Israel’s foreign diplomacy has never been its strongest asset, but there is no denying the dedication of the underpaid, under-resourced employees of Israel’s foreign service. Now the hard-pressed diplomats of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs have taken the unprecedented step of refusing to assist ministers of their own government, officers of the Israel Defense Forces or the Shin Bet secret service traveling abroad.
The sanctions are a last-ditch protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wholesale destruction of the Foreign Ministry, which is being carved up salami-style in a bizarre strategy that is in danger of wrecking what little is left of Israel’s tattered international diplomacy. Here’s how Netanyahu, himself a former deputy foreign minister, is picking the ministry to pieces.
1. Refusing to appoint a foreign minister
Does Israel even need a foreign minister? Not according to Netanyahu, who has decided to leave the post open pending the hoped-for acquittal of Avigdor Lieberman, currently standing trial on charges of fraud and breach of trust.
2. Pretend foreign minister #1: the Public Diplomacy Ministry
In 2009, Netanyahu re-styled the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs as the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs under Likud Party loyalist Yuli Edelstein, thus stripping the Foreign Ministry of its lead role in Israel’s foreign information strategy—usually known by the Hebrew word hasbara (“explanation”). Israel’s hasbara has always been dreadful, but under Edelstein—whose gentlemanly manner masks a right-wing religious-messianic fanaticism forged under brutal Soviet oppression—it reached a new, uncoordinated nadir. The new ministry took over the Government Press Office, which handles the registration of resident and visiting journalists, re-locating it from its ramshackle but accessible central Jerusalem building to an unmarked and impossible-to-find suite of rooms above a girls’ college near the Malcha Shopping Mall miles from the center. The ministry’s lowest point was its release of the hallucinatory Gaza Hasbara Rape video in which Israel was depicted as a sexually abused young woman in a bizarre encounter with a male therapist.
3. Pretend foreign minister #2: appointing Tzipi Livni to head peace talks
So who’s handling peace talks with the Palestinians? That would be Tzipi Livni, officially minister of justice and herself a former foreign minister. Is she drawing on the experience of her former colleagues who have been engaged in negotiations with the Palestinians since Oslo in 1993? Um, no. Are the Israeli ambassadors and their diplomats stationed around the world equipped to field queries from foreign governments and media about the progress of Livni’s talks? Um, no. And does she actually have the mandate to negotiate a historic peace deal and the concessions it would necessarily entail? Um, no.
4. Pretend foreign minister #3: appointing Yuval Steinitz to head economic talks
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is busy negotiating an extensive package of economic and trade agreements between Israel and the Palestinians to be implemented alongside a renewed peace process. Is he talking to the Israeli Foreign Ministry? Um, no. That’s being negotiated by Yuval Steinitz, who is head of the new Ministry of International Relations and Strategic Affairs, which sounds an awful lot like a foreign ministry. Do the Foreign Ministry diplomats and spokesman know anything about the Steinitz-Kerry talks? Um, no.
5. Failing to discipline rogue cabinet ministers
So what is Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians? Netanyahu says he is committed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Danny Danon, the deputy defense minister, says Netanyahu and the Likud are completely opposed to a two-state deal and the talks are just for show. Has Netanyahu fired Danon? Um, no. But Bibi did forbid Likud ministers from attending the launch of the Knesset pro-settlement caucus. So what is Israel’s policy? Nobody knows, least of all Israel’s ambassadors who have to explain it.
6. Ignoring Foreign Ministry protests
The Foreign Ministry diplomats have been protesting since February, and imposing sanctions for several weeks. Netanyahu even called in the Israeli army to try and bust their strike. Has Bibi, who is officially the part-time foreign minister, met with his own staff to try and solve the increasingly damaging dispute? Um, no.
7. Netanyahu’s foreign policy
Don’t get me started.