There is much missing in the recent public discourse surrounding Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The actual role of diplomacy in national security has been overlooked and deserves greater attention.
Before addressing the substantive elements of this discourse, two key factors should be emphasized. First, diplomatic achievements are in many instances incremental, shrouded in secrecy and ultimately measured by what is prevented and not by what is overtly declared. At times, significant diplomatic achievements do not see the light of day or reach the public domain.
Second, while diplomacy has undergone profound changes in an era of instant information and greater public access to multiple sources of news and political analysis, classical diplomacy still plays a crucial part in the sensitive strategic challenges on Israel’s national security agenda. Personal relationships based on mutual respect, credibility and trust between professionals remain a vital human component of that classical diplomacy, designed to explore political solutions and provide alternatives to the use of military action. If used wisely, diplomacy can still be an essential political tool that saves lives.
Regarding substance, the critical issue dominating Israel’s diplomatic agenda in recent years has been the efforts to enhance sanctions and exert pressure on Iran to cease and desist from its nuclear program. These efforts for well over a decade to prevent Iran going nuclear have transpired in the diplomatic arena through the most intense web of dialogues and contacts that the Foreign Ministry has developed, nurtured and maintained with all the key international players. This is not a solo effort but one undertaken with the highest level of coordination with other relevant agencies, including the Prime Minister’s Office.
This effort has included countless, frequent and highly sensitive exchanges that so far have enriched our understanding of the issues at hand without finding their way into the press. Hardly a day goes by without several briefings, updates, exchanges and dialogues regarding Iran taking place with senior guests in the ministry's offices in Jerusalem or through our embassies in key capitals.
Often overlooked and forgotten is the fact that Israel actually enjoys an exceptionally positive and productive relationship with many countries on a range of strategic and regional issues. The UN and Palestinian issue are not the only items that impact Israel’s diplomatic agenda.
In addition, intense diplomatic engagement has been undertaken over the past year to sensitize other nations to the dangers of Syria’s considerable chemical weapons capabilities, the leakage of sophisticated conventional weapons supplied to Syria and the need to preserve a stable border regime on the Golan Heights. Once again, hardly a day goes by without several diplomatic exchanges dealing with key issues of the present Syrian crisis, whether in Jerusalem or key foreign capitals. The fact that Israel’s policy with regard to Syria has been accorded a high degree of understanding, support and even a significant lack of criticism in the diplomatic arena might be coincidental – or it just may be because many effective, discreet diplomatic efforts have been undertaken.
Another vital issue on Israel's diplomatic agenda has been the use of diplomacy with regard to counterterrorism in the wake of threats and terror attacks on Israeli targets abroad and the relentless efforts to smuggle weapons to terrorist groups in our area. Terrorism is not only fought with military means – it is also fought with diplomacy. A range of discreet measures are undertaken in the diplomatic arena to counter many different aspects of terror, as part of a concerted effort by the international community since 2001. A case in point is the current discussion in Europe whether to include Hezbollah on the European list of terrorist organizations in the wake of heightened terror attacks and activity in Europe.
Israeli diplomacy has actually been at the front line of combatting terror, and also, unfortunately, at the front line when being struck by terror. When people minimize the role of Israel’s diplomats in contributing to its national security, they would do well to come and visit the ministry’s memorial wall that records the names of colleagues and diplomats who were killed in the line of duty.
In truth, other essential diplomatic efforts can be cited were it not for their sensitivity. Suffice it to say that Israel has been confronted in recent years with ongoing concerted and relentless attempts in multilateral organizations to enhance the Palestinians’ membership status, to isolate and delegitimize Israel politically and morally and also single out Israel for criticism regarding its national security policy and posture. Many of these efforts have been rebuffed, modified, prevented and even at times defeated by virtue of major diplomatic efforts undertaken by Israeli diplomats against sometimes daunting odds.
There are also major achievements that are forgotten or sometimes assumed by others as soon as they come to fruition. I personally remember the operation more than 20 years ago that culminated in a massive airlift to Israel of Ethiopian Jews and the Foreign Ministry's critical role in making that operation possible. I also remember two years ago when another flotilla to Gaza did not happen as a result of a major preventative diplomatic action carried out discreetly, under the public radar.
As someone who served two tours of duty in Washington, I would also suggest not to underestimate the major importance of our embassy's professional diplomats and their role in maintaining the bilateral relationship with the U.S. administration, Congress and other crucial players in the American capital. This is particularly relevant in a year when we have seen record levels of security assistance, including the continued essential funding for the Iron Dome system. The U.S.- Israel strategic relationship is clearly managed at the most senior political level on both sides, but it also requires extensive day-to-day diplomatic maintenance regarding the entire spectrum of issues on our bilateral agenda.
While some are hasty to discount the Foreign Ministry's contribution to Israel’s national security and strategic standing in the region – maybe they would do better to pause and perceive a more balanced and accurate picture. Providing Israel’s foreign service the support, tools and resources needed to face the considerable diplomatic challenges abroad is not only recognition of Israel's diplomats who work against considerable odds to secure and enhance foreign relations, it also significantly helps ensure Israel’s national security.
Ambassador Jeremy Issacharoff is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Deputy Director General for Strategic Affairs.