Security issues dominate the public and political discourse in Israel. During the 2019 election campaign, parties have been boasting of having some general or other on their roster of Knesset candidates. People count how many years of defense-related experience candidates have or how many terrorists each has killed. Most Israelis know the names of the IDF chief-of-staff and top generals. However, who many can name the director general of the Foreign Ministry or Israel’s ambassador to the UK? This example reflects the total hold security issues have on Israel’s government, Knesset and society.
Therein lies a problem. Too often, the State of Israel examines reality through riflescopes, seeking threats rather than identifying opportunities, finding partners and avoiding pitfalls and entanglement in avoidable wars. That is why, as noted in the State Comptroller’s report, Israel finds itself embroiled in endless rounds of fighting and tensions in Gaza, Lebanon and around holy sites in Jerusalem, with each round ending not far from where it began. When Israel does opt for diplomatic tools and conducts negotiations with its neighbors, security officials are usually the ones who lead the discussions.
In order to seek peace and ensure a quiet, safe existence, diplomatic thinking in decision–making must assume a far greater role, as must critical public discourse on such issues. A complex diplomatic and political discourse must be promoted among the public and decision makers. It should include better understanding of the international arena based on familiarity with the views of foreign actors towards Israel and its policies, awareness of global developments and trends, and acquaintance with the relationships among a variety of actors relevant to the scene. These goals are feasible, but require essential shifts that will empower Israel’s Foreign Service and will bring diplomatic considerations to the forefront of decision–making processes. Foreign Ministry retirees have an important role to play in promoting this.
Former diplomats could contribute significantly to Israeli society in terms of bolstering public discourse on diplomacy and foreign policy. Foreign Ministry veterans who go into retirement take with them dozens of years of experience, diplomatic skills, knowledge of various countries and organizations, intricate networks of social ties around the world, analytic capacity and deep understanding of the international arena and of Israel’s place among the nations. They know how to explain foreign affairs to the public and to raise foreign policy issues on the agenda, to support or criticize Israeli policy and propose alternatives freed of the shackles of government service, to explain the world to Israelis and explain Israel to the world (should they want to do so).
Foreign Service retirees in other countries enjoy significant appreciation, retain knowledge and prestige, are courted by various organizations, and integrate into key positions in society. They are often involved in local and national politics, and assume roles as directors of large global corporations, lecturers in academia, researchers at institutes, central activists in civil society and key media figures. Their contribution to shaping public discourse is significant. Not so in Israel. The Foreign Ministry has excellent staff, but once diplomats retire, they do not have representation commensurate with their skills and abilities in the political, cultural, academic or business arena. While some Foreign Ministry veterans find their way into academia, civil society or boards of directors, it is not a systematic course; it is unstructured and unguided by a support network, relying instead on personal motivation and ability. Sadly, the valuable experience of Israeli Foreign Ministry retirees goes down the drain.
Many obstacles stand in the way of former Israeli diplomats’ contribution to public discourse and integration in key roles. The decline in the prestige of the Foreign Ministry, a relatively late retirement age, inability to take a leave of absence during one’s career and return to the Foreign Service, lack of regional expertise, are just some of the central challenges that must be met in order to allow former diplomats to contribute their share. This would require strengthening the Foreign Ministry and restoring its prestige and power along with the power and prestige of its staff. The mobility of Foreign Ministry staff could be increased to allow them to leave the service for a while and accrue professional experience in other organizations, which would provide them with a diverse network of contacts ahead of their retirement. Regional expertise can be encouraged within the Foreign Ministry, and the retirement age could be lowered. Structured contact between the ministry and its former staff should be encouraged through periodic updates, consultations and learning, and joint mechanisms should ensure the rights of retirees and prepare them for retirement.
Obviously, the retirees themselves must have a role in improving their lot. They must take the initiative and try to integrate into the public and governance arena, deliver lectures to different audiences, contribute their analyses through the media and be active on social media. They can also provide briefings for Members of Knesset and participate in discussions held by Knesset committees and caucuses, place their experience at the disposal of local government, take part in public discussion without fear of expressing their views, and integrate into civil society and business.
Israeli society has an interest in repairing the structural, organizational and political flaws that currently impede Foreign Ministry retirees in contributing their experience, training, knowledge and varied capabilities to the public discourse. Foreign Ministry retirees have the tools to enable Israeli society to examine the diplomatic angle, too, when trying to understand reality, analyze it and decide how to act. It is important that we hear them. It is important that they not only be former diplomats but remain key figures in Israeli society.
Dr. Roee Kibrik is the Director of Research of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.