More and more Israeli diplomats are finding themselves in quarantine these days, due to the Coronavirus crisis. These include the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) director general and spokesperson, the entire cadet course, the ambassador to Germany, and more. While these diplomats will soon emerge from their quarantine, it will take some more time to free the MFA from the quarantine that Netanyahu’s outgoing government has put it in. Should Benny Gants succeed in forming a new government, he should prioritize the rehabilitation of Foreign Service and the fixing of Israel’s foreign policy.
The isolation imposed on the MFA by the outgoing government resulted in its gradual decline: responsibilities were transferred to other government ministries, chief among them the Ministry for Strategic Affairs; the MFA’s budgetary shortfalls grew to the extent that they hampered daily operations and led to labor disputes; and the exclusion of diplomats from key decision-making junctions increased, leading top diplomats to complain they lacked relevance and influence. At the same time, the prime minister (who served as acting foreign minister from 2015 to early 2019, and continues to do so de facto to this day) took control of most diplomatic activity, or entrusted it to close associates.
Public figures have protested loudly over the decline in the MFA’s stature over the last few years, underlining the damage this causes to Israel’s national security. Members of Knesset spoke up on this issue in the plenary, in committees, in caucuses, at press conferences, in legislation proposals and in opinion pieces. Think tanks highlighted the need to empower Israeli democracy and suggested possible ways to achieve this goal; retired ambassadors began working together to raise public awareness of the MFA’s troubled standing; ministry officials waged struggles and protests, behind closed doors and in the public arena; civil society and cultural activists pointed to the difficulties they faced in the international arena due to the ministry’s weakness; and Israelis expressed dissatisfaction in polls over this state of affairs.
The challenges currently facing Israel are more diplomatic in nature and less military. So are the opportunities, that can enable Israel to increase its regional belonging in the Middle East, Europe and the Mediterranean. As demonstrated by the Coronavirus crisis, the current era requires a diplomacy that is more focused on global issues. Just in recent days, for example, the MFA played a key role in diplomatic efforts that enabled the importation to Israel of masks and Coronavirus test equipment from other countries. However, Israel’s involvement in global issues should not be limited to advancing its own interests. Rather, it should also foster international solidarity – placing Israeli knowledge, equity and resources at the disposal of other countries and peoples who are dealing with challenging global phenomena.
Under such circumstances, diplomacy plays an increasingly important role. Now more than ever, Israel must adopt an internationalist foreign policy. One that is not focused any longer on inward-looking, deflecting criticism, justifying positions and blocking international initiatives, but rather one that views Israel as a key player in the global arena, that expands Israeli involvement in international organizations and foreign aid, that is open to dialogue with broad audiences (critical ones, too) and that is committed to the democratic value system. In the current era, Israel’s success will largely depend on its ability to work in concert with other countries in order to jointly identify solutions to challenges, promote joint interests, and create new frameworks for collective action. That requires a capable, influential MFA, and the identity of Israel’s next foreign minister will be a key element in that regard.
The next Israeli government will have to immediately appoint a fulltime foreign minister, unlike what Netanyahu did when he formed his last government. It is crucial to appoint a foreign minister with political power, who is capable of and motivated to carry out significant change. The new foreign minister will have to adopt rapid measures to strengthen the MFA, chief among them restoring its authority and increasing its budget; lead a reform of its structure and operations; improve the interface between the ministry, the public and decision-makers; and advance a new approach to Israel’s foreign policy.
The new foreign minister will also have to examine Israel’s achievements and failures in the foreign policy arena in recent years: pay attention to missed opportunities, to the peace that has grown distant, to the threats that have intensified, to the values eroded and the relationships that were undermined. He or she will have to formulate a new national foreign policy paradigm and to ensure its support by the government, and to embark on a diplomatic voyage that will free the MFA from isolation, and propel Israel to a future of peace, prosperity and security; a future in which Israel will find its rightful place in the region and among the family of nations.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Founder and Head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.