The Jerusalem Post
Netanyahu presents himself as a mega-diplomat, but leaves key Israeli embassies empty
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is holding 36 designated ambassadors hostage, refusing to present their appointments for government approval. These professional diplomats with years of experience and training, appointed by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) months ago to key posts around the world, are on hold – as is Israel’s foreign policy.
Does Israel need a new ambassador to the European Union? Cyprus? India? Australia? It can wait. Why? Because, as Netanyahu explained, he does not want to reward Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival with whom he has a running feud paralyzing most government activity. Netanyahu may want to bear in mind that fully staffed embassies effectively promoting Israel’s interests reward the state, not individual politicians.
This is not the first time MFA personnel are being regarded as an encumbrance rather than an asset. Israel’s embassy in Cairo was orphaned for over a year after Netanyahu refused for a long time to confirm Amira Oron as ambassador. Positions in Paris, Moscow, New York and Ottawa also remain vacant, possibly to be used as political bargaining chips at some point.
Netanyahu prides himself on being a statesman and diplomat in a league of his own, but by leaving key diplomatic posts unstaffed, he is undermining Israeli foreign policy and weakening the MFA, just when it seems to be emerging from a prolonged slump.
Despite continued attempts to exclude it and undermine its standing, the ministry has come into its own since Gabi Ashkenazi’s appointment as foreign minister almost a year ago. Morale is up, as are budgets. Applications for cadet training have surged, vacancies have been filled, and the footprint of Israeli diplomacy has expanded (as reflected in improved relations with Europe and the normalization process with Arab states).
Foreign policy is a crucial component of Israel’s national security. This has always been the case and it is becoming increasingly evident, as reflected in the critical 2020 State Comptroller’s Report on Israel’s Foreign Service. Most of the issues on Israel’s agenda have clearly defined diplomatic components – the nuclear deal with Iran, the conflict with the Palestinians, the ICC ruling, relations with the Biden administration, normalization with the Arab world, and more.
For Israel to clearly define and achieve its goals on the world stage it needs an influential MFA that plays a major role in shaping policy, not only in executing it, and enjoys professional esteem. The ministry must receive appropriate funding and reclaim the tasks farmed out to other agencies and ministries in recent years.
A prime minister’s high-profile diplomatic activism is no substitute for methodical, professional, intense diplomatic activity. The Biden administration realized this and set about restoring the standing of the State Department, which was downtrodden by the Trump administration much as Netanyahu had weakened its Israeli counterpart. Just two weeks after taking office, Biden declared, “Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” setting in motion measures to reinvigorate the foreign service.
American diplomacy experienced a slump somewhat similar to our own in 2014, when the Republican-controlled Senate held up the appointments of 43 ambassadors due to political rivalry with the Obama administration. “We can’t lead if we are not present,” then-secretary of state John Kerry said in response, adding, “Good diplomacy doesn’t tie one hand behind our back.”
The same goes for Israeli diplomacy. The time has come to loosen the hold on Israel’s diplomacy, to let the foreign service do its job, to realize its full professional potential, to forge ties and network, create and leverage opportunities, open doors, encourage dialogue, reach agreements and advance peace.
The politicians engaged in negotiations on forming Israel’s next government must remember that the MFA is more than just a temporary waystation for the next prime minister as he awaits his turn in a potential rotation arrangement. The foreign minister’s role is of paramount national importance and it must be placed in appropriate and committed hands. And until the next government is formed, the 36 ambassadorial appointees must be quickly confirmed, so that Israeli diplomacy can forge ahead.