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Netanyahu wants diplomacy, without diplomatic missions

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes statements about reinforcing Israel’s diplomatic outreach, but at the same time, he plans to close diplomatic missions abroad.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem January 21, 2018. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool - RC1C497858C0

The publicized Jan. 21 appearance by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before Israeli ambassadors and heads of Israeli delegations abroad supplied immediate headlines, but top Foreign Ministry officials eagerly awaited the closed-door meeting with him. They hoped to hear that the prime minister, who also serves as the country’s foreign minister, would pledge to fight the Finance Ministry’s demand for significant cuts in their budget.

Their hopes were dashed. Netanyahu told them that despite the Foreign Ministry’s role in Israel’s recent diplomatic achievements, structural changes were required so that some of its budget could be used to fund diplomatic activities rather than embassies and staff. That means closing down seven Israeli offices abroad in 2019. The initial Finance Ministry demands would have meant the closure of 22 of Israel’s 103 foreign offices and dismissal of 20% of the ministry’s staff to save 126 million Israeli shekels ($37 million) from the total budget of 1.5 billion shekels ($440 million).

Negotiations yielded a compromise — only minor budget cuts, cancellation of a promised supplementary budget and closure of several offices (apparently seven, as aforementioned) to free up funding for diplomatic activities. The government approved this budget proposal some two weeks ago.

The Foreign Ministry was proud of its achievement, as reflected in the Dec. 21 vote by the UN General Assembly on a resolution condemning US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Because of extensive lobbying, 35 states abstained, 21 were no-shows and nine voted against the resolution. A majority of 128 states voted in favor, but Israel was pleased that many states had decided to abstain or stay away. Generally, it can only count on small, non-influential players like Micronesia for backing. That is why the ministry had different hopes of the budget and of Netanyahu.

The prime minister, too, took credit for the results at the United Nations, and his office expressed “satisfaction with the number of countries that did not vote in favor of the resolution," adding that these were, for the most part, states that Netanyahu visited. The professional echelons at the Foreign Ministry are also satisfied with Netanyahu’s performance as minister of foreign affairs, especially in developing states that he views as important targets for Israeli diplomacy. However, without the aid that Israel offers these countries, even a top-level diplomatic effort might not have sufficed.

Ambassador Gil Haskel, the ministry’s deputy general manager and head of Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation, oversees aid for civilian projects — mainly in the fields of agriculture and water resource management in which Israel specializes. Two leading aid recipients, Guatemala and Honduras, voted in favor of Israel at the UN on Jerusalem, along with the United States. Guatemala even announced that it would join the United States in moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Israel’s ambassador to Honduras, Matty Cohen, told Al-Monitor that the small Central American country has a history of cooperation with Israel, going back to Nov. 29, 1947, when it voted at the UN in favor of the partition resolution that divided Palestine between Jews and Arabs. Guatemala’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Jorge Granados, was the very first to vote for the creation of the State of Israel, and he helped bring on board other member states. Ties have only grown stronger in recent years. Two of Guatemala’s foreign ministers are graduates of Mashav programs, and President Jimmy Morales is a member of the evangelical community known for its support of Israel. Cohen said Morales and Guatemala’s leadership are hoping their stance will translate into greater aid from Jerusalem and Washington. The same is true for Honduras. President Juan Orlando Hernandez is a graduate of a Mashav program for empowerment and leadership.

Haskel told Al-Monitor that Israel’s aid to developing countries enjoys a high profile, and Israel is considered a significant world power in agriculture and water management — although the financial aid itself is small compared with Europe’s. UN votes on Israel by African states fluctuate, depending significantly on the extent of Israeli aid, he added.

According to Haskel, in 1971 the UN set a level of 0.7% of member states’ gross national product as the benchmark for foreign aid to poor countries. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has adopted this figure, but according to its data, Israel only invests 200 million shekels ($59 million) annually in foreign aid — about 10% of the recommended rate. “We are among the 25 richest states in the world, and the Finance Ministry acts as if we are still a developing nation,” he said.

Haskel initiated a program called “fifty-fifty,” the thrust of which is the allocation of an additional $50 million annually for aid to 50 states to entrench Israel’s diplomatic standing. He said this is a revolutionary scheme that could provide Israel with a 50-state bloc of support at international organizations such as the UN. The UN vote on the Jerusalem resolution clearly proves the importance of such a plan, he added.

Netanyahu warmly embraced Haskel’s initiative last month and even announced that he would ensure its implementation. At the conference with the Israeli ambassadors this week, he once again underscored the program’s importance. However, not one shekel has been allocated for the plan in 2018, and the 2019 budget approved by the government at the beginning of January makes no mention of it either. Haskel expressed regret that the budget did not reflect Netanyahu’s declarations.

The following story also reflects the gap between words and actions. On Nov. 28, Netanyahu informed Rwandan President Paul Kagame that Israel was about to open an embassy in his country. Absurdly, due to the Treasury’s planned budget cuts, a diplomat will be sent to Kigali at the expense of another diplomatic office that will be shut down. The transferred budget would probably only be just enough for settling the diplomat there and paying for security measures. No sufficient change would be left for the significant diplomatic activity that the Treasury and the prime minister wanted so badly to boost.

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