Cabinet okays Israel Katz replacing Eli Cohen as foreign minister, in planned move

Change during wartime, while in keeping with rotation agreement, indicates that ‘the centers of diplomatic power lie elsewhere’ in the government, says expert

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and Energy Minister Israel Katz. (Collage/AP)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and Energy Minister Israel Katz. (Collage/AP)

The cabinet on Sunday approved Energy Minister Israel Katz’s appointment, pending Knesset approval, as the nation’s top diplomat, replacing Foreign Minister Eli Cohen who filled the role for a year in line with an internal Likud party rotation agreement.

Despite leaving the Foreign Ministry, Cohen will continue to serve as a member of the security cabinet and will return as foreign minister in 2026, assuming the current government is still in power.

Katz, who had previously served as foreign minister from 2019 to 2020, is entering the ministry at a crucial time for the diplomatic service, which must maintain Jerusalem’s international ties and represent the country on the world stage amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

Some experts believe that the switch reflects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of sidelining the Foreign Ministry by cutting and centralizing some of its responsibilities within his own office.

Since 2015, Netanyahu has overseen a significant shrinking of the Foreign Ministry’s budget, leading to repeated wage disputes — including one in 2019 during which Israeli embassies and consulates around the world shut down in protest after the Treasury reportedly backtracked on previous understandings and said it would force the envoys to pay back thousands of dollars that they had been reimbursed for expenses.

“The coalition agreement signed a year ago, which included two rotations between Eli Cohen and Israel Katz as foreign ministers, did not make diplomatic sense before the war in Gaza, and still does not make sense now,” said Dr. Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute and president of Mitvim—The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, Dec. 31, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

“However, the fact that it is going on as planned during a time of war, without concerns that it might damage Israel’s foreign policy or global standing, shows the crisis in Israel’s foreign service,” he told The Times of Israel.

He opined, though, that neither minister would “leave a major foreign policy mark.”

“The centers of diplomatic power lie elsewhere, including Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Adviser [Tzachi] Hanegbi, and – as always – Prime Minister Netanyahu himself,” Goren said.

Dermer, who was in Washington last week to meet with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, is a close Netanyahu confidant who often serves as a quasi-foreign minister.

FILE – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) hosts Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, August 17, 2023. (Secretary of State Blinken, via Twitter)

The rotation “was idiotic to begin with even without a war. This is just a show of [Netanyahu’s] total lack of seriousness toward the job, the responsibility, the mission,” said a former senior Foreign Ministry official who spoke to The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity. “What can you achieve in a year? It looks like a circus, not like a government.”

“I think that it’s obvious that no serious foreign government will take the foreign minister seriously because they will know he’s just arrived and will have hardly unpacked his bags before leaving again,” the former official added, declaring that Katz’s previous tenure as minister was short and unremarkable.

Shortly after being appointed foreign minister for the first time in 2019, Katz sparked a diplomatic row with Warsaw after publicly stating that Poles “suckle antisemitism with their mother’s milk,” the former official recalled.

“We’re screwed because Netanyahu completely neutralized the diplomatic corps,” the former official said.

A ministry spokesperson declined to comment on how the change in ministers could affect Israel’s foreign policy.

Asked for comment, a spokesman for Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that for Netanyahu’s government, sticking to coalition agreements is “much more important than the political situation and its effects on the war and the region.”

Ministry officials have recently pushed back against reports that outgoing Foreign Minister Cohen had politicized his office by allegedly ordering diplomatic passports to be issued to prominent members of his Likud party, telling lawmakers earlier this month that ministry officials had acted legally and within the bounds of their authority.

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