Analysis from Israel

The worst thing about elections is that for the next three months, the media will ignore all the really important issues in favor of trivialities such as daily updates on the prospects for a united center-left bloc. That’s why the bombshell released by the Foreign Ministry last week has evaporated without a trace rather than provoking the outraged debate it should have sparked.

At a conference launching a new Knesset caucus on foreign affairs, the ministry revealed the full dimensions of Israel’s underinvestment in diplomacy. According to the subsequent report in Israel Hayom, Israel spends less than half as much on its foreign service as does the Palestinian Authority – an entity whose per capita gross domestic product is less than a twentieth of Israel’s. And then we wonder why Israel is losing the diplomatic battle.

Moreover, as a percentage of its national budget, Israel significantly underspends most European countries, even though the latter – unlike Israel – aren’t engaged in a worldwide diplomatic battle crucial to their future. Israel devotes only 0.4% of its budget to the foreign service, compared to 1.7% for Britain, 2% for Sweden and Norway, 3.8% for Belgium and 4% for The Netherlands.

Clearly, no problem can be solved just by throwing money at it; without a workable diplomatic strategy, Israel will lose the diplomatic war no matter how much money it invests. But the reverse is no less true: Even a brilliant diplomatic strategy will fail if it’s starved of the requisite resources.

For instance, Israel has diplomatic relations with 159 countries, but it has embassies in less than half of them – only 76. So what happens when the Palestinians bring a hostile resolution to the UN Security Council – as they’re planning to do right now – and Israel has to round up enough votes against it to avoid the need for a US veto? Obviously, Israel needs to lobby every Security Council member with which it has relations. But how effectively can it lobby one of those 83 countries in which it doesn’t even maintain an embassy?

Not having an embassy means not having Israeli diplomats on the ground to make Israel’s case on an ongoing basis and build ties with a country’s leadership. As a result, there’s no groundwork on which to build a last-minute blitz against a Palestinian resolution. And the problem is only compounded if the PA does maintain a diplomatic mission in the country in question – which isn’t inconceivable; the tiny PA maintains some 100 embassies and consulates worldwide.

Granted, Israel’s foreign service sometimes seems to do more harm than good. In a shocking Jerusalem Post column earlier this year, for instance, former Foreign Ministry employee Dan Illouz reported hearing some of Israel’s own diplomats quietly advocate anti-Israel boycotts as a way of pressuring the government into diplomatic concessions, because they see their goal not as defending the elected government’s chosen policies, but as forcing the government to instead adopt their own preferred policies.

Yet Israel also has some truly outstanding diplomats, like UN Ambassador Ron Prosor or Deputy Ambassador to Norway George Deek, a Christian Arab who garnered worldwide attention in September with his moving speech about his own family’s experiences in Israel. Thus instead of dismissing the entire foreign service as a bad investment, Israel would do better to figure out how to recruit more such people, and also how to get rid of the deadweight.

Ultimately, this requires devising a coherent diplomatic strategy. If the country doesn’t have a strategy to begin with, it’s impossible to screen job applicants to ensure they’re suited to carrying out this strategy. It’s also harder to make the case for diverting scarce resources from other needs to the foreign service, because without a coherent strategy, the return on this investment will necessarily be much lower.

But the lack of a diplomatic strategy is itself a symptom of an even bigger problem: Successive Israeli governments still don’t seem to have grasped the fact that Israel is engaged in a diplomatic war no less critical to its future than the military one.

As Yair Frommer, chairman of the Foreign Ministry’s union, noted at last week’s conference, Israel could open 20 new embassies for the price of just one F-35 fighter jet. Or as Gideon Meir, who retired earlier this year as the ministry’s director-general for public diplomacy, put it in a parting interview with the Jerusalem Post, Israel spends billions of dollars on buying the most advanced fighter planes from the US, but refuses to spend even a few million on public diplomacy programs aimed at ensuring that future U.S. Congresses will agree to sell it replacements when the current planes die.

If Israel did understand that it was fighting a war, investing in those extra 20 embassies would be as self-evident as investing in those fighter jets. So would investing in Meir’s sensible plan to finance visits to Israel every year for some 3,000 non-Jews influential on American college campuses – a plan that’s still languishing on some Foreign Ministry desk despite its minuscule annual price tag of $12 million. Indeed, that’s precisely why the PA does spend such an enormous part of its budget on foreign relations: Unlike Israel, it understands very well that it’s fighting a diplomatic war.

The question of what Israel’s diplomatic strategy should be is admittedly one on which reasonable people could disagree (I’ll outline my own ideas in a future column). But no reasonable person would disagree that the road to formulating such a strategy starts with recognizing two facts: Israel is engaged in a real war, and it’s currently abandoning the field to the enemy. The shocking data on Israel’s underinvestment in diplomacy that were unveiled at last week’s conference should have been a springboard for bringing this issue to public attention.

Instead, the news was swiftly buried in a spate of meaningless stories about the latest political maneuvering. And when the next diplomatic defeat inevitably arrives, Israelis will be left wondering, once again, how they lost a battle they didn’t even know they weren’t fighting.

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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