A ruckus has ensued recently regarding Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and foreign policy in general. Contrary to most critical voices floating around, these developments are actually signs of recuperation, finally.
Traditionally, in Israel, it is said that diplomatic forces have always suffered operationally and bureaucratically. In other words, running the public relations of the nation has been a difficult task in the international arena, which tends to be hostile to say the least, but also from within the system as this fundamental government office is insufficiently supported and budgeted. Comparatively, the Ministry of Defense and security forces at large receive foremost attention, leverage and funding. Israel’s policy is seen through the lens of security and diplomacy drags along, as expressed in Ben Gurion’s famously cynical statement “Um Shmum” (roughly translated, the UN is object to ridicule). There is no foreign policy, only security measures.
The MFA was further weakened in the last decade by creating separate government units and offices to deal with matters of foreign policy, namely the Ministry of Public Relations and the Public Diplomacy and Media unit of the Prime Minister’s Office. Are these not meant to be under one enterprise? Perhaps these came to exist so to remove authority and responsibility from the MFA, as well as to produce more political positions to offer.
Lousy administration peaked in the late Netanyahu-Lieberman setup. Netanyahu was obligated to provide Lieberman grand political status in the coalition, so he gave him the Foreign Ministry but then cleverly stripped down the effectiveness and reputation of that establishment. Lieberman, though holding a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and fluent in Russian, still did not strike up a proper diplomatic image and attitude. Israeli diplomats filling the halls of the MFA and embassies around the globe often succumbed to cynicism, as they were not included or heeded but rather ordered around. On top of that, besides professional differences, rumor has it that the diplomatic staff tends to be liberal or leaning toward ‘dove-ish’ policy.
Netanyahu is security-focused and conservative-leaning, but he is no fool in international relations. He entered politics as a public speaker and vocal proponent of the Israeli state and international security. Whether we agree with his political opinion, his approach to security or his tactics, won’t change the fact that he grew out of this field, this discipline; his first major political position was Ambassador to the UN.
Netanyahu caused a fuss when he appointed the young, undiplomatic and inexperienced Tzipi Hotovely as Deputy Foreign Minister, keeping the main role to himself. However, that was not only a political maneuver but a matter of professionalism. The fact that Netanyahu has reserved the Foreign Ministry for himself means it will improve and be taken seriously by the system. He also fired the Director and appointed confidante and professional diplomat Dore Gold, which goes to show how the enterprise is being revised and rebuilt. Evidently, Michael Oren seems to be following Netanyahu’s cue and boldly advocating a similar line of diplomacy, criticizing President Obama’s handling of US-Israeli relations and the Iranian dilemma. Oren was just appointed Chairman of the Subcommittee on Public Diplomacy, and naturally hopes to be in the MFA, if Netanyahu continues to approve of him.
Therefore, my guess is that what we are seeing is not further deterioration but revamping and realignment of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. One must discern between right-wing foreign policy and the quality of handling foreign policy, learning to appreciate the growth in quality despite disagreeing with the political view behind it.