Wanted, a Foreign Minister for Israel

Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so isolated that he is unable to find someone he can trust to carry out his policies as foreign minister?

Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second from right, at the cabinet meeting on July 5, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second from right, at the cabinet meeting on July 5, 2015. Credit: Emil Salman
Shlomo Avineri
Shlomo Avineri

Finally the Messiah has come to Zion: Yaakov Litzman will be a real minister, instead of a deputy minister with the status of minister. I think he will be a successful health minister – but in Chelm, the city of the wise men, things were managed better.

On the other hand, we should praise the fact that after decades of refusal and hesitation, the Degel Hatorah party, the successor to the anti-Zionist Agudat Yisrael (which was founded at the time as an anti-Zionist movement), has agreed that one of its members will be – God forbid – a minister in the government of the Jewish state, and in doing so the party will no longer make do with just receiving financial resources from the taxpayers. It is clear that the High Court of Justice decision clarified the issue to Degel Hatorah that it is impossible to have your cake and eat it too. And hats off to the party’s Council of Torah Sages for their common sense: To lose out on enormous sums of money because of Talmudic hairsplitting over the difference between a “deputy minister with the status of minister” and “minister”? Who knows, maybe someday they will even celebrate Independence Day in the Haredi school system, and maybe (though I’m clearly fantasizing here) will even sing the national anthem “Hatikva.”

But it is better not to get too carried away, even if this absurd distortion has been corrected – the present government is still suffering from quite a number of anomalies that would never have been allowed to happen in any normal country.

There are 20 ministers serving in the present government, in addition to the prime minister, because in order to put together a coalition based on a one-vote majority of 61 Knesset members, there was a need to change the Basic Law on the Government overnight so as to allow expanding the cabinet from 18 to 20 members. And now, despite the bounty of ministers, there are still no full-time ministers in two of the most important ministries: no full-time foreign minister and no full-time communications minister.

The reasons for this are complicated and well-known, but the person who heads this government seems to think that Israel can at this time actually be run without a full-time foreign minister. Large portions of the responsibilities the Foreign Ministry is entrusted with in a normal country have been transferred to other ministers, as a sort-of appendix to their main jobs. The Intelligence and Atomic Energy Ministry was appended to the Transportation Ministry, the Strategic Affairs Ministry was annexed by the Public Security Ministry, and Education Minister Naftali Bennett – who is responsible for the most important and precious human resource in the country – is also responsible for Diaspora Affairs, without doubt a matter of great importance for the nation state of the Jewish people. There may be other such appendices – I seem to remember that some other minister is responsible for public diplomacy (hasbara).

It is clear that most citizens are not well versed in this excess of mini-foreign ministries, which are eating away at the functioning of the real Foreign Ministry itself – and it is doubtful whether those now entrusted with these impressive new roles and titles have the tools and knowledge to handle the new responsibilities they have been given.

One might think that these are only ceremonial honors, such as being called up for the Torah reading in the synagogue, and not the management of the nation – and not one that is in such a complicated situation. In the best case, they will formulate more “position papers” that will be circulated between the various ministries, hold “coordination meetings,” fill more jobs for experts and “our people,” but the quality of the government’s functioning will not improve. In fact, quite the opposite.

Similarly, in the Communications Ministry, where Netanyahu is keeping the portfolio in his own hands since he is interested in regulating the reforms at the Israel Broadcasting Authority – a matter that requires a separate discussion. But the Communications Ministry is also responsible for the postal services. Is the prime minister aware of the brutal ways the Israel Post company is eliminating the basic postal services, which is the justification for which it exists, and abuses millions of citizens whose right to basic postal services is being denied? One should not be surprised if it turns out that Netanyahu is simply not aware of what is going on in this area under his purview and the deterioration of the country, which is on the front line of pioneering technological progress, to the level of a third-world country. After all, he has much more important matters to deal with.

Oh, I forgot something else: In this government serves a finance minister who views himself as a socially-responsible minister, but has avoided voting on the issue that will determine the future of the Israeli economy and society for decades – the natural gas framework – because of what is called in polite language a “conflict of interest.” If that is the situation, maybe it would be better to ask if someone who is unable to discuss and decide on such a central issue for the future of the Israeli economy should even be finance minister?

Leadership test

No other democratic nation in the world is run in such an irresponsible and inept manner. During all its years of existence, Israel has never seen such chaos in its government leadership. The excuse of “coalition constraints” simply does not hold water. Most parliamentary democracies in Europe have coalition governments, but they do not have such fundamental irresponsibility. It seems that prime ministers in other countries manage to impose their will and set the rules of the game in a much more successful fashion that Benjamin Netanyahu: It is clear he has failed the leadership test.

Even those who did not vote for Netanyahu are allowed to expect that he will run the government responsibly once he was elected and received the confidence of the Knesset: One may disagree with his policies, but minimal proper management is a requirement from any prime minister. It is possible to understand, since like all previous prime ministers Netanyahu wants to keep the relations (or today it might be better to say “lack of relations”) with the United States in his own hands. But foreign policy is not just managing the relationship with America – it is a complex fabric of broad relations with dozens of nations, and we cannot expect the prime minister, as talented as he may be, to free up the time and be an expert in all the nuances, which require deep attention to detail and understanding of the specific conditions of every single country.

Can Netanyahu not find a single man or woman from his own party close to his heart, who he can trust to carry out his policies and be faithful to his diplomatic strategy? Is he so isolated in his own party that he is unable to find someone he can trust to carry out his policies as foreign minister? Furthermore, to leave the Foreign Ministry orphaned because of the possibility of future additions to the coalition is official irresponsibility. The same applies to the Communications Ministry.

When this government, based on the support of 61 MKs, was established, many people thought it would not last for long (some experts forecast a similar fate for the previous Netanyahu government, and were wrong). I think, to my great regret, that this government will last since none of its components has any interest in losing out on its share of the spoils of power. That is why the patchwork structure that characterizes the present government, which could possibly have been justified during its initial period after it was established, is no longer acceptable and prevents it from carrying out the responsibilities it is required to fulfill by law, and by every minimal understanding of proper management.

The present rickety structure also sends the message to those outside the country of weakness and indecisiveness. One can agree with the policies of the government or not, but in any case it is impossible to accept the unreasonable way it divides up its own responsibilities: an excess of ministers on one hand, and a lack of full-time ministers in central posts on the other. And add to all this an illogical division and dispersal of authority.

It is the civil right of both those who support the prime minister and those who oppose him to demand that he puts an end to this situation. A country cannot function in this fashion, not internally and not externally – and the State of Israel so much more so.

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