Israel Pulse

Liberman suspends Israeli diplomats for Twitter criticism

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Article Summary
Three Israeli diplomats have been suspended after criticizing the government on their personal Twitter accounts, revealing the despair felt by many of their colleagues vis-à-vis Israel's current foreign policy.

In mid-February, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem will start proceedings for the dismissal of three Israeli diplomats. The three were immediately summoned home after posting sharply critical remarks about the prime minister’s policies on their private Twitter accounts. Barring last-minute surprises, this will be the first time that members of the diplomatic staff will lose their jobs due to irregular activity on social media.

The most senior among the three was Yigal Caspi, Israel’s ambassador to Switzerland, who on Jan. 21 retweeted acerbic criticism by Israel Radio presenter Esti Perez against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his impending speech to Congress: “Frightening us here in Hebrew is no longer enough? Does one have to fly all the way to the US and Congress and talk there in English about the dangers of the Iranian nuclear program?”

Caspi was particularly active on Twitter that day, also retweeting Israeli daily Haaretz correspondent Barak Ravid in English: “Every time one thinks Netanyahu has taken the relationship with the White House to the lowest point ever, he manages to take it even lower.” Caspi then retweeted Ravid in Hebrew, as well: “Israeli government strategy over the past six years for dealing with diplomatic challenges is boycotts, fortifications and victimhood. No initiative, no creativity and no diplomacy.”

The tweets clearly reflect Caspi’s difficulty in coping with Netanyahu’s foreign policy — which he is obliged to defend as part of his job, and his apparent inability to mask his frustration, which he expresses through Twitter.

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Caspi’s tweets came to light by chance, when Israeli newspaper Maariv reporter Ariel Kahana asked the Foreign Ministry for its reaction on the tweets, and all hell broke loose. The ministry’s top brass were stunned: True, there are no specific instructions to the diplomatic staff to refrain from expressing personal opinions on social media, and there’s no surveillance of the diplomats’ activity on social media, but the initial feeling was that someone here had gotten confused.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, himself a target of Caspi’s slings on Twitter — he criticized the way Liberman ousted his party’s incumbent Cabinet ministers from the Yisrael Beitenu Knesset slate for the coming elections — ordered that Caspi be suspended immediately and summoned for a disciplinary hearing ahead of dismissal.

At the same time, two other rebellious diplomats were exposed: the political counselor of the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, Assaf Moran, and an employee of the ministry’s research division, Yaron Gamburg. The two retweeted criticism against Netanyahu and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett. Liberman ordered their suspension, too, and summoned them back to Israel for disciplinary hearings ahead of dismissal.

There is no doubt that the past few weeks have not been easy for Israeli diplomats, especially in Europe and the United States. They are required to stand firm against a diplomatic tsunami washing over Israel and harsh attacks on Netanyahu ahead of his planned speech to Congress on March 3. Caspi — as one obliged to represent a certain policy that he regards as damaging — is undoubtedly truly distressed, but with his retweets he has apparently abused his office and violated the basic rules of senior echelon diplomacy. Did he not understand the seriousness of his actions? Did he secretly want to be caught so that he could extricate himself from his inability to deal with this duplicity? That’s unclear.

Caspi is not the first diplomat, or the last, who is required to keep his personal opinions to himself. It happened to others at various times before him. But a case such as this, with one of the top ambassadors in the Israeli foreign service muckraking against the prime minister in public, for all the world to see, is exceptional and unprecedented.

According to Gideon Meir, formerly the deputy director of the Foreign Ministry and Israeli ambassador to Italy, public criticism of heads of state by diplomats is severe and unconscionable. “Diplomats have to protect government policy under all circumstances, 24 hours a day,” he told Al-Monitor. “For all intents and purposes, they ‘have no opinion,’ exactly like military officers. This is an elementary part of their job description. Like a lawyer defending a client, here the elected government is my client, and my opinions do not matter. If a diplomat feels distress and wants to express his opinion, he can do so once every few years at the ballot box. If he’s having a really hard time, he should quit his job. Loyalty to the elected government is all encompassing. Unable to commit? Say goodbye.”

Senior Foreign Ministry officials believe there will be no alternative but to fire the diplomats. “These are senior figures in the Israeli diplomatic squad, and what they did is to put a spoke in the wheel. Anything they write, even on their personal accounts, is a view that can be quoted. Would Caspi allow himself to say such things about Netanyahu in a speech? After all, at that very moment he would stir up a storm. As far as we’re concerned, it’s the same thing. In the best-case scenario, it’s stupidity, and at worst it’s deliberately harming the state,” said a top official.

The expected dismissal of the three diplomats was making waves at the Foreign Ministry and Israeli missions abroad, and if anyone had any doubt that personal Twitter accounts are also a type of official letterhead of the State of Israel, he was firmly disabused of the notion.

Nonetheless, it is hard to ignore the fact that the anticipated “tweets' dismissal” affair reflects the diplomats’ distress these days, when Israeli-US relations are at such a nadir. A senior diplomat, speaking with Al-Monitor on Feb. 6, described the great difficulties facing the diplomatic staff in the United States. “It’s a difficult situation. Netanyahu’s speech to Congress is a sort of terror attack. It’s hard to explain why the speech is necessary. A large number of Israeli diplomats in the US feel helpless, that they’ve been thrown into battle without suitable ammunition, and they are standing speechless in the face of what seems to be long-term damage. I don’t envy them for a minute.”

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Found in: twitter, tweets, israel, freedom of expression, dismissal, congress, benjamin netanyahu, avigdor liberman

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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