It’s time to empower Israel’s Foreign Ministry

Dr. Nimrod Goren December 2020

Israel’s Foreign Ministry (FM) recently closed registration to its upcoming cadet course, the gateway to a career in diplomacy. This year, the FM launched a widespread campaign to attract potential candidates and declared the upcoming course to be the largest since the 1990s.

Although the official number of this year’s applicants has not yet been released, the FM is hopeful that recent agreements with the UAE and Bahrain will help invigorate Israel’s best and brightest to join the Foreign Service. In recent years, the number of candidates has dropped dramatically, and many young diplomats decided to leave the profession early in their career. The expected addition of a few dozen new diplomats provides yet another reason to empower Israel’s weakened FM.

In Israel’s conflict-ridden reality, the FM has always been considered inferior to the security establishment. This is still unfortunately true, even though the current challenges and opportunities facing Israel have distinct diplomatic features. For example, promoting bilateral relations with Gulf states, forging ties with the Biden administration, alleviating the situation in Gaza, and even tackling COVID-19 in cooperation with other countries – are all foreign policy-related.

Despite it all, in recent years, the FM was deliberately weakened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and for political reasons. It has been insufficiently budgeted and understaffed, its responsibilities were stripped away to other, smaller ministries, and above all, it lacked a full-time minister for four years. The blows the FM has been suffering for years have crippled it, damaging Israel’s national security and impairing the FM’s ability to fulfill its mission.

Taking a closer look at the global sphere of diplomacy today, we see a new environment in which foreign relations are no longer at the hands of state actors alone. There are multiple actors seeking to make an impact, ranging from global corporations, civil society actors, international organizations, private entrepreneurs and more. The competition for influence is fierce, and many interests are at play.

Instead of focusing on adapting to this changing reality, the FM has had to deal with a shrinking budget, diplomats who are excluded from decision-making processes, and key positions in Israeli missions abroad that remain unstaffed. Considering this, it is not surprising to see low morale hovering across the FM in recent years, though there has been a positive change since Gabi Ashkenazi took office as foreign minister in May 2020. However, according to the coalition agreement, his tenure will end in November 2021, and early elections might bring change even earlier.

The weakness of Israel’s Foreign Service and its negative implications have not gone unnoticed. Knesset committees and caucuses have been discussing it, think tanks have been developing proposals to empower Israel’s diplomacy, the FM has been carrying out an internal process to better cope with the changing world of diplomacy, and survey findings have been reflecting continuous public concern about Israel’s place in the world and the status of its FM.

Israel’s state comptroller has also addressed the issue. This year, his office published an in-depth report on the FM’s critical condition, but without pointing to the political leaders responsible for the dire situation.

THE REPORT unraveled that more than 30 government bodies are currently involved in foreign affairs on behalf of the State of Israel. The large number of such bodies is not the major problem in itself. Foreign relations are currently relevant to almost every aspect of our lives, and therefore it is only natural for most government ministries to have professional staff dealing with international affairs.

The problem is the diffusion of powers from the FM, sometimes to unnecessary ministries that were established due to political give-and-take and not due to real policy needs. This is amplified by the lack of coordination between the different bodies and by the lack of a single entity responsible to harmonize their activities. The 2020 Israeli Foreign Policy Index of the Mitvim Institute showed that 61% of Israelis think this diffusion of powers and lack of coordination in the Foreign Service damages Israel’s foreign policy to a large extent (while only 18% thought the opposite).

The ramifications of the constant belittling of the FM were evident for all to see during the recent normalization process with the UAE and Bahrain. The FM, which for many years played a crucial role in developing ties with Gulf states, was excluded from the final stages before the agreements were reached. Minister Ashkenazi was not even informed of what was going on. More so, multiple ministries are now looking to develop ties with counterparts in the Gulf, sometimes choosing intentionally to go at it alone and bypass the FM.

This has led to the absurdity of several Israeli ministries approaching a single entity in an Arab state, with different – sometimes even contradictory – offers. It has also happened in Israel’s relations with Jordan. The asynchronous efforts of government officials limit Israel’s ability to fulfill the potential of its relations with Arab states.

The new developments in Israel-Gulf relations provide an opportunity to reassess the functioning of Israel’s Foreign Service, update modes of operations (also within the FM) and generate structural changes that will make the FM more central in decision-making. It will allow it to be the one ministry coordinating, harmonizing and reinforcing the international work conducted by various government bodies. But for that to happen, there needs to also be greater clarity regarding the target and goals of Israel’s diplomacy.

An overarching and coherent foreign policy paradigm should be devised and adopted. Furthermore, the Knesset must carry out more effective oversight of the FM’s activities, for it is unacceptable that the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee largely ignores subjects related to foreign affairs and dedicates more than 90% of its time to defense-related issues.

The new cadets will join the FM next summer, but now is the time to act so they can prosper and shape Israel’s future within a strong, appreciated and influential FM. As Israel is seemingly heading toward yet another election cycle, Foreign Minister Ashkenazi should make use of his remaining time in office to leave a mark and a legacy, to empower the FM and to improve Israel’s foreign policy as much as possible.

**The article was published on The Jerusalem Post, 9 December 2020

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