Israel's Foreign Ministry Is Being Gutted

PMO heads Israel’s foreign relations, but interior minister deals with Palestinians. Ties with Moscow? Try our Jerusalem minister. Confused? So are EU ambassadors.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to deliver a speech during the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21), on November 30, 2015
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to deliver a speech during the opening day of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21), on November 30, 2015Credit: AFP
Victor Harel
Victor Harel

The Foreign Ministry is bleeding. It has been dismantled, stripped of core issues of Israeli diplomacy that have been given to other ministries. This madness, which is not in keeping with proper conduct and is intolerable, has no equal in the Western world. Democracies don’t undermine their own foreign policy’s flagship issues.

Relevance is the name of the game. When you’re a bench player, led and not leading, excluded from the inner circle and not part of the main action, you don’t exist.

Until not long ago, a foreign ambassador in Israel who was asked by his government to prepare an updated report about Israel and its international relations would first approach the Foreign Ministry, which is the natural thing to do. Not anymore. An ambassador who wants to be briefed on Israel’s relations with the United States will go to the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Security Council. That’s nothing new, but if His Excellency wants to hear from an authorized source about Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, he will go to the interior minister, who is also in charge of the negotiations with the Palestinians. At the same opportunity the ambassador will also be able to get a briefing about “the strategic dialogue with the United States,” which the interior minister is also in charge of. The Israel-Russia relations? Please go to the “Jerusalem and heritage” minister, who takes care of the relations with Vladimir Putin’s government.

If he asks for information about Israel’s relations with Iran, the ambassador will continue his tedious journey among the ministries to the next station – “the minister for strategic affairs” (not including strategic relations with the United States). While there the ambassador can also catch up on the state of Israel’s public diplomacy (an inherent Foreign Ministry issue), because that same minister also heads the “Public Diplomacy Ministry.” From there he’ll return to the Prime Minister’s Office for a meeting with the deputy minister in charge of “regional cooperation” – another issue that is no longer the Foreign Ministry’s responsibility. And we haven’t mentioned the most significant ministry – the Defense Ministry. There he will certainly meet, among others, the man serving for 13 years as head of the ministry’s Political-Military Affairs Bureau, who deals with relations with Egypt and Jordan, including the diplomatic ones.

Confused? So is the foreign ambassador.

It’s frustrating to see that the Foreign Ministry’s relevance comes up only when disaster strikes in a remote corner of the world and the department for Israelis in distress is asked to locate Israeli tourists. Or when the ministry is asked to handle the visit of an international visiting figure, or when ministers and MKs are required to renew their diplomatic passports. Those functions are important, but they are not what the Foreign Ministry is for.

In this situation, no wonder young talented diplomats – of which there are many in the ministry – are “snatched” by the “alternative” foreign ministries and experienced diplomats are looking for a way out of the ministry. It’s also no wonder the country’s ambassadors abroad, who were once seen as the most connected and updated among their colleagues, can no longer provide new information on central issues on Israel’s international agenda. Nor should one wonder that Jerusalem had no information in real time about the European Union’s plan for labeling West Bank and Golan Heights products.

The ministry’s tool box has been emptied and the European Union’s diplomats are saying to themselves, “If the ministry’s people are disregarded in their own country, why should we bother to update them? In any case they’re irrelevant.” This causes huge damage, which may be irrevocable, to a ministry with a most glorious past.

To my regret, no political figure appears willing or able to reinstate the ministry’s prestige, to pick up the pieces and restore the ministry and its workers’ lost status.

The writer was Israel’s ambassador to Belgium and Spain and the foreign service’s inspector general.

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