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The secret gutting of Israel’s foreign ministry

Netanyahu has hobbled the country's diplomatic apparatus, outsourcing key functions to actors with no mandate or transparency
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Conference of Israeli ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a Conference of Israeli ambassadors at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2017 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel has no foreign minister. Not a “part-time” foreign minister, not a “de-facto” foreign minister. Simply, no foreign minister.

There are very few countries where the prime minister also fulfills the function of foreign minister. Countries where this happens include the Seychelles, Saint Lucia, Nauru, Fiji and Samoa. What do these examples have in common? They’re all small islands in the middle of the ocean. Israel is not an island, though perhaps the prime minister wants it to be one.

Eight. This is the number of times Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Communications Netanyahu has visited the foreign ministry. In fact, it was five times in the two years since the beginning of his term, and a further three in the past month alone, only after the failure at the UN Security Council vote, and the accompanying deterioration of Israel’s foreign relations.

As recent headlines have revealed, it seems the prime minister has found enough time to invest in other more dubious activities and transactions that directly interest him and his family, but has not found time to manage the affairs of the State of Israel, despite his insistence on holding the foreign affairs portfolio.

When Knesset Member Omer Barlev and I decided to hold a Transparency Committee hearing, in an effort to reveal what is really going on in the Foreign Ministry, the government tried to stop us. Matters are classified, they told us. It requires a closed committee. Without public access. Without cameras.

But in the case of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the cover of darkness has facilitated a systematic and deliberate erosion of Israel’s foreign services and relations. We cannot talk about it. Under the “classified” veil, no one is speaking out, and there is no public debate on one of the most important issues for our future, not just financially, but existentially.

Every Israeli must understand the truth about what is happening here.

What happens in the Foreign Ministry is not just a matter of the number of times the minister visits. It’s about an entire system; the Foreign Ministry is no longer in charge of Israel’s foreign relations.

Not only is there no minister, there is, in fact, no official national foreign policy. With the Foreign Ministry pushed out of the core issues of Israeli foreign affairs, the government has no direction and no strategy.

In a secret decision that was never brought to the public’s attention, the prime minister decided to erode the powers of the foreign office, scattering them among a host of other offices and agencies that do not communicate with one another or even share each other’s goals. He also gave plenty of power to his confidant, attorney Yitzhak Molcho, who works with Bibi’s cousin, attorney David Shimron.

Molcho, a personal appointment made at the prime minister’s discretion, deals with a substantial part of Israel’s relations around the world, with no public accountability. This is a man about which Foreign Ministry officials told us at the Transparency Committee, “We are not aware or informed of his operations.”

To understand just how grave this situation is, look at the past year:

The surprise result of a vote of the UN Security Council followed by Netanyahu’s panicked reaction to it, which included boycotts, insults and threats to allies.

Statements by senior government ministers, sharply attacking and insulting representatives of countries with which Israel has crucial and longstanding strategic alliances.

Government ministers presenting plans for annexation or transfer of citizens, that stand in stark contrast to Israel’s official position and present us to the world as extremely unreliable, and fuel the BDS battle waged by Palestinian organizations against Israel.

So too in the case of the public support shown by certain Israeli ministers and officials to extreme right and downright anti-Semitic foreign politicians, only to promote their narrow political agenda here. So what if it weakens our struggle against anti-Semitism, and that of Jewish organizations worldwide.

The same goes for turning the whole state of Israel into an increasingly partisan issue within the United States and Europe.

These matters have serious implications for Israel’s security cooperation and intelligence operations, our economic partnerships, our budget and security assistance, and more.

These issues can’t simply be ignored. In fact it will be impossible to solve them without serious thought and a clear strategy. The government never ceases to argue that Israel has no problem with policy, only diplomacy, yet it is continually stifling the specific body that should take the lead on both.

I recently held a Knesset Transparency Committee hearing during which we discovered that this year’s budget for all projects and activities of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs comes to 80 million shekels. Just to understand the proportions, 80 million is the same amount that MKs David Bitan and Mickey Zohar of the Likud party recently received in Finance Committee backroom deals at two in the morning as a “prize” for approving the state budget. Apparently, the sum the government coughed up in order to stifle two coalition MKs is worth all the efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Here are some other sad comparisons: Our United Nations mission consists of six diplomats — compared to 600 Arab League diplomats. In the past year, Israel withdrew four embassies and consulates, instead of opening new ones. We have fewer representatives than the Palestinian Authority. And our ambassador to the United Nations is a political appointment who, according to the press, opts to use his budget to conduct conferences for Likud activists and buy himself favourable press articles.

Foreign Ministry employees, the people who have chosen to dedicate their lives to maintaining Israel’s strategic relations around the world, are in a bind. They understand the deliberate moves the prime minister is making, and are torn between their duty to represent the position of the government, and their loyalty to the public interest, for which they entered the system. This is an impossible situation.

Hanan Goder, who chairs the Foreign Ministry workers union said in the hearing that “the D9 [bulldozer] hit the Foreign Ministry. We have reached breaking point and utter dysfunction.” Even Dore Gold, Netanyahu’s close confidant who was appointed director general of the Foreign Ministry specifically to increase Netanyahu’s control of it, got fed up and quit in frustration at the futility of the government’s foreign policy.

Israel’s foreign relations have deteriorated sharply, leading to severe dangers to our security. We must not hide this from the public. When Netanyahu destroys the institutions of the State of Israel, it does not hurt and offend the “left,” but rather the future of all of us.

We must put this on the table and demand accountability from those who make the decisions on the issues so vital to our future. In the meantime, Israel must have a foreign minister, and a functioning Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Contrary to what Netanyahu would prefer to believe, Israel will never be an island in the middle of the ocean. We are surrounded by security challenges and can assume they will continue for many years. The IDF is the fundamental pillar of our security, but our ongoing security capacity, and ability to cope with future challenges also depend on maintaining our strategic alliances and strong partnerships. Israel needs a strong foreign service that knows how to build and manage a strategy for dealing with the threats we face today, and those that will appear tomorrow. We can not afford to behave like an island in the ocean.

MK Stav Shaffir is Chairperson of the Knesset Transparency Committee.

About the Author
Stav Saffir is a Member of Knesset for the Zionist Union. She is the youngest Knesset Member and rose to prominence during the social justice protests in the summer of 2011.
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