the ministry and help solve its crisis with the Finance Ministry. But the reform that Minister Katz is proposing, which is mainly shifting the Foreign Ministry’s focus of activity to the economic field, is not expected to deliver the goods.”

“First of all,” he said, “it would be appropriate for the reform in the Foreign Ministry’s operations to be adopted by a minister in charge over an extended period and not one whose current term is limited to a number of months.” Reform needs to be carried out in coordination with the ministry’s administration and to take the ministry staff’s recommendations into account, he added.

“Just as an economic peace plan cannot be developed without defining political and diplomatic goals, it also can’t be expected that economic activity can be at the expense of diplomatic-political activity on the part of the foreign service.”

“Again, the politicians are reinventing the wheel,” said Barukh Binah, the former chief of the Foreign Ministry’s North American operations, who is now a policy fellow at the Mitvim Institute. “Promoting the country’s economic goals has always been an important task of any ambassador or consul general, but decision-makers in the host country will mainly speak to him because he is a political person,” he said. “The most important and perhaps only reform that the foreign minister should promote is changing the standing of the foreign service.

“He needs to work to restore authority and bring back funding,” Binah said, “and if he is interested in structural changes, I would have recommended that he work to transfer the Foreign Trade Administration to the Foreign Ministry [from the Economy Ministry] and to insist from now on that employees of the administration be graduates of the Foreign Ministry’s [diplomatic training] course. Then they will also be trained to promote Israel’s policy at the same time that they promote its economy.”