Diplomats fume as Foreign Ministry powers divided among 6 ministers

Ministry staffers warn lack of cohesion will undermine capacity to defend against ‘delegitimization’; Liberman scoffs at the confusion

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), with ministers Gilad Erdan (left) and Yuval Steinitz (center), during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014 (Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash90/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right), with ministers Gilad Erdan (left) and Yuval Steinitz (center), during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, November 23, 2014 (Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash90/Pool)

Israeli diplomats expressed dismay Monday night at the division of responsibilities for Israel’s international relations among a bewildering assortment of ministers in the new Netanyahu government, and warned that the lack of cohesion would undermine Israel’s capacity to represent itself effectively in diplomatic forums.

With the addition of Gilad Erdan to his cabinet on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and five other senior Likud colleagues are now sharing various key roles in the government’s foreign policy.

This at a time when Israel’s legitimacy is under widespread international pressure — with boycott and divestment efforts; the Palestinians seeking to put Israel on trial for war crimes via the International Criminal Court, as well as booting Israel out of international soccer; numerous countries and their parliaments recognizing Palestine; Israel seeking to oppose the emerging nuclear deal with Iran; and a host of other challenges.

Former foreign minister Avigdor Liberman, who chose to go into the opposition rather than join Netanyahu’s new coalition, complained Monday that “there is no clear line” on the new government’s attitude to Palestinian statehood: “Do we support two states for two peoples or oppose that approach?” he asked, referencing Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely’s declaration last week that Israel had to assert its rights to all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — a position at direct odds with Netanyahu’s declared support for a peaceful, sustainable, two-state solution.

Tzipi Hotovely in the Knesset. (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)
Tzipi Hotovely in the Knesset (Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Israel’s Channel 10 news on Monday night quoted senior Foreign Ministry staffers warning that Israel cannot effectively fight “delegitimization,” with no full-time foreign minister and half-a-dozen politicians holding responsibility for various aspects of foreign policy.

Netanyahu is retaining the foreign minister’s portfolio in the new government, and on Monday summarily fired the ministry’s director general, career diplomat Nissim Ben Shitrit, who was appointed by Liberman. In Ben Shitrit’s stead, Netanyahu named his long-time confidant Dore Gold, an appointment that indicates the prime minister intends to maintain a deep engagement in the work of the ministry. The appointment also seems to underline that there is little prospect of an opposition figure — Liberman, Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog or Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid — leading his respective party into the coalition and being rewarded with the post of foreign minister.

Alongside Netanyahu and Hotovely, his deputy at the ministry, fellow Likud leader Erdan on Monday joined the government with responsibility, among other matters, for the Strategic Affairs Ministry, a recent construct that dilutes the role of the Foreign Ministry. Erdan is also supposed to oversee Israel’s battle against international boycott efforts — traditionally the purview of the Foreign Ministry.

The previous strategic affairs minister, Yuval Steinitz (now minister of energy and infrastructure), is meanwhile still presiding over the effort to thwart what Israel considers the dangerous deal taking shape with Iran — but is supposed to hand over that responsibility to Erdan in two months’ time, Channel 10 reported.

Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (Noam Revkin Fenton/FLASH90)
Yisrael Katz (left) and Benjamin Netanyahu (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Fellow Likud minister Silvan Shalom, whose main job is running the Interior Ministry, is also responsible for peace efforts with the Palestinians — under Netanyahu’s watchful eye — and for the strategic dialogue that Israel maintains with the United States.

And Yisrael Katz, finally, while continuing in his post as transportation minister, has also been given control of the Ministry of Intelligence, another artificial construct with unclear responsibilities.

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