Foreign Ministry says no issue with diplomatic passports for Likud bigwigs

Ministry deputy director Yossi Dayan says decisions to grant requests despite internal opposition were made for ‘specific reasons,’ including for PM’s son

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 speaks during a press conference at the European Office of the United Nations, Palais des Nation, in Geneva on November 14, 2023. (PIERRE ALBOUY / AFP)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen speaks during a press conference at the European Office of the United Nations, Palais des Nation, in Geneva on November 14, 2023. (PIERRE ALBOUY / AFP)

Representatives of Israel’s diplomatic service pushed back against reports that Foreign Minister Eli Cohen had politicized his office by allegedly ordering diplomatic passports to be issued to prominent members of his Likud party, telling lawmakers on Monday that ministry officials had acted legally and within the bounds of their authority.

Addressing members of the Knesset State Control Committee on Monday, Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Yossi Dayan, a former Likud activist, argued that criticism of Cohen’s reported decision to grant the passports, against the advice of his office’s internal counsel, was unwarranted. He accused the media of unfairly attacking the ministry’s senior leadership over the move.

A panel of ministry professionals adjudicating Cohen’s requests for the diplomatic passports ruled against issuing them, but Foreign Ministry Director-General Ronen Levy overruled the committee, informing members that he was doing so on specific instructions from Cohen, the Haaretz daily reported earlier this month.

Among the Likud members who allegedly received a diplomatic passport were Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz, Dimona Mayor Benny Biton, Sdot Negev Regional Council chairman Tamir Idan, and Merhavim Regional Council chairman Shay Hajaj.

In addition, Cohen was reported to have ordered the ministry to issue a diplomatic passport to Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair, even though children of prime ministers over the age of 18 are not eligible.

Pushed to explain Cohen’s actions, Dayan told lawmakers that there were “specific reasons” for each of the Likud-linked officials to receive passports — citing Idan’s involvement in an initiative to bring in foreign agricultural workers and Gantz’s work as head of the foreign desk of the Yesha Council, the umbrella organization representing local authorities in settlements.

MK Mickey Levy, Head of the State Control Committee leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As for Yair Netanyahu, Dayan explained that holding a diplomatic passport would allow the Shin Bet security detail to continue protecting the premier’s son when he travels abroad.

According to a Monday morning report by national broadcaster Kan, Netanyahu has requested diplomatic passports for family members from the director general of the Foreign Ministry on four occasions since 2009.

According to the Knesset Information and Research Center, there are currently 5,651 diplomatic passports in circulation, of which 1,462 have been issued to non-Foreign Ministry personnel.

Foreign Ministry representatives told lawmakers that only a few of those were the result of Cohen overriding the panel.

“The committee mainly discusses the requests of civil servants and some of the national institutions that for special reasons require a passport,” David Goldfarb, a representative of the ministry’s legal bureau, told lawmakers.

“Some of the requests concern non-diplomatic workers and the committee’s tendency is to reduce [the number issued] and give [them out] only in cases it considers it necessary. In addition, the director general may grant a passport and there is no necessity for it to pass the committee,” he said.

“Each director general approved less than ten of these in his entire tenure. The current director general has so far approved five of these, three of which were rejected by the committee,” he added.

Committee chairman MK Mickey Levy (Yesh Atid) said Cohen’s direct involvement creates the appearance that he does not have “clean hands,” and called for better transparency in the process.

“The ministry must ensure that the regulations for issuing a diplomatic passport are published,” he said. Cohen’s actions leave “an impression of opaqueness,” Levy added.

Following the revelation of his alleged interference in the passport approval process, Cohen told associates that he “was not involved in the diplomatic passport issue” and did “not have the authority to approve or give those orders,” Haaretz reported.

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