I begin with a full disclosure: a few months ago the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent me to an Asian country to advise its government in understanding a difficult matter regarding the Islamic population of that state and how to deal with this matter. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized the event perfectly, in both the professional and logistical aspects, and the Israeli ambassador of that state personally accompanied me in my meetings with the local professionals.
These days, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is preparing a promotional film on Israel, and in the leading role is Bar Rafaeli, whose participation in the film arouses a wave of objection, because she did not serve in the military. Some official sources also objected, especially the IDF itself, because her participation in an official film produced by the state of Israel could be interpreted as sending a message of leniency towards people who have not served in the IDF. These days, when “sharing the burden equally” has become a political mantra on the level of “It is better to die than commit certain sins”, the IDF expects the Ministry of Foreign Affairs not to act in a way that whitewashes the evasion of military service in the IDF. But it seems that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not think it’s a problem.
This case – in my view – is an indication of the way too many people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs think. The employees of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are public servants, not appointed by the minister, and most are graduates of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ cadet’s course. This was supposed to provide the state of Israel with a working staff that is professional and relevant, and executes the decisions of the government professionally and faithfully, and without dispute.
IN FACT, the reality is totally different. The social profile of workers in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is fairly suitable to the model of the “Akhusalim” – coined by the sociologist Prof. Baruch Kimmerling, who described the state of Israel of the 1970s as being governed by an elite group of people who were Ashkenazim (Jews of European descent), secular, members of the old guard, socialist, and nationalist, forming the Hebrew acronym Akhusal.
In general, one can say that the political, social, diplomatic and cultural agenda of the staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs resembles that of the Labor party (and perhaps also Meretz) much more than it resembles that of the Likud, despite the fact that since 1977 there have been more than a few governments led by the Likud. The proportion of religious, ultra-Orthodox, and Arabs who are staff members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is significantly lower than their proportional representation in the population of the state of Israel.
As a result of this, Avigdor Leiberman, a minister from the Right, found it difficult to impose his political agenda on his subordinates because of the simple reason that he could not appoint staff that suited him. The political echelon (the prime minister and minister of foreign affairs) can appoint no more than eleven people in the ministry, from the level of ambassador to the person who serves tea, and a minister who cannot place his people in key positions will find it difficult to control what is done in the ministry. My sense is that Leiberman was “persona non grata” in the eyes of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff.
THE POLITICAL agenda of the staff in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has created an absurd situation, in which the ministry that is the spokesman for the policies of the prime minister and is responsible for hasbara (dissemination of public relations information), is entrusted with explaining government positions, despite the prime minister being far from being of “one mind” with the officials in the ministry of foreign affairs.
This disparity became obvious in the early 2000s, when the prime minister was Ariel Sharon and the minister of foreign affairs was Shimon Peres. With the passing of years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has adopted political language that does not reflect the policy of Israel by using expressions such as “the occupied territories” (occupied from whom?), “settlements” (instead of communities), “Palestinian people” (even Azmi Bishara* doesn’t think that there is such a people) and “solution of two states for two peoples.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also abandoned the opinion of Prof. Yehuda Blum, who was the legal advisor of the ministry and the Israeli representative in the U.N., in which he proved that according to international law, the “territories” are not occupied, not to mention the documents that grant the Jewish people rights and sovereignty over all of the Land of Israel, such as the decision of the San Remo Conference in 1920.
During the past ten years, I have personally come across this way of thinking among more than a few staff members of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is evident also in the way that the ministry functions. At the end of the year 2000, when the Palestinian terrorists resumed blowing up our buses and their passengers, I wrote a short article in English about the world of the martyr, and the type of reward that he expects in paradise after he carries out his mission successfully. I sent the article to a senior official who was then responsible for hasbara, assuming that he would send the article to Israeli representatives abroad, so that they could send it to local newspapers all over the world.
After two days I called to determine the fate of the article, and the official told me: “We decided not to make any use of the article.” I asked “Why?” And the official answered me: “It’s not nice to get involved with other peoples’ faiths, and it’s not our business to get into the fantasies of other cultures.” I thundered: “My friend, we are being killed in buses because of the fantasies of another culture!!!” “Nevertheless, he answered, “this is our final decision.” Two years passed and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to publish horrible photographs from terror attacks, but only on the internet. The faithful official has been promoted, and today he fills a senior position in the ministry.
In another matter regarding the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in which I was involved, concerning Israeli policy in the Palestinian matter, I was a witness to officials saying something like: “We must direct the government to adopt the policy that we think is correct.” In this case, “the correct policy” was the establishment of a Palestinian state with territorial contiguity based on the 1948 borders with slight border adjustments. The significance of this was that officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, public servants, see themselves as policy designers rather than workers who carry out the policies of the prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, who were elected by the public.
Those familiar with the British series “Yes, Minister” and its sequel “Yes, Prime Minister,” know exactly what I mean: public service has an agenda, and the role of the senior officials is to lead the minister, who is elected by the public, in the direction that the officials think is right. The minister is fed the information that the officials supply him with, so he thinks that he is making the decisions independently.
A THIRD MATTER regarding the agenda of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pertains to the subject of hasbara. The very fact that the previous government of Israel decided to establish a separate office to deal with hasbara (and the diaspora) proves that there is a problem in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Even if this decision was made because of the need to find a job for an important person, the establishment of the ministry of hasbara indicates a certain lack of confidence on the prime minister’s part in the officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who should be responsible for hasbara. It may be that they even quietly supported the establishment of this ministry, because they did not demonstrate against it or go on strike because of it, and my impression is that they are not comfortable with explaining the government policy anyway, because it is not consistent with their views. This might also explain the fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not making any effort to establish an Israeli satellite television channel, either in English or Arabic.
The Agranat report on the performance of the government during the Second Lebanon War (2006) also dealt with the failures in hasbara, which was then the responsibility of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. The conclusion drawn in the report was that an office of spokesperson and hasbara should be established. And that this office should be included in the office of the prime minister, and would function as a headquarters of national hasbara and be responsible for all other agencies of hasbara and spokesmen, such as those that operate in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IDF and the Ministry of Internal Security. The fact that this body had to be established proves that there are problems within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and principally that it has its own separate agenda, which is evident when the officials attempt to speak in the name of the government and prime minister and explain their actions, while holding views that are at odds with those of the government.
BUT THE ISSUE of a separate agenda is not the only problem that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has. Another problem relates to the general decline in the importance of the Foreign Ministry in an era when heads of state talk with each other daily on cellular telephones and coordinate matters of policy without involving the ambassadors; in an era when participation between states in many varied areas (economic, financial, cultural, artistic, academic, military, security and more) are routinely carried out without the involvement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; in an era when every citizen who publicizes and/or distributes an article, clip or photograph on the Internet becomes a national spokesman; in an era when the media go over the heads of the officials of the bureaucracy and bring the words of the government and prime minister to every living room the world over and in an age when the ambassador of a country is at most an official who is in charge of carrying out what others ask him to do. How many Israelis know the names of the Israeli ambassadors in Paris, London or Moscow?
In the newly formed government, there is a minister responsible for foreign policy, and another minister who is responsible for relations with the U.S.
The conclusion to be drawn from all of the above is that because of the external changes as well as the way the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs functions, this ministry has become an office of minor importance and little influence on what happens inside Israel as well as between Israel and other countries. To me, the ministries of health, transportation, infrastructures and the interior are more important, influential and meaningful to both present and future matters of the state in Israel than the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and perhaps the time has come to say openly that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has become nothing more than the coordinator of government activities in foreign countries.
Even now, Israeli representatives serve as a base for professional activities of branches of other ministries – interior, security and the IDF, industry, commerce and tourism, police – while the diplomatic function of an ambassador has been considerably limited.
INSTEAD OF of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs leading government policy, the government should take the Ministry of Foreign Affairs out of the circles of true and important decision-making. A ministry whose intellectual approach is mired in the political agenda of a minority, becomes less and less relevant when the dreamers from the school of Shimon Peres and the “New Middle East” get slapped in the face by the reality of the Middle East. I propose to examine the budget of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the slots for staff, and to direct them into more important, effective and relevant channels for the Israeli people after the era of the rule of the “Akhusalim.”
*Translator’s note: Azmi Bishara is an Arab former member of Knesset who fled Israel after being suspected of transferring information to the enemy during wartime.
About the Author: Dr. Mordechai Kedar (Ph.D. Bar-Ilan U.) Served for 25 years in IDF Military Intelligence specializing in Arab political discourse, Arab mass media, Islamic groups and the Syrian domestic arena. A lecturer in Arabic at Bar-Ilan U., he is also an expert on Israeli Arabs.
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