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Netanyahu’s diplomatic debacle

The PM continues to systematically dismantle the Foreign service and imperil Israel's global standing

It is now official: Benjamin Netanyahu seems determined to complete the task of dismembering Israel’s venerable Foreign Service which he began when he resumed office in 2009. His latest appointments to key diplomatic posts (most notably Fiamma Nirenstein to Rome and Danny Danon to the United Nations) are but the last in a series of moves that have stripped the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of many of its functions and marginalized the potential contribution of its top professionals. In a global environment largely inimical to Israeli policies, such self-inflicted blows are nothing short of masochistic. They necessarily render Israel’s already fragile international position even more precarious and further expedite its growing isolation.

Israel currently has diplomatic relations with 159 countries (four countries severed diplomatic relations since 2009 and the last trade office in the Gulf was closed in that year). It maintains 78 resident embassies, many of which service more than one country (relations with some other states are maintained by a series of roving ambassadors stationed in Jerusalem), as well as 5 permanent missions (to the United Nations in New York, to UN institutions in Geneva, Paris and Vienna, and to the European Union in Brussels). When Israel’s 22 consulates general (10 in the United States alone) are added to the mix, today it supports 105 diplomatic missions abroad (according to the 2015-2016 budget, 5 of these are slated to be closed in the coming year). Thus, quantitatively, Israel retains a diplomatic presence in only 31.5% of the 193 member states of the United Nations, hardly an impressive number given the centrality of its external relations both to its economic viability and to its very legitimacy.

These sobering figures make the smooth functioning of Israel’s diplomatic corps particularly important at this tenuous juncture. But the Prime Minister, who should know better (he owes his own meteoric political ascent to his early diplomatic success as Israeli ambassador to the United Nations), seems bent on emasculating his own emissaries. During the past six years, he has systematically taken apart the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, first by denuding it of many of its tasks and then by expropriating its key positions.

Since the days of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett, there has always been friction between the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs over the best way to conduct Israel’s foreign relations. Until recently, this ongoing tug-of-war (by no means unique to Israel), while often bypassing formal channels, did not so purposefully try to undermine either the range or the scope of the activities of Israel’s Foreign Service.

For the past six years, key functions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been systematically parceled out to other authorities. This process peaked following the 2015 elections as at least five ministers (excluding the Prime Minister) have assumed responsibility for various aspects of Israel’s foreign affairs. These include Minister of Transportation Israel Katz, who also holds the Intelligence portfolio; Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, who oversees the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and allied nuclear matters; Minister of Internal Security Gilad Erdan, who heads the Ministry of Information (hasbara) and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs; Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who supervises relations with the diaspora (now with an expanded budget of close to NIS 200 million); and Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, who oversees negotiations with the Palestinians and is responsible for the strategic dialogue with the United States. This number can be expanded if Minister of Immigration and Absorption Zeev Elkin (who is in charge of Jerusalem affairs) and Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon (who controls all overseas military trade and cooperation) are added to the mix. In effect then, the most pressing issues on Israel’s foreign agenda are beyond the purview of its Foreign Ministry, which, while retaining responsibility for the conduct of Israel’s external affairs, lacks substantial authority to conduct these relations, has been left to contend with ongoing aspects of Israel’s bilateral and multilateral relations without the power to influence their content.

The dispersal of major facets of Israel’s foreign relations has been accompanied by a parallel process of their concentration under the aegis of the Prime Minister, who has been reluctant to appoint a full-time Foreign Minister, retaining the office under his direct control through the appointment of a political surrogate, Tzipi Hotobeli, as Deputy Minister and a personal confidant, Dore Gold, as Director-General (thus effectively decapitating the senior professional echelon from the management of the Ministry). Netanyahu now exercises power over all bodies dealing with Israel’s foreign relations either directly through his position in the Foreign Office or indirectly through his dominance over his ministers.

These structural changes have enabled even further foreign policy monopolization through the manipulation of diplomatic postings. Political appointments to plum diplomatic positions are nothing new: in fact, the practice is institutionalized, with every prime minister receiving eleven such slots to allocate at his discretion. In the past, these were divided among experts (such as Shimon Shamir as the first ambassador to Cairo and Tamar Golan as the maiden envoy to Angola) and political allies (including Matan Vilnai in Beijing or Eliyahu Ben-Elissar in Paris). Binyamin Netanyahu’s past ambassadorial selections generally followed this well-worn, if somewhat debatable, tradition: Carmel Shama-HaCohen was dispatched to the OECD in Paris to satisfy coalition needs; former Settler Council leader Dani Dayan has recently been appointed to Brazil as a payoff to a longtime political ally.

The story of the Prime Minister’s hand-chosen emissaries to Washington is different. Both Michael Oren and Ron Dermer were born and raised in the United States. The former, however, was never close to Netanyahu. Despite the success of his recent memoirs on his tenure in the American capital, he was not privy to the most sensitive details of US-Israel ties, directly overseen by the Prime Minister. The present ambassador, on the other hand, is an intimate political advisor who operates as Netanyahu’s long arm in Washington — a role that, together with his close links to the Republican Party, has rendered him persona non grata in the current administration.

The decision to send Fiamma Nirenstein, a former MP of Silvio Berlusconi’s party who has resided in Israel for barely two years and scarcely twelve months ago lost her bid to head the Jewish community of Italy, follows this same trajectory. To put it mildly, her appointment has raised eyebrows in political circles in Rome, who fail to understand how a former politician in what is now an opposition party can cement relations with the current government. It is also fomenting immense discomfort in Jewish circles, already concerned with charges of dual loyalty.

Even more perplexing is the announcement that Minister of Science, Technology and Space will resign to take on the UN post being vacated by career diplomat Ron Prosor. Although Danny Danon’s departure to New York frees up a place in the government and relieves Netanyahu of the pressures he exerted as chair of the Likud Central Committee, his removal from the local political scene cannot possibly outweigh the damage wrought by the designation of an inexperienced ambassador (who is a vocal opponent of Palestinian statehood, an outspoken hawk on regional issues and an outspoken critic of President Obama) to the most sensitive diplomatic position in the global arena. No resort to cynical political considerations can explain this choice; nor can reference to outstanding political debts justify the cost to Israel’s already waning international stature.

Mr. Netanyahu’s decision on this, as on other foreign policy issues is best understood as part of a growing propensity to assert on virtually every conceivable front that he, and only he, knows what’s best for Israel and its future. The combination of traits that has allowed him to arrogantly defy a serving American president in his own backyard is the same that is also pushing him to confront a wary world community on its home ground.

The Netanyahu syndrome, made up of a combination of high doses of self-assurance and obstinacy coupled with disdain for most professional and political cohorts, is ultimately self-defeating. Diplomacy, the art of maintaining good relations with other countries despite disagreements, cannot be thrown to the wind with such abandon. Israel’s own Foreign Service — weakened, belittled, and now deeply embroiled in yet another labor dispute — is downgraded precisely when it is most needed. Israel’s limited external maneuverability is further constrained as the Prime Minister’s defiance of international concerns and conventions persists unabated. If left unchecked, Israel’s place in the community of nations is being put at risk by its own elected leadership.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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