Israel’s Foreign Ministry making a comeback?

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi seeks to reassert the role of the ministry in Israel's diplomacy.

al-monitor Israel's Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (R) holds a face mask as he greets his German counterpart Heiko Maas with an "elbow bump," due to the coronavirus pandemic, at the ministry headquarters in Jerusalem, June 10, 2020. Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP via Getty Images.

Topics covered

palestinian-israeli conflict, deficit, budget, diplomacy, benjamin netanyahu, gabi ashkenazi, foreign ministry, ambassador

Jul 8, 2020

Ten new ambassadors and one consul general were appointed July 5 — a record number rarely seen in Israel in recent years. All of the new envoys are career diplomats, and all of them have served in multiple senior positions in Israel and abroad. The impressive list includes three women — Hagit Ben-Yaakov, Meirav Eilon Shahar and Zehavit Ben Hillel. And it also includes Israel’s first Bedouin ambassador — Ismail Haldi.

With most of the new envoys expected to take up office at the beginning of September, they have little time to prepare. Still, the atmosphere at the ministry in Jerusalem seems to be festive. 

Israel’s Foreign Ministry had its share of tough periods. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also served as foreign minister for several years, conducted Israel’s diplomacy out of his own office, with the diplomats relegated to relatively minor topics. The Palestinian issues, the Iranian file, the renewal of contacts with African Muslim countries and the creation of ties with Arab Gulf states were Netanyahu’s domain. And even when he finally appointed a full-time foreign minister — Israel Katz — he kept the reigns of diplomacy on the big strategic issues in his own portfolio.

Then there was the issue of the budget. In September 2019, the Finance Ministry announced the freezing of financial activities in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, following a severe budget deficit. A decision that literally meant that the ministry and its diplomatic missions abroad would be almost completely paralyzed. Israeli diplomats were shocked — but then they weren’t. Over the years, the ministry’s budget was cut again and again, so obviously in the end it went into a deficit. Some diplomats who served in Jerusalem told Al-Monitor at the time that there were no more funds even for the most basic office supplies. Inviting a foreign diplomat for a cup of coffee was out of the question; delegations of journalists from Turkey and Europe were canceled. And the list went on. The salaries of diplomats and other embassy staff also suffered, and the labor union planned strikes more than once.

And as if that was not enough, many of the responsibilities of the ministries were taken away and handed over to other ministries. For instance, the battle against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement was relegated to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, even though it was Israeli diplomats facing and confronting the boycott activists across the globe.

Shortly after being appointed, Israel’s new Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi signaled that he was going to change things. On June 7, he approved the long-awaited nomination of Amira Oron as Israel’s new ambassador to Egypt. On June 18, he appointed the much-appreciated diplomat Alon Ushpiz as the new director general of the ministry. Ushpiz replaces veteran Director General Yuval Rotem. Rotem is also a career diplomat, but after serving several years under Netanyahu, the ministry certainly needed someone new at its helm. Ministry staff appreciated Ashkenazi choosing one of their own, and not bringing in an outsider.

On June 24, Ashkenazi posted on Facebook a photo of a meeting he held at the ministry with veteran retired Israeli diplomats, writing, "I received a lot of advice, I [learned] from their rich experience, I listened to every word and wrote everything down. I promised them that I would make sure to return the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its natural place as a leading and decisive factor in policy decision-making processes and strategic stages."

Netanyahu, of course, is still holding his own diplomatic cards. He appointed Minister Gilad Erdan as Israel’s next ambassador to New York and to the United Nations. Former Deputy Minister Tzipi Hotovely, also a Likud member, is expected to be appointed ambassador to the United Kingdom. The position of ambassador to France, vacant for many months now, will also be filled by an associate of Netanyahu. And so, key diplomatic positions will be manned by loyalists of the prime minister.

The other problems are not all resolved. Israel has now its biggest-ever government, with 34 ministers and plenty of new ministries that did not exist before. Ashkenazi can expect a fierce battle with the Finance Ministry over funding and with other ministries over responsibilities. Still, his greatest challenge lies with Israel’s diplomatic agenda. If Ashkenazi manages to involve the ministry on the Palestinian and the Iran portfolios, then we could start talking about rehabilitating the Foreign Ministry.

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