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Investing in a Diplomatic Iron dome

The foreign ministry’s dysmal pay and teeny budget are no way to shore up support for the next international crisis

Western democracies have understood for a long time that a modern state’s national security is a complex construct that rests on (at least) three pillars: military, diplomatic and economic. None of these three pillars by itself is enough to provide a country with its necessary security or national strength. National strength needs to be a rational combination of all three elements, especially in the case of Israel, a country that finds itself under constant threat for the past decades. The weakness of one of these three pillars will seriously damage a nation’s national security. This is why there is a permanent place for the Ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs and the Treasury on the National Security Councils of the United States, France, Britain and many other countries. In the modern global system, no country is an isolated island, and a state’s strength and resilience cannot be guaranteed without a complex system of international relations and without taking pro-active action in the political-diplomatic arena of foreign policy.

Although Israel’s objectives in Operation Pillar of Defense might be debatable as a matter of legitimate public discussion, the operation nevertheless ended with Israel achieving its declared objectives. The fact of the matter is that the IDF operated with no limitations and without the international community’s pressure to curtail its activities. On the contrary – there were declarations of support from numerous world leaders and states. By the end of the operation, Foreign Minister Liberman congratulated Israel’s diplomats for our successes in the international arena, which facilitated Israel’s overall success in the operation. The government and the prime minister were all proud of the fact that the world “understands us” and “accepts our reasons,” with all agreeing that the international support enabled the government to pursue the Operation as planned.

This reminds me of the old joke about the Tel Aviv driver desperately looking for a parking spot. After half an hour of driving around the block, he pleads to God: “If you find me a spot within the next thirty seconds, I promise to go to synagogue every Shabbat and keep kosher at home.” Suddenly, a parking spot is freed right in front of him. The driver looks up at the sky and says: “Nevermind God, I managed fine by myself.”

It seems that whenever international support is needed, when Israel needs a positive public opinion abroad, when we need massive recruitment of world leaders to support Israel’s positions and her right to self-defense, the foreign ministry is put on the alert and becomes the tip of Israel’s proverbial spear. Hundreds of foreign ministry diplomats work day and night, briefing, advocating, explaining, interviewing, debating, recruiting support, using every conceivable tool of the internet and social media, convincing the world to stand with Israel. But then, when the world’s support is given to us, the nation’s leaders are quick to forget how support was acquired, taking it for granted rather than crediting the sweat and effort of hundreds of professional diplomats working on a shoestring budget.

The diplomatic pillar of our national security is not something to be ignored, nor is it bought with pocket change.

By the way: American funding for and cooperation in the development of “Iron Dome,” as well as US funding and joint research which brought us the “Arrow” missile system and other defensive weapons, were secured thanks to Israeli diplomats serving at our US embassy and consulates. It is time that the government and people of Israel recognized that without a “Diplomatic Iron Dome,” we wouldn’t have an “Iron Dome” and we would not be in a situation in which we receive the overwhelming international support that we received during “Pillar of Defense.” It is easy to blame Israel’s PR (hasbara) when we look bad internationally. But it seems to be very hard to recognize the value of hasbara and its importance when the world stands with us. Let us not forget that the operation in Gaza may be over, but there are other diplomatic battles yet to be fought: the Palestinian campaign for recognition in international forums and housing construction in E1, to name but two recent battles.

Israeli Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Israel has a “lean” foreign ministry by any standard. It staffs a few hundred dedicated employees who supply a vital component of Israel’s national security, while most of them live on ridiculously low salaries that force the best of them to seek employment outside government and in the private sector, just to make ends meet. The State of Israel ends up losing.

Here is an example of Israel’s lean diplomatic service: a diplomat, graduate of the prestigious Diplomatic Cadet Course with one or two university degrees under her or his belt, who may speak three or four languages, after ten years in the foreign service, will be making a base salary of 6,000 Shekels. That same diplomat, after twenty years in the service, will be making a base salary of 9,800 shekels, or about $2,600. This is not a typo error. This is what the State of Israel pays to those who represent her. This is similar to the average starting salary of an engineering specialist (not an engineer).

The foreign ministry’s operating budget is similarly ridiculous. For all its activities in over a hundred embassies across the globe, the budget is smaller than that of dairy producer Tnuva’s advertising budget.

With an investment of a small fraction of the cost of reinforcing “Iron Dome,” we must also strengthen the “Diplomatic Iron Dome,” double the foreign ministry’s budget and raise diplomats’ salary immediately, lest we find ourselves in the next war without this element which is so crucial to our national security.


About the Author
Ofer Bavly was a diplomat with the Israeli Foreign Service from 1991 to 2014, serving in Israel's Embassies in Madrid and Rome. He was Policy Advisor to two Foreign Ministers and was Israel's Consul General to Florida and Puerto Rico. He currently heads the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Chicago / Jewish United Fund