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Israel’s real DNA problem

Time to stop smearing the diplomatic corps and start conducting real foreign policy, not just media campaigns

What’s the purpose of Israel’s diplomacy? Given recent shifts in the handling of the country’s external affairs, the answer to this elementary question is no longer as obvious as it may appear. Just this past weekend, Minister of Education Naftali Bennett went so far as to suggest that “…that there is something the matter with the DNA of the Foreign Ministry.” The problem, however, lies not with Israel’s highly professional diplomatic corps, but with those who have systematically run it to the ground — along with any semblance of a reasoned and clear Israeli foreign policy.

The first and overriding objective of any state’s diplomatic outreach is to promote constructive bilateral and multilateral relations in order to advance its interests and reflect its values. This absolutely basic definition, the starting point for virtually every introductory course in international relations, presumes that such ties — along with the membership in the global community that they entail — provide both succor and legitimacy over time. To ensure that these links continue, regardless of changes in governments and in policy orientations, the task of cultivating foreign relations in Israel, as elsewhere, has been placed in the hands of a highly professional foreign service.

Even the most experienced diplomats cannot, however, carry out elementary tasks without some specification of foreign policy goals. In what is nothing short of a murky situation in this regard, Israeli diplomats for years have toiled to open and maintain lines of communication with other countries, even in times of utmost uncertainty. What then, precisely, are they supposed to do when they are in the midst of hosting a multiparty parliamentary mission from Sweden to exchange ideas on gender issues when the Deputy Foreign Minister, Tzipi Hotovely, announces that “Israel will not receive official delegations from Sweden”? Are they to stop accompanying the women MPs, thus sacrificing ongoing relations with representatives of all the main political parties in the country because of disagreements with the current Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstrom? Or should they continue to carry out their professional duties and hopefully contribute to Israel’s long-term relations with this important Scandinavian country?

Some might claim that the line distinguishing foreign policy from government positions is paper thin. For years, successive Israeli governments have labored to prove Henry Kissinger correct when he observed that “Israel has no foreign policy, it only has a domestic policy.” Eleven senior diplomatic slots have traditionally been allotted to political appointees (these have usually gone to individuals close to those in power), thus further tightening the connection between foreign policy and the promotion of the positions of the specific government in office.

Benjamin Netanyahu himself, in his early years, was a beneficiary of just such an appointment, when he proved to be an articulate and capable representative of Israel in Washington and at the United Nations. But some of his own appointments have certainly raised eyebrows, starting with Ron Dermer to the United States and, more recently, Likud minister and internal critic, Danny Danon to the UN.

There is, nevertheless, a great difference between misguided selections and no appointments at all. The sorry example of the failed attempt to dispatch former Settler Council head Dani Dayan to Brazil is a case in point. This political appointment was announced in an amateurish manner, without taking the trouble of previously informing Brazilian officials as is customary in such matters. After months passed without an official agreement from Rio de Janeiro, it is now apparent that no such acceptance will be forthcoming. Netanyahu’s reaction is telling: either accept my appointee or there will no Israeli ambassador to Brazil. A golden rule of diplomacy is that the exchange of representatives cultivates good relations. Israel is not in a position to willfully forego the benefits of an emissary on the ground, especially to a member of the rising BRICS countries, on the eve of the 2016 Olympics.

Just recently, the government went one step further, announcing that for budgetary reasons it will be closing five missions, including consulates in Philadelphia and Marseilles and embassies in El Salvador and Belarus. The roving Israeli ambassador to twenty Caribbean countries, operating out of New York, is to be recalled.

It now seems that the definition of diplomacy has devolved from the articulation of external interests and concerns and, in its absence, the presentation of government policy abroad, to the equation of Israel’s foreign relations with a series of global “hasbara” (information) campaigns. The insertion of “hasbara” as a replacement for long-term diplomatic links undercuts any notion of an Israeli foreign policy and, in the process, totally diminishes the standing of the remnants of the professional Foreign Service.

With no full-time foreign minister and at least six ministries now sharing responsibility for various aspects of what has come to be known as Israeli “public diplomacy,” it is hardly surprising that senior government members have assumed an increasing role in Israeli foreign relations. Without the benefit of experience (and in some cases basic knowledge), they have ventured into foreign waters in ways that, at best, do little harm. At worst, some of their efforts have yielded results that are nothing short of disastrous.

One recent example is the additional strain placed on the fragile US-Israel relationship in the wake of disagreements over the upcoming vote on The NGO Transparency Law, legislation designed to restrict the activities of certain civil society organizations receiving funding from foreign governmental entities. US Ambassador Dan Shapiro’s meeting with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked yielded an extremely rare statement by the American embassy in Tel Aviv, recounting that he: “… reiterated the United States’ view that […] a free and functioning civil society is an essential element of a healthy democracy, and that governments must protect free expression and peaceful dissent and create an atmosphere where all voices can be heard.” In response, Minister Shaked stated that, in her opinion, “Israel is a strong democracy and as such there is no need for other states to intervene in its internal legislation.”

Ayelet Shaked’s rebuke pales in comparison with Naftali Bennett’s sweeping critique of the Foreign Service. He added insult to the already deep injuries wrought to Israeli diplomats by publicly questioning their loyalty. When they protested and threatened not to provide services to Bennett and his staff, Netanyahu came out in their defense. And now the minister of education, who also considers himself an expert in diplomacy, which he defines as making foreign media appearances, has announced that he expects the Prime Minister to back him.

Perhaps Bennett, Shaked and many of their cohorts would do well to remember that it is not the DNA of the foreign service that is a problem; it is the DNA of Israel’s non-existent foreign policy. When Israel voluntarily divests itself of one of its most precious assets, its experienced diplomatic corps, and substitutes political apparatchiks or, even worse, self-styled experts with no training and even less understanding of foreign affairs, it can hardly expect to be taken seriously. When Israel’s interests are confused with government policy, and then reduced to propaganda, its international maneuverability and standing suffer. When everything becomes personal, from discussions on substance to loyalty to the state, then little room for alternative voices exists. And when those coming from outside are not heard, it will be impossible “to reset” Israel’s global affairs.

Israel’s durability depends to a large extent on its global positioning. It can no longer rant against every critique by claiming that, “it is outrageous, it is immoral and it is stupid”. If it really wants to be taken into account, its leaders should start to listen. To do so, they need the eyes, ears and good sense of all their professional emissaries — past and present.

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.