'We shouldn't do this to serious, respectable countries'

Lapid works to fill long-vacant posts of ambassador to France, Canada, Australia

Key diplomatic positions were left empty by last government, some for over a year

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid during a ceremony at Netiv Ha'avot, at the West Bank's Elazar settlement, on July 23, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Then-education minister Naftali Bennett (L) and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid during a ceremony at Netiv Ha'avot, at the West Bank's Elazar settlement, on July 23, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

With anti-Israel resolutions being passed in international bodies and antisemitism on the rise throughout the world, Israel remains without full-time ambassadors in several major Western capitals.

Foreign Ministry sources told The Times of Israel that Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s first personnel priority was appointing 36 diplomats whose postings had been held up by the Netanyahu government for over six months. His team is now actively working on selecting the nominees for the open diplomatic positions reserved for political appointees — including ambassadors to France, Canada and Australia.

In the 2020 coalition agreement between then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and Defense Minister Benny Gantz of Blue and White, the two parties agreed that Likud would choose political appointees to head Israeli missions in London, New York, Paris, and Canberra. In the coalition agreement with the Labor party, the parties agreed that the ambassador to Canada would be a Labor appointee.

But in practice, only some of the positions were filled, with Likud members Gilad Erdan serving in a double role as ambassador to the US and the UN, and Tzipi Hotovely representing Israel at the Court of St. James in the UK.

Netanyahu and then-foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi (Blue and White) failed to agree on ambassadors to France, Canada, or Australia.

Israel’s envoy to France, Aliza Bin-Noun, stepped down at the end of 2019. Nimrod Barkan left his post in Ottawa, Canada, in January 2020. Mark Sofer finished his tenure as ambassador to Australia in October 2020.

Since then, those positions have been filled by temporary charges d’affaires.

Tzipi Hotovely at her office in Jerusalem, February 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“These are interesting, respectable, serious, wealthy countries,” said Zvi Magen of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Russia. “These types of countries are often used for political appointments.”

According to government decisions from 1999 and 2002, 11 senior diplomatic posts are reserved for the government — usually the prime minister and foreign minister —  to fill with political appointees.

The rest of Israel’s diplomatic positions are filled by Foreign Ministry professionals.

On Tuesday, Lapid announced that he will appoint former tourism minister Asaf Zamir to serve as consul general in New York, a post that has been vacant for over a year.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, behind them, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, at a press conference after the Gaza ceasefire, Tel Aviv, May 21, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

There are currently political appointees serving in India, Ethiopia, Houston, London, and Washington/New York.

It remains to be seen whether Netanyahu’s political appointees, such as Hotovely and Erdan, will remain in their positions under the new government. It is highly unlikely Lapid would fire respected public servants simply because they were Likud appointees, but they could offer their own resignations at some point.

‘We need an ambassador to fight back’

Israel’s ambassador to Canada is usually a senior Foreign Ministry professional in their last or penultimate post. Barkan, the former enjoy in Ottawa, had been in the Foreign Ministry since 1977. His predecessor, Rafael Barak, was the ministry’s director-general before assuming the post in 2013.

Hilik Bar, a former Labor MK who has been active in parliamentary foreign relations, was slated to become the ambassador to Canada — and even began his preparations for the post — but the appointment was held up due to disagreements in the cabinet. Once the Netanyahu-Gantz government collapsed in December 2020 and became a transitional government, it could no longer approve political appointments.

Zionist Union MK Hilik Bar attends a faction meeting at the Knesset, January 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel sent temporary chiefs of mission for four-month stints, including Eitan Na’eh, now Israel’s head of mission in the United Arab Emirates.

For most of the period since Barkan left, Canada did not have an ambassador in Israel either.

The lack of representation did not significantly impact relations, as it coincided with  the COVID-19 shutdown, and most business and political delegations stayed home.

The lack of a permanent ambassador in Paris is more of a problem.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Emmanuel Navon, a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “This is one of the most important capitals in the world.”

France enjoys a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and will assume the presidency of the European Union in 2022. Its military leads major missions in regions of national security interest for Israel, with a French fleet patrolling the eastern Mediterranean as part of its multi-faceted campaign against Turkish moves at sea and in Libya. Since 2013, France has led the fight against Islamic terrorism in the Sahel region of Africa.

“I think it is ridiculous that in such a key European country Israel does not even have a representative, and leaves all the hasbara work to the local Jewish communities,” said David Allouche, founder of the Young Diplomats network. “French Jews don’t think Israel is actually supporting them with actions on the ground, while the BDS movement is growing stronger in France with well-organized Qatari and Turkish organizations pushing the movement.

“We need a new motivated ambassador to fight back,” he said.

Members of the French Jewish community gather outside the French Embassy in Tel Aviv to ask justice for late Sarah Halimi who was murdered by her neighbor in her apartment in Paris, seen on April 25, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“It’s an important country, and I think Israel is overlooking it, focusing as always of course on the US,” said Navon. “It’s about time to send an ambassador who understands France, who understands international relations, and who speaks French… For the French, if you don’t speak the language perfectly, you can’t be an ambassador there.”

“One of the most important jobs of an ambassador today is to appear in the media, and fight Israel’s fight in terms of public relations and public diplomacy,” he added. “You have all these international events where Israel is being accused, Israel is being attacked, and you don’t have anybody there appearing in the media with a perfect command of French.”

Recent political appointees to the position have had only partial proficiency in the language. Talya Lador-Fresher, a former envoy to Austria, filled in temporarily in 2020 as charge d’affaires after Bin-Noun left, but did not speak French. Israel’s ambassador to France from 2010 to 2015, Yossi Gal, had only a rudimentary grasp of the language.

“Like many important appointments in the diplomatic service, it’s been held hostage,” lamented Navon.

Dana Benvenisti-Gabay, then-director for regional security and counter-terrorism at the Foreign Ministry, attends the opening session of the two-day Warsaw Ministerial Maritime and Aviation Security Working Group meeting in the Bahraini capital Manama, on October 21, 2019. (STR/AFP)

Dana Benvinisti, chairwoman of the diplomatic workers committee, said that the government’s inability to advance nominees for these positions harms Israel’s interests.

“The lack of full-time ambassadors for positions — professional diplomats or political appointees — undoubtedly limits the embassy’s activities there, and the advancement of Israel’s vital interests in these countries,” she said. “Therefore, rapid progress must be made on full-time appointees in their capitals.”

“The approval this week by the government in its first meeting of [36] ambassadors, after a delay that lasted many months, indicates the importance of foreign relations in the eyes of the current government,” Benvinisti continued hopefully.

“I wouldn’t say that [the lack of ambassadors] harms relations, but it is not good or healthy. We shouldn’t do this to countries such as these,” said Magen.

“Still, it’s not the US and it’s not the UK,” said Magen. “They wouldn’t leave those positions empty.”

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