The Foreign Ministry on the Frontlines of the Coronavirus Crisis

Op-eds / Strengthening Israel's Foreign Policy

Several days ago, thousands of families in Israel were given good reason for relief: After long, tense days, their loved ones had returned to Israel thanks to a combined operation by our national carriers El Al, Arkia and Israir, the mobilization of the business sector, and the help of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The mission, however, is not yet accomplished as attempts continue to extricate Israelis from different parts of the world affected by the Coronavirus epidemic. Israeli ambassadors worldwide have been calling on Israelis traveling abroad to leave at once before curfews and lockdowns go into effect and outgoing flights are cancelled. Israeli representatives the world over continue to “move heaven and earth”, in every sense of the word, to allow Israeli citizens to return home. They have resorted to unusual methods, such as leasing ferries, arranging for police escort of bus convoys and convincing authorities to open shuttered airports – new tools of the trade for Israel’s diplomats. More than ever, the MFA’s command center in Jerusalem has become an operations hub combining essential knowledge of local regulations, flight paths, airports and borders. I am convinced that no other foreign ministry is so intensely committed to the welfare of its citizens abroad. The MFA has adopted this tradition with great pride, reflecting the cherished Israeli value of “mutual guaranty”.

In addition to staying in touch and looking after these Israelis and their families, the MFA, as always, is engaged in other aspects of the national effort to curb the spread of the disease. Missions abroad, with support from headquarters in Jerusalem, are busy locating manufacturers of vital equipment, and in many cases coordinating its transport to Israel. From respirators to antibacterial gel, from protective gear to overalls, from face masks to raw materials for the pharmaceutical industry. To overcome the limitations and restrictions placed by countries on the export of medical equipment at this time, Israeli representatives are required to pull strings, locate suppliers and to the extent necessary, obtain special export licenses. Some embassies hook up foreign and Israeli scientists in order to share experience and help the drive for scientific breakthroughs to stem the pandemic. Understandably, this has become the daily bread and butter of Israeli missions during these times.

To back these efforts, the MFA has announced a “national emergency rescue plan” to bring Israelis home. The decision to designate the MFA as an essential workplace, following an appeal by the Foreign Minister to reverse a previous government decision on the matter, is a welcome move. It allows the ministry to work on full emergency footing in missions abroad and at 50% capacity in Israel. The MFA headquarters plays a vital role in the overall diplomatic endeavors. Formulating policy and implementing it through instructions to the field, running a complex system of some 100 representative offices, managing human resources and ensuring the necessary security requires a fully functioning main office. The decision to exclude the MFA from near total lockdown testifies to the recognition of its vital task and underscores the need for a strong and significant Foreign Ministry as an integral part of the national effort.

The essential role of the MFA in emergencies is not new. One of my earliest memories of work at the ministry was the massive activity during the 1973 Yom Kippur War in mobilizing reserve soldiers traveling abroad and whisking them home. I also remember well the activation of Israeli missions in obtaining essential input for the economy. Along with these tasks, the MFA continued to carry out its “traditional” roles, among them mobilizing diplomatic support in international arenas and blocking initiatives to curtail Israel’s military room for maneuver, as well as conducting public diplomacy to boost favorable world public opinion.

The need for an active and accessible Foreign Service is growing. We live in an era of globalization and global challenges the solutions for which cross borders – from countering terrorism to fighting epidemics. In light of the above, Israel must ensure an active physical presence in international forums, personal acquaintance with and access to decision makers in all sectors, and experience with a large number of international arenas. This cannot be accomplished by remote control. The personal dimension – the ongoing personal contact – is an irreplaceable added value of the Foreign Service which enables both public diplomacy and “political intelligence”. Preparation for the day after the Coronavirus crisis is also important – to ensure continuity and prevent the current exigencies from undermining future needs. Once the storm abates, we will require stable infrastructure for economic recovery and growth in the international arena, too. That obviously means having a strong Foreign Ministry in normal times and in emergency situations as well.

The MFA has a key role in ensuring Israel’s national resilience. Nonetheless, as mentioned by a former senior defense official against the backdrop of the current crisis, the Ministry has been weakened in recent years and its budgets slashed (he mentioned the Health Ministry in the same breath but that is an issue for another discussion). Indeed, the status of the MFA has suffered persistent, severe and debilitating erosion in recent years at the initiative of the government. Budgets and responsibilities were shifted to other agencies for unjustified political reasons. This must be rectified at once by the new government, no matter who is at its helm.

A September 2019 Mitvim Institute poll indicated that 48% of Israelis think the MFA’s status has declined. Of these, more respondents (30%) think this downgrading significantly undermines national security than those who think it does not (18%). The importance that the public attributes to diplomacy and foreign policy is encouraging considering its insufficient awareness of the wide array of matters with which the MFA deals. The extent to which the public understands the link between the correct conduct of foreign policy and National Security (national resilience) is also encouraging. Leaders of the state, too, must recognize the need to strengthen the MFA and translate this recognition into practical terms. A strong Foreign Ministry, backed in practice by the government that it represents throughout the world, is vital under every scenario, whether in routine times or emergencies.

The MFA may not being doing enough in terms of domestic public relations. It will not tweet about “clandestine nighttime operations” that take place, and will not make public every security or civilian deal involving an Israeli ambassador. Our diplomats, men and women, hold thousands of meetings, public and private, with leaders, opinion shapers, captains of industry and others to ensure Israel’s security, and its economic and social prosperity both in normal times and in emergencies. The MFA staff operate with humility, discretion and determination, often under the radar, sometimes even in countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations, often under complex security conditions for themselves and their families. The Foreign Minister was right in publicly praising the Ministry’s work everywhere. It is important that the political echelons back his declarations, translate them into action, and restore responsibilities and proper budgets to the MFA.

In times of wars and military operations, the MFA places its capabilities at the disposal of the state to provide a “temporary diplomatic window” enabling completion of a military campaign. The current crisis, with its unique and different characteristics, creates new and unfamiliar challenges for the state. Addressing them requires activity abroad, too, which brings into play the capacities and capabilities of the MFA. The last thing the government should be doing now is adopting the recommendations of bean counters who define the MFA as a non-essential agency. Adopting such a classification, continuing to undermine its authority and stealing its budgets will distance our potential future diplomats, and harm – you guessed it – the State of Israel.

(originally published in Haaretz)

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