Global Dialogues

Israeli Foreign Policy: Everyone is in Charge and No One is In Command

In an oft-quoted remark Henry Kissinger observed that “Israel has no foreign policy, it has only a domestic policy.” Israel keeps on proving Kissinger right and by now his bon mot has become a sad truism. But recently the truism has turned to farce as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu relentlessly takes apart Israel’s Foreign Ministry and its professional Foreign Service.

In an act of political payoff, Netanyahu did not appoint a Foreign Minister in his new cabinet at the request of Avigdor Lieberman, the former Foreign Minister, who is currently standing trial for Breach of Trust and fraud. Netanyahu has decided to keep the position open for Lieberman until the end of the trial. In the meantime, he himself is acting as the Foreign Minister. Needless to say, the Prime Minister hardly has the time to manage the daily matters of the Ministry, though he started his public career as a diplomat, and a very adept one.

Additionally, to further weaken the ministry, Netanyahu redistributed many of the traditional responsibilities of the Foreign Ministry among other ministries, some of them new and bogus creations, such as the gimmicky Ministry of International Relations. Other related ministries include the Ministry for Regional Cooperation, a Minister for Diasporas, and a Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, who is also responsible for diplomatic initiatives and peace talks with the Palestinians. Considering that Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps for himself and in his office some key aspects of Israel’s foreign relations, what we get is a beheaded and enfeebled Foreign Ministry, lacking political backing, which competes with several artificial and bogus ministries. Why is this so? Why does Netanyahu sacrifice the Foreign Ministry with its years of experience and professionalism?

One may argue that by weakening the ministry and establishing evermore competing entities, Netanyahu is trying to divide and rule, a well-worn strategy of playing all against all, so as to ‎secure his own agenda. However, in my judgment, there is no agenda as it appears that in Israel, everyone is in charge and no one is in command.

There are two possible alternative reasons for the establishment of these “bogus international ministries.” The first is the deep-seated animosity Netanyahu bears towards what is called the “old elite.” This animosity was very explicit in his first administration, between 1996 and 1999, and was targeted at various strongholds of the old elites, like the Supreme Court, national media, and academia. Though more restrained in his second and third administrations, it seems that his stand towards the diplomatic service still echoes with this rancor. The second reason for the proliferation of ministries is related to Netanyahu’s weakness. Contrary to the widespread perception of him as a strong leader (see, for example the May 2012 Time Magazine coverage of “King Bibi”), he is in fact a weak politician who is coerced and arm-twisted rather easily. The political spread of these various “international bogus ministries” is a sure sign of this weakness.

The minister charged with regional cooperation, Silvan Shalom from the Likud is a harsh internal opponent of Netanyahu, who every now and then receives some political goods to keep him at bay. The Minister of International Relations (whatever that may be) is Yuval Steinitz, a close ally and devotee of Netanyahu who had to be compensated for being “robbed” of his post as Finance Minister. The creation of the Ministry of International Relations serves no other purpose. The minister in charge of the Diasporas, Naftali Bennett, is the head of the Jewish Home, the right-wing partner in Netanyahu’s coalition. While Tzipi Livni, on the other hand, is the head of the splinter centrist party, the Movement. Each got his or her share of the spoils. And on top of them all, presides Lieberman who for years now has successfully wrested most of his wants and whims from Netanyahu, including his demand not to appoint a Foreign Minister in his place.

All these facts are a bit tedious, especially to theorists who tend to look at the macro level and examine the structure of global politics. But boring as they are, the facts are crucial in understanding and explaining Israel’s international behavior (think Goldfarb’s The Politics of Small Things and Putnam’s two-level-game). The appointments, driven as they are by various political moves and calculations, create an impossible political mosaic; impossible, that is, in terms of forming and executing coherent agendas and policies.

I doubt anyone can identify Israel’s preferences regarding the negotiation with the Palestinians and what its vision is for a final settlement. I wonder: Does John Kerry think he does today after his recent experiment in shuttle diplomacy?

Prime Minister Netanyahu declares every now and then his commitment to a two-state solution. On June 5th 2013, for example, he called on Abu Mazen not to miss yet another opportunity, asking him to “give peace a chance.” Yet, the same month it was revealed that more housing plans were being approved and built in the Occupied Territories. At the same time, Likud’s MP and Deputy Minister of Defense, Danny Danon, mocked the idea of a two-state solution. The same goes for many other Likud MPs and other coalition members who oppose any negotiation. This duplicity clearly hampers efforts by international actors, such as Kerry’s. He, like many others, receives mixed, confusing and practically impossible signals to decipher from the Israelis (as well as from the Palestinians).

The same duplicity was evident in a recent attempt to craft a joint Israeli/Polish declaration prior to Netanyahu’s official visit to Poland. Mid-level bureaucrats met and published a very moderate declaration approving the two-state solution. Not a day passed before Netanyahu distanced himself from the statement and effectively voided it. Maybe if the professional and skilled diplomats of the Foreign Ministry had been involved in the process, none of the subsequent diplomatic embarrassment would have occurred. But nowadays who consults the Israeli Foreign Ministry? No wonder the frustrated Israeli diplomats have been on strike for the past three months or so, partly because of their deteriorating salaries and partly as a result of the steady gutting of their ministry. It should not come as a surprise that the Prime Minister (who is also the Acting Foreign Minister) does not even meet with the striking diplomats. It seems that no one in the government really cares.

But then again, how could the diplomats, skilled as they are, solve those problems if no one provides them with a coherent agenda and agreed upon policies? And those agendas and policies will not be formed by themselves. They must be developed by a government that acts as Plato’s Captain of the Ship. And the seas that Israel rides, it should be noted, are rough indeed and full of existential challenges; but also, we should not ignore, of opportunities. The regional seclusion of Israel that has lasted for decades is being challenged now by changing circumstances, for example the Arab uprisings and the recent discoveries of Eastern Mediterranean gas. Thus, there are those in Israel who call upon the government to rethink its position in the region following the Arab Spring, to embrace the Arab Peace Initiative, and adopt a more regional integrationist position. This was, for example, the message of Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, in his address at the Israeli Presidential Conference, on June 19th 2013. However, also those calls fall prey to the aimless drifting of the ship.

Without a captain and without a skilled and trusted crew, such as the Foreign Ministry diplomats, the Israeli ship would appear to be hazardously drifting to the shoals. ‎

This post is an abbreviated version of a working paper published by The Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI).