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Striking diplomats and that giant sucking sound

That's the sound of all the painstaking efforts by Israel's soon-to-be gutted foreign service going down the drain

Israel’s foreign service is in crisis and nobody seems to care.

As we’ve seen over many months now, parts of Israel’s government seem perfectly content with hanging our foreign ministry out to dry, safe in the belief that the country can advance whatever international agendas it wishes through other means. Meanwhile, the Israeli public remains largely unaware or indifferent to our strike. It seems that Israel’s diplomats affect the lives of far fewer Israelis than we, the diplomats, may have thought or believed.

But is this perception of irrelevance a true reflection of the reality of Israel’s diplomatic circumstances? Or is it a dangerous delusion that may yet exact a price that the country cannot pay?

Through the decades, the unsung heroes of Israel’s diplomatic corps have secured agreements, scuppered hostile initiatives, created diplomatic and economic opportunities, and built partnerships and alliances each of which has made a concrete contribution to our country’s standing and its ability to bring security and prosperity to its citizens.

The impact of diplomacy is often difficult to measure, but let’s take the last fifteen years as an example. Try to imagine what Israel’s international standing, security and economy would look like today were it not for the work of our diplomats in handling the international and public diplomacy surrounding the Camp David peace talks of 2000, the so-called Second Intifada, the disengagement process, the Second Lebanon War, Operations Cast Lead and Pillar of Cloud, the incendiary Goldstone Report, the Gilad Schalit saga, the Mavi Marmara incident, the Brand Israel campaign, the accession of Israel to the OECD and to CERN, the multiple renewals of Israel’s membership of the EU’s multi-billion-dollar Research and Development framework, the P5+1 process vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear program, countless trade deals and delegations from around the world, the international designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the international isolation of Hamas, the Palestinians’ 2011 failed Unilateral Declaration of Independence attempt at the UN, the parrying of hostile cases at the International Court of Justice, the constant nurturing and updating of our partnership with the Jewish communities of the world, the outreach to new partners in Asia, Central Asia and Africa, and more.

Of course there is no doubt that many of Israel’s international achievements are not the foreign ministry’s alone. National leaders, other ministries and agencies and local partners, often from amongst our Jewish brethren, all make real contributions. But it is no less true that none of these achievements (and so many more) could ever have been secured without the global and local leadership, access, influence and impact that only a dedicated and skilled professional foreign service can provide.

But don’t take my word for it. Look at all the other countries around the world. That’s right, all the other ones surrounded by hostility and potential nuclear aggression, subjected to ongoing terror and assaults on their reputation, incessant UN censure and active attempts to deny them the space and legitimacy to defend themselves from attack. Those countries continue to invest in their foreign services. But we in Israel? Nah, we don’t need to. We’re good. We’ve got the ten (or is it fifteen?) dedicated employees of the Ministry for Strategic Affairs.

Seriously. There is no country in the world that needs a strong foreign service more than Israel.

Diplomacy doesn’t get the headlines and certainly – I speak from experience – isn’t sexy, at least not in the Israeli imagination, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary. We’re a bit like the plumbers – called in when there’s a crisis (often a mess created by someone else) but otherwise out of sight and out of mind, even as they continue day in day out behind the scenes to build and connect the piping and sewers and dams and reservoirs that ensure the unnoticed yet irreplaceable flow of water through people’s daily lives.

For our small country it’s the international arena that provides much of that water, and it’s a complex place. Quite aside from all the hostility and confrontation that is uniquely Israel’s international lot, it’s a competitive world out there. You need to know people, know where the levers are, nurture relationships with officialdom as well as key civic and public opinion leaders, build common cause with influential agencies and NGOs, engage in constant promotion not only of your political positions but also of your economic and technological relevance, and build coalitions and concrete frameworks to advance important agendas. If you’re not deployed on the ground, you’re not in the game.

Looking back, the world would be a far less benign and, indeed, more dangerous place for Israel than any of us would like, if it were not for the efforts of our diplomatic service. But looking forward, this is exactly the kind of world that is potentially staring us in the face if the hollowing out of our diplomatic service continues.

Israel’s foreign service today is disillusioned, frustrated, bitter and disoriented.

The real fear, if the current crisis is not resolved and work conditions restored to a fair and reasonable level, is that our diplomatic corps will in a very few short years become a mere shell, void of talented or capable people, who – quite reasonably – will seek to fulfill their desire to serve through other avenues. While the foreign service will no doubt continue to exist in name and form, Israel’s ability to stymie and preempt negative international developments and its ability to identify and realize the potential of positive ones, will greatly erode, to the detriment of us all.

Whether the public is interested or not, the equation is simple: If Israel’s diplomats can’t make ends meet, then Israel won’t be able to make its international ends meet. Maybe today, on the surface, things will still seem to be OK. But in the long run, the damage will be irreparable.

The fate of Israel’s foreign service – and, by extension, the fate of Israel’s crucial ability to impact effectively on the world around us in the years to come – hangs today in the balance. Of course, the finance ministry (and the public) can ignore the health warnings and continue smoking the cigarettes of hubris and myopia. But it won’t help to come looking for us diplomats when the international cancer hits. If the foreign service isn’t saved now, there may not be any of us left.

About the Author
DJ Schneeweiss, a career diplomat, currently serves as Israel's Consul General to Toronto and Western Canada