Watchdog Highlights Major Flaws in Israel’s Foreign Policy, but Not a Word About Netanyahu

State Comptroller report says reduced spending and reduced accountability are the primary factors in Israel’s foreign service crisis

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Foreign Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, October 27, 2019
Foreign Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, October 27, 2019Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel’s foreign service is suffering from a long-lasting crisis, an annual report by the State Comptroller released on Monday said, blaming it on harsh cuts in the budget of the Foreign Ministry, and the dispersal of its powers among dozens of bodies with little coordination.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman did not go as far as laying any personal responsibility on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the situation, even though the Likud leader served as foreign minister between May 2015 and February 2019.

Englman, who has previously faced criticism for showing leniency towards the Netanyahu administration, says he reached his conclusions “without deciding on the question [of] who is the person responsible for the lack of cooperation.”

Israel’s foreign policy is too decentralized, the report contends, “conducted through dozens of government bodies, without a strategic foundation and centralized management, and without the existence of a full picture of the situation.” Englman found that no less than 35 government bodies are involved in foreign policy without any clear division of labor. He mentions the fact that the National Security Council is also the main institution involved in foreign policy, even though it is not an operational body.

In recent years, the government has transferred portfolios related to foreign policy away from the Foreign Ministry, making coordination more difficult. Contact with the Jewish diaspora and the fight against anti-Semitism was transferred to the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, while the responsibility for the fight against the BDS movement was given to the Strategic Affairs Ministry. This also applies to many other portfolios, including regional cooperation, intelligence affairs, heritage and others.

State comptroller Matanyahu Engelman.Credit:

Englman also found “a lack of correlation between the Foreign Ministry budget for 2019 and the breadth of the coverage of the areas in which the ministry operates.” In 2019, the Foreign Ministry’s budget was cut by 14.7 percent compared to 2018, while the rest of the government ministries saw their budgets grow by an average of 5.7 percent, the report states. Because of these cuts, the operations of Israel’s delegations overseas were reduced significantly. Delegations and public relations activities were canceled, and ambassadors and Foreign Ministry division heads reduced their trips and meetings. The report criticizes the seemingly rash decision to close embassies and consulates, and notes that Israel’s support for the United Nations was harmed because of a lack of orderly discussion with the Finance Ministry.

The report mentioned infighting among Israel’s institutions. Officials from the National Security Council, a body that works very closely with Netanyahu, said that “bodies often operate overseas according to their own view of [Israel’s] interests while formulating specific actions, and there is a difficulty in having the prime minister’s, or the head of the National Security Council’s instructions implemented.” Insider sources told Haaretz this criticism is mostly directed at the Foreign Ministry. Meanwhile, Foreign Ministry officials say other Israeli government officials speak with foreign governments without the Foreign Ministry being informed.

Englman recommends that the government map out all the bodies operating in international affairs, “while examining the effectiveness of their operations,” and determine what are their exact areas of responsibility and authority. To carry this out, the comptroller proposes appointing a coordinating entity that will have the authority to make decisions in case of disagreement.

Foreign Ministry officials said the responsibility should rest with the ministry “because of its broad and multi-focal view, the knowledge it has accumulated and the international deployment of the ministry’s missions overseas.”

A protest by employees of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, November 6, 2013Credit: Emil Salman

“The report clearly points out that the most professional organization, with the most comprehensive view of foreign policy matters is the Foreign Ministry,” a statement said. “This is also how many countries around the world work. The report places the blame on the Finance Ministry’s budgets division for ... the decision to close Israeli delegations overseas, which was not legitimized by a professional and organized examination; and ... the preparation of a budget [was made] without any coordination at all with officials from the Foreign Ministry, who saw the proposal for the first time only three days before it was submitted for cabinet approval,” the Foreign Ministry said in its response.

The Foreign Ministry added that there should be an  “unambiguous conclusion [that] emphasizes the need to increase the budget available to the Foreign Ministry, as well as to streamline the budgeting process... to include consultations between Treasury officials and the professional staff in the Foreign Ministry before the budget is presented to the cabinet.”

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