120 Members of Knesset (MKs), veteran and new, are now starting their term in the 22nd Knesset. In the near future, assuming a new government will actually be formed, they will build a parliamentary agenda, hire staff, become members of committees, establish caucuses, and start promoting discussions and bills. Among other things, they can also help improve Israel’s foreign policy, strengthen Israel’s weakened Foreign Service, and increase the work of the Knesset on international issues.
The Knesset does not excel in dealing with foreign affairs, and it does not carry out effective parliamentary supervision on such matters. The plenum debates hardly deal with international developments; there is no separate committee on foreign affairs; foreign issues are not perceived by most MKs as generating electoral profit; and visits of MKs abroad – even when justified – are viewed by the public as self-serving. The opening conditions do not seem promising, but there is still much that MKs can do to advance Israel’s foreign relations, each according to his/her ideological position.
Members of parliament around the world are increasingly engaged in promoting foreign relations, together with civil society organizations, the business sector, and individual entrepreneurs. This reflects the nature of modern diplomacy, which no longer relies solely on ambassadors and foreign ministers. Members of parliament participate and represent their countries in international forums, host foreign delegations, raise global issues on the agenda and contribute to their solution, and generally play a role in supervising their government’s activities on these issues. MKs can also do so, and they have a number of tools available to them.
First and foremost, they must push the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee to increase its involvement in foreign issues. The committee is supposed to perform “supervision and control of the country’s foreign policy,” but out of hundreds of debates by the outgoing committee, the vast majority dealt with security and only a few with international affairs. To solve this, the Knesset can establish a separate committee on foreign affairs, as is customary in other countries. In the meantime, a quota for committee discussions on foreign issues should be set, Foreign Ministry officials should be invited to appear before the committee, and the committee’s discussions of non-confidential foreign policy matters should be open for media coverage.
Other committees, too, can discuss relevant foreign policy issues, and cooperate with the Knesset Parliamentary Oversight Coordination Unit (KATEF, established in 2018) in improving parliamentary oversight of the Foreign Service. With regard to substance, MKs can establish caucuses on a variety of foreign policy issues, through which they can work together with civil society organizations to raise awareness and advance diplomatic action. In previous terms, for example, the Knesset had caucuses dealing with Israeli-Arab regional cooperation, Israel-EU relations, Israel-US ties, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the status of the Foreign Service. These should now be re-established.
MKs should also request plenum discussions on foreign policy issues, address them in their speeches, and submit frequent parliamentary questions to Israel’s next foreign minister. Parliamentary questions are also a useful tool for exposing information to the public in the absence of sufficient transparency by the Foreign Service. MKs can also avail themselves of the Knesset Research and Information Center and request studies on international affairs and foreign policy, which until today have not been much in demand.
In their foreign policy work, MKs should seek the assistance of the Knesset’s Diplomatic Advisor – a Foreign Ministry diplomat – and the staff of the Knesset’s International Affairs Division. They can provide information and briefings, ahead of foreign visits, meetings with guests from abroad, and Knesset debates on international affairs. The participation of Foreign Ministry officials in Knesset discussions on foreign affairs should be increased, as a better interface between the Foreign Ministry and MKs will advance a more professional parliamentary diplomacy. In addition, think tanks that offer knowledge and recommendations on foreign policy issues, as well as unofficial opportunities to meet with experts from Israel and abroad, should also be engaged by MKs and seen as an asset.
The international activity of MKs deserves special attention, given the gap between its importance and its negative public image. Traveling abroad is part of the MKs work, and as long as it is done professionally and does not prevent them from fulfilling their duties in parliament, does not deserve excessive public criticism. MKs travel on behalf of the Knesset to strengthen inter-parliamentary relations and diplomatic ties between states; represent Israel in international forums, events and ceremonies; meet with parliamentarians from other countries (including from Arab states); and learn best practices that may be relevant to Israel. Private travels by MKs, which are not commissioned by the Knesset and that include lectures, participation in political conferences and dialogues, strengthening ties with Jewish communities and sister parties, and advancing the political agenda of MKs, are of high importance as well.
Such trips can help enhance the knowledge of MKs on international politics, help formulate clearer positions on a variety of foreign policy issues, and bring Israeli perspectives to international forums. The Knesset should assist MKs succeed in these tasks. It must ensure the freedom of action of MKs on foreign issues, even when their position is inconsistent with the government’s official position. It must also find ways to provide MKs with better guidance and tools to perform international activities, which may include language studies, translation and proofreading services, and diplomatic advice.
Parliamentary diplomacy takes place not only abroad but also in Israel. MKs receive international delegations that visit Israel and host them in the Knesset. They can be active in inter-parliamentary friendship groups and establish contacts with parliamentarians from countries with which such groups do not exist (e.g. Egypt, Jordan and Turkey). In addition, they should reach out to foreign embassies and international organizations with representative offices in Israel. These channels of dialogue enable increased political influence, international cooperation and exchange of knowledge – all of which can help MKs advance their agenda, both domestically and internationally.
Thus, MKs have a large number of tools through which they can influence Israel’s foreign relations and position Israel as a more involved and influential player in the international community. The responsibility for improving Israel’s foreign policy is no longer confined to the government’s doorstep, and the new Knesset must rise to the challenge.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies; Nehoray Ofri served as Mitvim’s Government Relations Coordinator.