Upgrading the Foreign Ministry

Israel's Foreign Ministry suffers from an image of being the class weakling.

Israel's Foreign Ministry suffers from an image of being the class weakling. Generations of foreign ministers, directors-general, ambassadors and officials have always envied the clout of the defense establishment, repeatedly arguing that the foreign service is not partner to the formulation of policy and functions only as a public relations office. As a result, when a crisis breaks, political considerations and diplomatic solutions take a back seat to shellings, targeted killings and intelligence operations.

The reasons for the weakness of Israel's diplomatic arm are numerous.

Some are political in nature: From the days of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, and through to the present, Israel's foreign ministers have been the political rivals of the prime ministers under whom they served. They were punished by being distanced from the ability to wield any influence.

Some are organizational: There are many very capable people at the Foreign Ministry, but the administrative framework is weak and has a hard time supporting them. As a result, brilliant individuals are writing papers that nobody reads.

Over the past decade, several directors-general have tried to implement reforms at the ministry, but to no avail. Some two weeks ago, the state comptroller published a harsh report about the appointment of employees at the Foreign Ministry. According to the report, the ministry's staff is being inflated with administrative personnel and suffers from a shortage of professional diplomats, ministers wield too much political influence when it comes to the appointment of employees, and the promotion and posting system is a primitive one.

The heads of the Foreign Ministry and the state comptroller agree that there is a problem, but the solutions they proposed were of little value because they focused on petty bureaucratic issues - changes in the composition of the appointments committee, the replacement of the employee-evaluation forms, the formulation of new procedures. They dared not to venture beyond the present framework, which regards the ministry as similar to any other government ministry.

If the Foreign Ministry wants to wield as much influence as the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and, to some extent, the army, it must be run like these organizations. The first step should be "The Foreign Service Law," which would afford unique statutory status to the arm that represents Israel all over the world, and create a distinction between it and the "regular" ministries. Organizational expression of this would come in the form of the appointment of the ministry's director-general for a term of four or five years, as is the case with the chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet.

As things stand today, the director-general fills "a position of trust," like that of the minister's driver and secretary, and the minister is free to amend his duties at any given moment. As a result, the past six years have seen six different directors-general at the Foreign Ministry. For the sake of comparison, during the same period, there have been only two heads of the Mossad, two Shin Bet chiefs, three chiefs of staff and three heads of Military Intelligence.

With this rate of replacement at the Foreign Ministry, the director-general cannot plan anything, and the employees do not take him seriously. If his decisions are not to their fancy, all it takes is a little foot-dragging - and, there we go, a new director-general takes over, and tosses his predecessor's ideas into the trash can.

Fixing the term of the director-general of the Foreign Ministry would upgrade his status from that of the minister's adjutant to that of Israel's No. 1 diplomat - just as the chief of staff is the No. 1 soldier and the head of the Mossad is the chief spy. This would lead to a decline in the foreign ministers' political clout when it comes to the running of the ministry, and the directors-general would be free to deal with determining policy, and providing guidance and supervision. Ambassadorial postings and appointments for senior employees would be agreed upon between the director-general and the minister, just as the chief of staff appoints senior officers with the consent of the defense minister.

The change proposed here could provide the foreign service with the professional clout it lacks, and would afford it a status similar to that of the security forces and intelligence community. The idea is a simple one to implement, and does not involve complex organizational procedures. But to carry it out requires political courage on the part of the foreign minister, who would have to agree to relinquish some of his power in the short term so as to strengthen his ministry in the long term. Is Tzipi Livni blessed with this courage?