Opposition politicians and diplomats on Monday slammed the government’s planned closure of diplomatic missions as a severe blow to Israel’s national security, with one official calling it a “strategic terror attack.”
On Friday, the Foreign Ministry announced plans to close seven diplomatic missions over the next three years. The cuts followed budget negotiations with the Finance Ministry, which had originally planned to shut down 22 embassies and consulates and fire a significant number of staff.
According to the new plan, Israel’s remaining 96 missions will receive an infusion of NIS 175 million (about $50 million), and no staff will be fired.
But at a two-hour session Tuesday at the Knesset’s Caucus for Strengthening Israel’s Foreign Service, which took place as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited India, Foreign Ministry officials joined opposition lawmakers in bewailing the proposed measures as causing severe damage to the country’s diplomatic relations.
“The diplomatic front is a central front, and the State of Israel must not abandon it,” said Hanan Goder, the chairman of the Foreign Ministry’s Workers Union.
“The closure of seven missions, budget cuts and manpower cuts are seriously undermining diplomats’ ability to tackle these challenges,” he said, noting that Israel is threatened by Hamas and the Islamic State terrorists groups, and yet many other countries that are not threatened in this way invest more in their foreign service.
Goder stressed that, as a civil servant, he was forbidden from criticizing the government’s decision, and that the Foreign Ministry’s professional staff will carry out any assignment they receive from the country’s elected leadership. Yet he left no doubt about what he thinks of the proposed cuts. For instance, he pointed out that the Israeli government spends a meager 0.3 percent of its budget on the Foreign Ministry.
“That’s little. It’s not enough,” he said pointedly. “We checked and found out: No other countries is spending as little as we are on its foreign service.”
At the meeting, Goder, Israel’s nonresident ambassador to South Sudan, handed out a list showing that Israel has the slimmest foreign service of all the countries in the region.
While the Jewish state has a total of 103 diplomatic missions (before the anticipated cuts), Turkey has 233, Iran has 142, and Saudi Arabia 113. The Palestinian Authority has the same number of missions as Israel.
The members states of the Arab League together have 1,799 international missions, according to Goder’s list.
Are Sweden’s diplomatic challenges as bad as Israel’s? Is Portugal is being attacked by ISIS like we are?
Israel’s foreign service is also small if one compares it with those of countries of a similar size. With 8.3 million inhabitants, Switzerland, for instance, is slightly smaller than Israel but has 21 more diplomatic missions.
“Are Sweden’s diplomatic challenges as bad as Israel’s? Is Portugal is being attacked by the Islamic State like we are?” Goder asked.
Noga Arbel, the deputy chair of the Foreign Ministry’s workers committee, went as far as describing the proposed cuts as a “strategic terror attack” against Israel’s foreign policy apparatus. “We’re not a country that’s suffering from having too many friends in the international arena,” she said, arguing that shuttering foreign missions will further isolate Israel.
“Israel needs friends, Israel needs support in the world, Israel needs diplomatic defense, because we’re in trouble,” she said.
Netanyahu is doing excellent work, “but he can’t do it without us,” Arbel said, adding that despite his successful trips abroad, Israel needs professional diplomats on the ground to expand and maintain the country’s foreign ties. “There is no alternative to personal relationships,” she said.
No representative from the coalition participated in the session, which was co-sponsored by Mitvim – the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. But a large number of opposition lawmakers and analysts from think tanks took the mic to slam the government — and in particular Netanyahu, who is also foreign minister — for what they portrayed as an intentional move to weaken the Foreign Ministry.
The attempt to shrink the ministry year after year is malicious and unjustifiable
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union), who revealed that his mother was the first graduate of the Foreign Ministry’s cadets course some 70 years ago, said that closing seven diplomatic missions “means the loss of seven member states at the United Nations.”
MK Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid), the author of a bill that would cement the Foreign Ministry’s status as Israel’s “central organ designing foreign policy,” decried the government’s alleged systematic undermining of the ministry.
“Diplomacy is part of national security. Harming the Foreign Ministry is harming our national security,” he said.
The chairman of the caucus, MK Nahman Shai (Zionist Union), summed the session up as “last-minute cry to prevent the deliberate weakening of the Foreign Ministry.”
Added Shai, “The attempt to shrink the ministry year after year is malicious and unjustifiable. The bottom line is that there is no substitute for the Foreign Ministry, it is vital and necessary. There is no substitute for diplomacy.”