Barack Obama is about to make his first state visit to Israel as president of the United States. Israeli practice is to give a VIP guest making a state visit the highest honor the country can bestow: the right to address the Knesset, the people's representatives, in the institution that symbolizes Israeli democracy.
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Obama, however, has chosen to break with tradition and boycott the Knesset during his visit. It's strange that the U.S. president has relinquished this honor, especially since this Knesset is newly elected, fresh and interesting, with dozens of new MKs who have entered politics for the first time.
Instead, he intends to give a speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. To explain this puzzling conduct, it has been claimed that Obama wishes to "talk to the people," as he did when he visited Egypt at the beginning of his first term in office. Other explanations have been offered that don’t bear repeating here because they are an insult to one's intelligence (forgive me for the undiplomatic remark). It's simply hard to understand that America’s No. 1 citizen does not see the members of Knesset as the Israeli people's representatives.
On Obama’s previous visit to the region he also asked to speak to the people directly, and to "extend America's hand” to the Egyptian people as well as to the Arab-Muslim world. Such a tactic could perhaps be understood in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak's tyrannical regime was still in place, but does anyone in the American administration compare Israeli democracy to Mubarak's Egypt? And how is it that there’s no one in the Israeli administration who can tactfully and intelligently inform the eminent guest’s representatives what is acceptable on a state visit to Israel?
This is not the first state visit a U.S. president has made to Israel, but Barack Obama is the first president who has refused to address the Knesset. It could be that in doing so, he is setting a precedent that could affect the Knesset's standing and Israel's position in the world. Obama may be the first head of state to refuse to address the Knesset, but will he be the last?
Bill Clinton's impressive speech in the Knesset, on his first visit to Israel after the peace treaty with Jordan had been signed, had many uplifting moments. True, compared to Yitzhak Rabin's time, the political situation now is less optimistic (to say the least), but this can only be addressed by dealing with the Israeli people and their elected representatives.
The first media report about Obama's visit to Israel said that a delegation from the Prime Minister's Office was to travel to Washington to prepare for the president's arrival. Although the foreign affairs portfolio is the prime minister's responsibility since Avigdor Lieberman resigned as foreign minister, since when has a delegation from the Prime Minister's Office been sent abroad to deal with a visit to Israel?
If one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s diplomatic advisers had been sent to Washington, fine. But a delegation? Is there no embassy in Washington to handle the visit? There’s also an American Embassy in Israel, and in general, in international relations the custom is that arrangements for high-level visits are made in the host country. And what of the waste of public money involved in sending a whole delegation to Washington? Is this the embarrassing result of ignorance of the protocol for a state visit, or of simply kowtowing to the Americans?
To avoid embarrassment and misunderstanding on the part of both guests and hosts, there are accepted, mandatory rules of protocol in state relations. The rules in Israel are similar to those in European democracies and in most countries of the world. But under Lieberman’s leadership, the Foreign Ministry has seemingly been relieved of its responsibilities.
Of course, the prime minster has always been at the forefront of the relationship with the White House and there have always been arguments and tensions, particularly over such important events as a visit by a U.S. president. When Clinton visited, then-President Ezer Weizman saw himself as the official host, and the Foreign Ministry had to maneuver carefully between him and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Clinton’s friend and partner. We proved up to the task.
Ever since the state's early days of David Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, the relationship between the prime minister and the foreign minister has been complex, but the Foreign Ministry’s status has never reached the nadir it fell to under the outgoing government.
Diplomacy isn’t cocktail parties, it’s a profession. Diplomacy also means knowing how to navigate correctly so that things don’t deteriorate to the point that the Israeli Knesset is boycotted by the president of the United States. A new foreign minister should be appointed who can lead the Foreign Ministry toward the goals for which it was created: to cultivate and develop Israel’s ties with the peoples of the world.
Nowadays interpersonal relations between leaders are crucial. To once again choose Lieberman, who is not accepted in most of the world’s important capitals because of his defiant statements, doesn’t serve Israel’s interests. Both defiance and obsequiousness have led to the unfortunate situation facing the Israeli Knesset today.
The writer is a former chief of protocol at the Foreign Ministry.