Farewell from Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi

On the day of elections for the next government I would like to write about a leader who is not running for office and that I did not share his political choices. The leaders of the “Blue and White” party including Ashkenazi earned the widespread criticism of their political conduct. Nonetheless, I wish to take this opportunity to thank Gabi Ashkenazi for his performance as Foreign Minister, of which the public is unaware.

Recent faulty incidents in Israel’s crucial relations with Jordan and the UAE due to attempts by Prime Minister Netanyahu to utilize them for his personal political goals are highlighting the totally opposite manner in which Lieutenant General Ashkenazi behaved in his short term as Foreign Minister.

Most of his predecessors viewed the Foreign Ministry as a political stepping stone to the premiership, devoting few managerial resources to bolster the ministry’s impact and standing. Ashkenazi took the position very seriously, despite his very brief stint in office.

I have long believed that the Foreign Ministry required a leader groomed by the military in order to infuse the organization with a “fighting spirit”, bolster its staff’s eroded confidence and assertiveness, and hone professional practices. By the same token, I believe the Defense Ministry would benefit from having a civilian rather than an ex-general at its helm in order to ensure that the IDF serves overall national security policy, which is not only military in essence.

Indeed, Ashkenazi related to the Foreign Ministry as he did to the military units he commanded. He demanded uncompromising professionalism and integrated professional processes eroded over time by the staff’s sense of exclusion from national decision making. He restored the public servants of the MFA belief in the value of their professionalism, both in executing policy and in decision making, and urged them to translate their unique understanding of the global and bilateral arenas into effective influence.

In terms of policy, Ashkenazi deserves significant credit for making the US administration realize that normalization with Arab states was preferable to annexation, contrary to the political interests advanced by Netanyahu and Trump.

Ashkenazi understood how critical is Jordan to the national security interests of Israel and how harmful was the luck of trust between Netanyahu and King Abdalla. He was able to renew the diplomatic working relations in an impressive way.

Ashkenazi rehabilitated the ministry’s relationship with the European Union, which Netanyahu had used as a “punching bag” for years despite the strategic importance of the Brussels institutions for the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the Israel public is not privy to the superlatives I hear from European diplomats about Ashkenazi and the Foreign Ministry under his leadership.

Despite the Prime Minister’s efforts to dwarf the Foreign Ministry and deploy the Mossad for “sexy” foreign policy tasks, Ashkenazi opted for a highly professional but low-key approach in contrast to the PR approach favored by the state’s top spy. For years, Israel’s defense agencies tended to sideline the Foreign Ministry, accusing it of leaks. Having been myself a victim of such a leak, I know that leaks generally emanate from the political rather than the professional echelons.

This was particularly obvious when news emerged of Netanyahu’s secret meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince, in which the Foreign Ministry was not involved. The leak caused significant damage to our burgeoning relations with the Saudis. The Mossad director also met with the outgoing US Secretary of State, excluding the Foreign Minister and breaching accepted practice. The closed-door meeting served the Prime Minister’s intention of showing who is in charge of Israeli foreign policy and was therefore leaked to a Politico reporter.

When Ashkenazi took office, I wrote him a public letter urging him not to treat the post as a temporary stopover on his way to the Defense Ministry following the Gantz-Netanyahu rotation. I argued that the Foreign Ministry poses a far more significant challenge to Israel’s national security given that the state’s defense posture is well established whereas the answer to most of our challenges lies in the diplomatic arena. I do not delude myself into thinking that Ashkenazi read my advice and acted on it. He performed as he did because he is a serious man and should be given full credit for his work, although he did not seek it.

Ashkenazi faces many challenges before he has to vacate the Foreign Minister’s perch. One of the more significant is convincing the government to learn from the mistakes of its adversarial relationship with the Obama Administration in order to ensure a seat at the table once the Biden Administration launches its international effort to improve the Iran nuclear deal.

Yet another challenge he faces is preventing the dangerous process of creeping, de facto annexation in the West Bank before the Biden Administration completes its foreign policy appointments and get organized. Creating such facts on the ground undermines efforts to preserve the option of the two-state solution that is in Israel’s best interests. For my colleagues at the Foreign Ministry, the next challenge will be maintaining Ashkenazi’s proactive spirit once the next minister is appointed.

Given the current era in which government ministers ignore government professionals, as illustrated daily by Finance Minister Katz, former Justice Minister and serving Public Security Minister Ohana and Education Minister Galant, Ashkenazi’s conduct is a breath of fresh air. I hope he has an opportunity to return to foreign policy service despite his party’s political mistakes.

Israel is crying out for political leadership able to create synergy between elected representatives and professional civil servants in a manner that places the state’s long-term policy goals ahead of their personal and political interests. Thank you, Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, for your contribution.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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