Not Expendable: Just Let Israel's Diplomats Do Their Job

The Foreign Ministry is a critical player in tackling Israel’s strategic challenges; so why is it constantly underfunded, bypassed and belittled?

Yiftah Curiel
Yiftah Curiel
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Striking workers at the entrance to the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem, March 24, 2014.
Striking workers at the entrance to the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Jerusalem, March 24, 2014.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yiftah Curiel
Yiftah Curiel

Much has been written over the past few weeks on the hardships faced by Israel's diplomats, whose life and work in an often inhospitable international climate is a professional challenge and often a personal financial disaster. The current strike stems from a long-standing labor dispute over cost-of-living adjustments abroad (which have not been updated in a decade), pensions (which are calculated according to a skewed "shadow salary"), loss of career of spouses, and taxation issues. However, the situation should also be examined in a broader context, one that reflects the current standing of the Foreign Ministry.

Israeli common wisdom has it that we should invest in our defense establishment in order to tackle our most critical strategic challenges, as indeed was the case for many years. Today that paradigm has changed and the central role of the FM in looking after Israel's national security interests is plainly obvious.

Often our work is carried out behind the scenes, aimed at preventing potentially hazardous outcomes; some of our goals are inherently long-term and require years of accumulative efforts to yield fruit; meanwhile, we regularly provide unique intelligence outputs. Take a diplomat working as a spokesperson: In a given work-week he or she may brief numerous journalists, publish opinion pieces and obtain corrections that will in turn prevent the damaging headline that you will not have read. These activities bear many parallels to the work of Israel’s defense establishment, yet the similarity ends abruptly when it comes to budgets, wages and recognition.

The aims of the FM budget for 2013-2014 as they appear on the Ministry of Finance website reveal an ambitious mission: Formulating and executing Israel's foreign policy, promoting its strategic interests abroad, including economic, trade, culture, foreign aid, world Jewry, as well as tending to Israelis' consular needs. This year's budget also takes into account new challenges which include threats and opportunities in Syria, the peace process "going international", as well as strengthening ties with communities in the United States. The budget incorporates the need to ratchet up security for Israel's 103 missions across the world due to increased threats. But can all of this be achieved at current spending levels?

The FM's overall budget, at NIS 1.64 billion ($469 million), is just a fifth of what most OECD countries spend on their foreign services, with Japan, Italy and Spain each allocating an average of 1.7 billion Euros ($2.3 billion), not including foreign aid.

Numbers aside, the most convincing evidence of the insufficient allocation of resources can be found in the frenzy of activity by other players within the Israeli system that are investing in the diplomatic arena. From the Israel Defense Forces, to the Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Ministry, to the now defunct Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry (whose responsibilities have been scattered among various ministries), all are working within the FM's spectrum of activity, and have been allocated generous budgets in order to carry out work that falls under the FM's mission and which it is better equipped to handle.

Diplomats are uniquely positioned to carry out their jobs, and have been throughout history. In ancient Greece, a city-state would send an Ambassador, known as a Theoros, to a neighboring city-state, in order to learn its ways and enrich his home city. The mission of the Theoros would be to immerse himself in the customs of his neighbors to such an extent, that he should return "as a stranger to his own kind", and thus be in a position to impart the knowledge he has attained for the benefit of those who sent him.

It is this immersion that is the core of diplomacy, and that is why diplomats, in Israel and elsewhere, are not interchangeable, not with soldiers nor with any other public servants working from their home countries. That is why despite enormous advances in technology and communications and travel, countries maintain embassies and diplomats and foreign services that can provide them with qualitative assessments and intelligence, and advance their interests abroad.

Israel needs a strong foreign service, one that can attract qualified, motivated individuals and provide incentives for them to stay, because diplomacy is a profession that thrives on personal experience, long-time friendships and shared agendas. Anyone who tells you otherwise has never served abroad and is working off a computer screen somewhere in Jerusalem.

Yiftah Curiel is a career diplomat with the Foreign Ministry. He is currently the Spokesperson of Israel's embassy in London.

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