The tumult over the installation of Israel’s 35th government and the division of 36 ministerial and 16 deputy ministerial portfolios drowned out news of Gilad Erdan’s dual diplomatic appointment. The veteran Likud politician and the State of Israel will be getting two for the price of one: Israel’s ambassador to the UN and the US rolled into one. No one has bothered to ask why or if this is at all feasible.
Erdan, who says he has long aspired to the jobs, reminded us that Israel’s iconic diplomat Abba Eban also served simultaneously in these two senior posts, and claimed he was certain of his ability to fulfill both. As the French would say, “He is proud of his humility”. Even if Prime Minister Netanyahu had sought to distance Erdan from Israel for political reasons, he is obviously fully aware of the extent and demands of the two top Foreign Service jobs, having served himself in the US, first as DCM in Washington and then as UN Ambassador.
Representing Israel in the US is a demanding, fulltime job. The ambassador in Washington is in charge of the relationships with the administration and Congress as well as with politicians throughout the 50 states, and with the divided Jewish community. He is also tasked with Israel’s public diplomacy challenges, its security, strategic and economic ties with the US, and oversight over eight Israeli consulates spread all over the country .
The position of Ambassador to the UN is also a non-ending investment of hours and efforts, often in times of crises, of which we supply plenty. Part of the ambassador’s job is also to initiate and conduct ties throughout the year with the representatives of many among the 192 member states and with the organization’s numerous committees. That, too, is more than a full-time position.
I have known Erdan for years, and my appreciation of his skills notwithstanding, I do not believe he can fulfill all these complex tasks at the same time, for the simple reason that no one can do so fully and satisfactorily. Only unique figures, such as Abba Eban, who served at the UN when it was still in its infancy and consisted of only 33 states could have done so.
What, then, is the meaning of Netanyahu’s decision? Cost cutting was obviously not a consideration given the installation of Israel’s biggest and most spendthrift government at the height of an economic-social crisis. The real reason lies in Netanyahu’s consistent attitude and conduct over the past decade toward Israel’s Foreign Service, and the deep contempt he displays toward the ministry that safeguards the state’s essential interests and toward its professional staff.
This attitude has led Netanyahu to strip the Foreign Ministry of many of its traditional purviews, such as diplomatic strategy, the anti-BDS campaign, relations with the Diaspora and public diplomacy and to hand them out as “consolation prizes” to various party loyalists . These moves have deprived the Ministry of many of the key roles its staff carried out for decades on the front lines of Israel’s struggles to establish or renew diplomatic ties with the countries of the world, promote trade agreements and international investments, and defend Israel’s essential interests in international organizations. Some representatives were felled by terrorists in the line of duty. Netanyahu’s moves have demoralized the staff, deprived Israeli diplomats of their professional pride, transferred the handling of important issues to non-professional hands and generated confusion, lack of coordination and even embarrassment.
Last year’s dramatic budget cuts dealt an almost fatal blow to the Ministry and the Foreign Service. The work of the missions abroad ground to a halt due to lack of funding, wages were cut, Israel’s international foreign aid enterprise was suspended, the diplomatic campaign against Iran was stalled, public diplomacy and cultural activities were undermined and the promotion of Israeli economic activity abroad was significantly eroded. As an example of the absurdity of the situation, Israeli diplomats were unable to represent the state at important functions away from the city of their posting because they had no money for train tickets.
Tasking a person of legendary skills like Abba Eban with both positions in the 1950s was born out of necessity when Israel was a young, poor state. A similar move in 2020 reflects the continued systematic destruction of the Israeli Foreign Service even as significant developments are emerging on the horizon with a possible change of administration in Washington and international fallout from the Israeli government’s annexation intentions.