Two former ministers on Monday attacked the government’s approach to foreign policy, arguing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who also serves as foreign minister, is intentionally weakening Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
During a jointly organized Knesset conference, Yesh Atid party chairman Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman lamented plans to close Israeli embassies and consulates across the globe and called on Netanyahu to appoint a full-time foreign minister and immediately embark on diplomatic initiatives to improve the country’s international standing.
The conference marked an unlikely alliance between the centrist Lapid and the hawkish Liberman. Political differences aside, ex-TV anchor Lapid has sought to present his Yesh Atid as a clean, fresh political grouping; Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu has been engulfed in a series of corruption scandals.
“The deterioration of our foreign relations is dramatic,” declared Lapid, who served as finance minister in Netanyahu’s third government, before the prime minister fired him and called new elections. “Our international standing has never so terrible, from 1948 until today. And what makes things even worse is that the government does not realize this. They are pretending that everything is alright. Everything is not alright.”
Israel’s national security depends on the quality of its soldiers and its strategic alliances, Lapid declared. And whereas in the past, France helped build the nuclear facility in Dimona, Germany subsidized submarines and the US provided handsome military aid packages, Lapid said that “today we wouldn’t get that.”
Lapid’s comments appear to contradict current German and American policies on aid to Israel.
Addressing a packed room, the Yesh Atid leader further decried the fact that only one half of one percent of the national state budget goes to the Foreign Ministry and that its responsibilities have been delegated to various other ministries.
“Israeli hasbara [public diplomacy] is spread out over five ministries, and none knows what the others are doing. It doesn’t have to be like that,” he said. “We can win. Israel can be accepted and beloved and its version of things can be heard. But we need to work on it. It’s possible.”
Liberman, who served as foreign minister in two Netanyahu governments, most recently until May 2015, launched a bitter salvo against the prime minister. “The Foreign Ministry is the personal property of nobody, including the Netanyahu family. You can’t just take it and run it into the ground,” he said.
“What is happening today is not only absurd; it’s a real attempt to take the Israeli foreign service by force and simply destroy it,” Liberman added.
The Foreign Ministry’s budget for public advocacy stands at a mere NIS 5 million ($1.28 million) per year, the former foreign minister said. “What campaign against BDS [the anti-Israel boycott, divest and sanctions movement] can we talk about?”
Liberman went on to slam the government for its recent decision to close down several representative offices, including in Minsk, Marseille and Philadelphia. “I don’t understand what the motivation is for these moves,” he said, arguing that in times of unprecedented anti-Israel agitation in France and the US, Israel should invest more and not less in diplomacy.
He charged that the government has failed to formulate a unified foreign policy, and that while one minister expresses a hope for the demise of the Palestinian Authority, another says the PA’s survival is in Israel’s interests. Netanyahu seeks a detente with Turkey, the former foreign minister said, while Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked calls for a Kurdish state.
“Israel has no such thing as foreign policy. There is [just] utter neglect,” Liberman concluded.
Taking the podium after Lapid and Liberman concluded their introductory remarks, several speakers addressed Israel’s foreign relations, among them Israeli diplomats, current and former MKs and international public relations professionals.
MK Michael Oren (Kulanu), the only representative of the coalition present and a former Israeli ambassador to the US, stopped short of criticizing the government, but called on Israel to increase efforts to improve the country’s image on the international stage.
Toward the end of the one-hour conference, Liberman admitted that he failed to influence Netanyahu’s policies on major issues during his time as foreign minister.
“That’s why I am not in the government today,” he said.
“When it comes to foreign policy, there is no [clear] line. When there is a policy I can agree with, there would be no reason why I wouldn’t join [the coalition]. But I’ve been there, done that already. We tried to change things from inside, and that didn’t work. So now we’re trying to change things from the outside.”
The hawkish Liberman conceded that he and Lapid disagree on many issues, “but we agree that without a strong diplomatic apparatus we won’t make any progress.”
Netanyahu, speaking later at his Likud party’s weekly faction meeting, mocked the conference as a political ploy.
“So there are some who choose to talk endlessly and to deal in political conferences, and there are those who fend off the pressures on the State of Israel and strengthen our international alliances in order to safeguard our future here,” he said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely also dismissed Lapid and Liberman’s effort as a cynical political exercise. “The connection between Liberman and Lapid is a cynical connection of ‘new politics’ and old politics,” she said, mocking Yesh Atid’s slogan during the 2013 elections. “Conferences attacking the Foreign Ministry will not enhance Israel’s international standing.”