A Letter to Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi

Nadav Tamir May 2020
Op-eds / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

Honorable Foreign Minister, Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi. I know you are scheduled to move on to the Defense Ministry in 18 months, but I think you would have far greater influence and significantly more impact in serving the state from your Foreign Ministry perch.

Despite its undeniable standing as a sustainable regional power, Israel continues to conduct itself like a state battling for survival. While the state’s key challenges lie in the field of diplomacy and soft power, its politicians present them through a military prism even as security experts caution that military might cannot solve Israel’s fundamental problems.

Israel has been the strongest power in the region and one of the strongest in the world for years. You and your colleagues in the defense establishment are responsible for that remarkable achievement that turned the burning embers of the Holocaust into a Jewish regional power in a relatively short time in historical perspective.

Nonetheless, as the Americans found out in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, even the strongest military in the world lacks solutions to modern challenges. The IDF, which enjoys its strongest advantage ever over our enemies, cannot achieve a decisive victory because that term no longer applies in the modern battlefield.

Whether in terms of relations with our enemies or the ability to translate our military might into a better life for our people, the solutions all lie in the diplomatic arena. Diplomacy also plays a decisive role for Israel’s export-oriented economy that owes its international standing to its innovative capacity. With most challenges becoming increasingly global – pandemics, climate change, curbing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the response can only be found in the diplomatic arena, not in military arsenals.

Nonetheless, from its infancy, successive Israeli prime ministers have weakened the Foreign Ministry for various reasons, some political (from the days of Ben Gurion’s clashes with Sharett and up to the present), others stemming from our survival complex. We have always opted to look for answers in the wrong place. In recent years, the situation has deteriorated. The Foreign Ministry has sustained deep budget cuts, with many of its tasks outsourced to other ministries and its unique expertise in the international arena excluded from the decision-making process on core issues of diplomacy.

While cabinet meetings always include presentations and assessments by military officers, who often also propose solutions, the Foreign Ministry is largely absent, and its professional opinions are not heard. The explanation for this phenomenon is also to be found in the Foreign Ministry itself, which has grown accustomed to staying out of issues that touch on politics, although every core issue obviously has a political bearing, and often vice versa. Foreign Ministry staff have come to believe that their role is limited to conveying to the world decisions made by other people in other ministries. Rather than having significant impact on decision making, the Foreign Ministry has positioned itself as an agency dedicated to public diplomacy and logistics abroad.

You served as chief-of-staff when the IDF adopted a courageous professional stance against an Israeli attack on Iran, which had a decisive effect on the Prime Minister’s decision. On the other hand, it is hard to think of a position taken by the Foreign Ministry that differed from that of decision makers, simply because the Ministry preferred to wait for diplomatic instructions rather than contribute to shaping them.

Diplomats, like military officers, are obviously bound by the decisions of the elected echelon, but their job is also to represent their professional stand with determination and to ensure that their familiarity with the global arena is taken into consideration.

As for substance, following are the issues of the highest priority.

The Foreign Ministry’s most important role is to advance the peace agreements with our neighbors, and in that context, the most urgent priority is to ensure that in the window of time between July and November, no unilateral moves are made that irrevocably exclude a future arrangement based on the two-state principle. The twostate solution is essential to Israel’s preservation as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people, as well as to our strategic relations with Jordan, Egypt and the pro-Western, anti-jihadist axis in the Middle East. Unilateral moves would also undermine the lifesaving security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PA’s ability to administer the lives of millions of Palestinians, whose lives we have no interest in running. It is also vital that we maintain the potential for bilateral and regional channels to an accommodation with the Palestinians rather than having these issues dealt with by the International Criminal Court and various BDS arenas.

Bipartisanship has constituted the basis for Israel’s special standing with successive US administrations, Congress and public opinion. In recent years, Israel is being perceived as affiliated with the Republican Party, dealing a fatal blow to the special relationship with the world’s leading power. The loss of bipartisan support also severely undermines our ties with US Jewry, our most important Diaspora community, the majority of which backs the Democrats and steers clear of Israel.

The vast majority of world Jewry, and especially in North America, is gradually distancing itself from Israel, put off by the state’s growing tendency toward segregation, extremism, and its reluctance to accept the different streams of Judaism, their needs, views and concerns. Israel’s political establishment tends to prefer ties with Christian evangelists and Orthodox Jews and to treat liberal Jewish communities that make up the vast majority of US Jewry, as irrelevant at best and as non-Jews in the worst-case scenario. This poses an immediate and present danger to the cohesion of the Jewish people, its links with the State of Israel and to a large extent the security of the state, which also relies on the solidarity of Diaspora Jewry with Israel.

Government policy of recent years distances the State of Israel from the Zionist vision of a model, egalitarian society that protects the rights of minorities and empowers the disadvantaged. These values are the foundation on which Israel’s innate alliance with liberal democratic states rests. However, the erosion of this foundation is generating growing aloofness on the part of democratic, liberal nations toward Israel. The government clearly prefers alliances with states led by dictators, nationalists and racists, among them some with anti-Semitic past and/or current anti-Semitic leanings. This process directly endangers the Jewish communities in those countries, where minority rights are crucial for the Jews, both morally and strategically.

In summing up, I urge you to treat the Foreign Minister’s role as an unusual opportunity to influence Israel’s future significantly, to make a difference as a politician and to make your mark on history. Your success is our success, and the sooner you achieve it, the better.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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