Minister Yisrael Katz should restore and reinvigorate the Israeli foreign service. Israel’s many recent diplomatic breakthroughs require systemic and sustained follow-up by a strong and committed cadre of professionals.
The appointment of a strong and effective person as acting foreign minister, with a political position of his own, is a significant step. Although it comes during the last few months of the present government, amidst a stormy election campaign, it is welcome.
Despite the Polish flap, the appointment of Minister Yisrael Katz should be a point of departure for an effort to restore the capacities, resources, standing and dignity of Israel’s foreign service.
Paradoxically, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has been going through a low ebb – even as Israeli diplomacy, at the highest levels, has been making unprecedented gains. These breakthroughs require systemic and sustained follow-up across a diverse range of activities. This will not happen unless there is a strong and committed cadre of professionals who can pursue this in detail, and face the challengers in the field. Without them, the penny-wise cuts in Israel’s foreign service budgets may well lead not only to demoralization but to the pound-foolish loss of opportunities, including trade and investment; and this will continue to hamper the “ground troops” on the diplomatic battlefield, even in the all-important US arena.
The time has come, even in the waning months of a transitional government, to reverse the ongoing erosion in the budgets, and capacities, of the Foreign Ministry, to rebuild and restore the morale and dignity of the foreign service, and to bring back functions and duties farmed out to other agencies.
The closing of missions, and the growing tendency to curb the activity budgets of existing ones, have weakened Israel’s capacity to translate her new standing into diplomatic gains as well as trade and investment. The absence of a strong ministerial presence, focused on the MFA’s needs, with the political clout to withstand penny-pinching urges in the Budget Division of the Ministry of Finance, have led to a troubling and persistent decline in capabilities The costs of which, even in purely economic terms, may be less overt but much higher than the presumed savings.
The newly-appointed interim minister should act to map out a strategy and an action plan to turn around this trend, and to make full use of the opportunities now opening before Israel’s diplomatic work. This would require, possibly right away and certainly once a new government emerges after the elections, several key initiatives:
- Bringing back functions and divisions farmed out to other ministries – with a special priority for the fight against the BDS movement, which is best carried forward by those with a detailed knowledge of the local political, economic and academic environment, specifically in North America.
- Allocating the necessary budgets for intensive diplomatic activity and outreach to local societies – reversing the unreasonable pressure for more and more cuts, which today hobbles the ability of embassies and missions to engage with opinion leaders and decision makers.
- A dramatic change in attitudes towards public diplomacy. A country struggling to hold her ground in a hostile environment, to isolate Iran, and to secure political and diplomatic space for possible operations in densely populated areas such as Gaza and Lebanon, cannot do with a “hasbara” budget smaller than what a local producer puts into promoting pasta.
- Increasing the number of missions. This should include new embassies, which could help pick “low-hanging fruit” in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa and Oceania, and consolidate Israel’s presence in Asia and Europe. Also, new consulates in the US (where a polarized political atmosphere requires sophisticated and detailed attention at the ground level) and in China (where links with the provinces are almost by definition less problematic than tightening relations with Beijing).
- A special effort to recruit, train and deploy specialists focused on building bridges with the Arab world, and planning how to reach out (mainly online) to audiences there. The MFA must play a leading role in realizing the emerging potential for change in the deep-set cultural patterns which for years have fed hatred towards Israel and the Jews.
- Creating conditions for recruiting and retaining talented diplomats, without whom none of the above can be done well.
All these should come to be seen not as parochial interests of the MFA, but as important pillars of Israel’s broader national security doctrine. They are also vital for the future of an economy which is increasingly dependent on finding and expanding foreign markets.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.
photo: Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)