Diplomatic fiasco as PM’s office sends out unvetted statement on peace process

Foreign Ministry workers blast release of joint statement with Poland that denounces ‘unilateral steps’ — thus implying endorsement of settlement freeze

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at a press conference in Warsaw  in 2010. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Gpo/Flash 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at a press conference in Warsaw in 2010. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/Gpo/Flash 90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday distanced himself from a statement his office released Tuesday that recognizes the Palestinian right to a state and asserts that both sides must refrain from “unilateral steps.” The text came from a joint statement Netanyahu was scheduled to sign Wednesday with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk during his visit to Warsaw.

The text denounces attempts to harm the legitimacy of Israel and the security of its citizens, and affirms the right of the Palestinians to their own country — both messages that Netanyahu has endorsed in the past. However, the document also says that “unilateral steps by either side are not helpful for achieving a sustainable peace,” a declaration that could be interpreted as an endorsement of a construction freeze in the settlements.

“The two governments [Israel and Poland] agree about the urgent need for progress toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… by way of direct negotiations without any preconditions,” the statement also reads.

Netanyahu’s aides said that the prime minister did not see or approve the text before it was sent out in a press release Tuesday night, laying responsibility on the National Security Council headed by Yaakov Amidror, which prepared the proposed statement with its Polish counterpart over the course of several weeks, Army Radio reported. Amidror himself had not yet seen the draft, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Israel and Poland were set to begin their annual ministerial meeting on Wednesday, and the summit between the two prime ministers was supposed to culminate in the signing of the joint statement.

The Foreign Ministry wasted no time in tying the diplomatic faux pas to its shrinking authority under Netanyahu. “The numerous mistakes made in preparing for the visit,” read a statement by Yair Frommer, head of the Foreign Ministry Workers’ Union, “which was done without the Foreign Ministry and without professional input, harm our relations with Poland, and we hope that they won’t cause more serious damage.

“The joint statement, as released in the media, would not have passed the review process of professional diplomats who understand the complexities involved.”

The embarrassing retraction of the released statement comes amid ongoing tension between the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. The Foreign Ministry has been arguing that Netanyahu has undermined its work by tasking other ministries with portfolios that have traditionally been in the hands of its diplomats. In Netanyahu’s government, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni is tasked with managing peace negotiations with the Palestinians, a natural Foreign Ministry preserve, and a new International Relations Ministry was created after the elections, headed by Yuval Steinitz.

But perhaps most substantial is the fact that Israel has no foreign minister — a position that Netanyahu has been holding for his ally Avigdor Liberman, who seeks to resume the duty if and when he is acquitted of wrongdoing in his ongoing corruption trial. In the meantime, Netanyahu has taken on the duties of foreign minister, alongside his many other responsibilities.

In addition, a bitter labor dispute between Israeli diplomats and the Finance Ministry has been flaring for months, and since April the workers’ union has been implementing sanctions aimed at disrupting Israeli officials’ visits abroad. For trips considered of major importance, such as Netanyahu’s May visit to China, the diplomats made exceptions, but last week they announced they would not help organize the prime minister’s Poland trip.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu and five members of his cabinet — Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, Education Minister Shai Piron, Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat, Science and Technology Minister Yaakov Peri, and Pensioner Affairs Minister Uri Orbach — headed to Warsaw for consultations with their Polish counterparts. The Israeli delegation was also scheduled to fly to Krakow to take part in the reopening of an exhibition in the so-called Block 27 of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum. The exhibition, entitled “The Martyrdom, Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Europe from 1933 to 1945,” has been closed for several months due to renovations.

Netanyahu, whose father came from the town of Bilgoraj in Poland, last visited the country in January 2010 to participate in a memorial ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

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