At times, it feels as if the roller coaster ride to which the Foreign Ministry has been subjected over the past few months was destined from above. Perhaps somebody slapped it with the old curse so that it may live in interesting times.
Or it could just be that a mere symptom of Israel’s complicated coalition arithmetics, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s various political strategies, has caught Israel’s diplomatic corps in the middle of the tug-of-war between competing interests.
As Israel’s 34th government was finally completed Monday, the Foreign Ministry still appeared to suffer from a severe leadership vacuum. At the very least, there is some serious confusion as to who is going to shape Israel’s foreign policy, and how.
Refusing to appoint a full-time foreign minister, Netanyahu kept the job for himself and appointed the hawkish Tzipi Hotovely to be his deputy. He tasked Interior Minister Silvan Shalom with heading up any future peace talks with the Palestinians, made Naftali Bennett Diaspora minister and Gilad Erdan public diplomacy and strategic affairs minister.
On Monday, Netanyahu announced that he had dismissed Foreign Ministry director-general Nissim Ben-Shitrit — a professional diplomat with nearly half a century’s experience — and replaced him with his longtime confidant Dore Gold.
While Gold’s appointment came as a surprise, some Israeli diplomats believe that it might improve their standing — despite the fact that Gold is an outsider who has never worked in the Foreign Ministry.
Some pundits said Netanyahu appointed a yes-man to keep Hotovely in check. The new deputy foreign minister is a vocal opponent of the two-state solution and has called for the annexation of the West Bank — a position Netanyahu knows is unacceptable to the foreign dignitaries she is supposed to greet in her position. Placing Gold at the ministry’s helm could be one way of ensuring that his vision (of a demilitarized Palestinian state) prevails over her ideal of a one-state solution.
Clearly, Netanyahu’s move demonstrates that he no longer hopes to keep the coveted foreign portfolio for a future coalition partner (if ever he did). Had he truly wanted Isaac Herzog to be foreign minister, he wouldn’t make Gold the ministry’s boss. Rather than keeping the seat warm for someone else, it appears that Netanyahu intends to be an active foreign minister who controls the ministry’s day-to-day workings.
Critics were quick to suggest that Gold’s well-known right-wing views were liable to further erode Israel’s standing in the international community. Gold “is considered to have relatively hawkish views on the Palestinian issue and has never publicly voiced support for the two-state solution, the establishment of a Palestinian state or Netanyahu’s 2009 speech at Bar-Ilan University, in which the prime minister came out in favor of the two-state solution,” according to the left-leaning daily Haaretz.
The right, of course, celebrated Gold’s nomination. By appointing “another strong nationalist” beside Hotovely, Netanyahu confirmed that the new government will pursue right-wing policies, Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu wrote in the Jewish Press. “Both Gold and Hotovely are religious, which rounds out the Foreign Ministry as solid national-religious domain, one which will be a lot more uncomfortable for US Secretary of State John Kerry.”
A former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations and currently the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Gold has been a longstanding member of Netanyahu’s inner circle. He served as foreign policy adviser during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister (1996-97) and again from 2013 until the last elections were called.
“During the period in which Benjamin Netanyahu served as the head of the Israeli opposition, Gold was instrumental in forging the relationship between the Likud party leadership and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in response to the strategic ties that were growing between Israel’s Labor government and the PLO under Yasser Arafat,” according to a biography on Gold’s website. The Connecticut native also served as Netanyahu’s special envoy to the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan “and others in the Arab world.”
‘Now a person who has the prime minister’s ears, and his trust, runs the office. This is a real advantage’
Some diplomatic sources said Gold, who has a doctorate from Columbia University, is perfect for the job: His English is immaculate and he has a solid understanding of Israel’s many foreign policy challenges. He’s also not an unfamiliar face to the Foreign Ministry. “Of course he was a political appointment [when he served as ambassador to the UN], but he was still in the system,” a former senior diplomat said. “Over the years, his Jerusalem Center has interfaced with us on a number of issues. He’s not a stranger.”
Others argued that Gold — whose stint as ambassador in the late 1990s lasted for only a year and a half — has been away from the Foreign Ministry for too long to know how to run the place effectively.
After all, Gold’s main job will not be to act as Israel’s spokesperson. Rather, the Foreign Ministry’s director-general is in charge of a huge bureaucracy that deals with many, sometimes thankless tasks, such as the ministry’s Workers Union and its fight for higher wages, or organizing rescue missions to far-flung countries.
Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman said he had no problem with Gold’s appointment per se, but lamented that Israel’s position on Palestinian statehood is unclear, referring to the fact that Netanyahu says he’s committed to a two-state solution while Hotovely and Silvan Shalom, the point man for Palestinian talks, are not.
“Appointments and decisions don’t replace a clear policy,” Liberman said Monday. He lamented the appointment of a director-general “who is very close to the prime minister and works straight over the head of the deputy foreign minister.” He also lashed out at Netanyahu for “handing out most of the Foreign Ministry’s responsibilities to other ministries and other people.”
Liberman did not install one of his cronies during his six years as minister (though he had wanted to give the nod to his adviser Sharon Shalom).
By law, every incoming minister has the right to replace the director-general with a person of his or her heart’s desire. And most recent foreign ministers didn’t hesitate to depose the incumbent and appoint one of their associates. In 2006, for example, Tzipi Livni brought in Aaron Abramovich, who had no foreign policy experience. In the 1980s, foreign minister Shimon Peres appointed his protégé Yossi Beilin.
By tapping Gold, Netanyahu is not undermining the ministry, but rather is acting like just one more foreign minister appointing his own people to ensure he fully controls the goings-on in the office.
“The Foreign Ministry always complains that it has been sidelined,” a diplomat said, referring to the fact that responsibility for peace talks with the Palestinians, relations with the United States and Turkey, and other strategic issues, have been outsourced to other ministries over recent years. “Now a person who has the prime minister’s ears, and his trust, runs the office. This is a real advantage.”
For the first times in many years, the prime minister did not give the Foreign Ministry to a different party and can therefore more easily use it to advance his policy initiatives, this diplomat said. Liberman, for example, had a different vision of how Jerusalem should approach the peace process, which is why Netanyahu removed the Palestinian file from the Foreign Ministry’s responsibilities. “Now the prime minister can look at the Foreign Ministry and know that it will do what he wants, because the director-general is his man,” the diplomat said.
While giving the nod to an outsider also has disadvantages, Gold’s appointment will guarantee that the ministry’s professional echelon will speak with the same voice as its political echelon, the diplomat added. “That makes us more relevant than we’ve been in years.”
Another Foreign Ministry source agreed that while Gold’s predecessors had long diplomatic careers under their belt, the incoming director-general has the advantage that he speaks with the authority of someone very close to the prime minister.
Whether Gold’s appointment will prove beneficial to the ministry depends on Netanyahu’s intentions, the source said. “If Netanyahu uses Gold to activate the Foreign Ministry for him, he will make it more relevant. If Gold’s mission is to subdue and to better control the ministry, then it will be quite the opposite.”