Netanyahu says he’ll quit soon… as foreign minister
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Netanyahu says he’ll quit soon… as foreign minister

Questioned by Knesset panel, PM defends PR performance and battle against boycotts, says Israel making new allies worldwide, but acknowledges need for full-time top diplomat

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) attends a session of the State Control Committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem. on July 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) attends a session of the State Control Committee at the Knesset in Jerusalem. on July 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he intended to give up some of the four additional ministerial posts he currently holds, including that of foreign minister. But he didn’t say when.

At a stormy session of the Knesset’s State Control Committee, Netanyahu faced two hours of critical questions by opposition lawmakers on his foreign policy, including over the fact that he has held the Foreign Ministry portfolio since the 2015 elections. He also fills the roles of economy minister, communications minister and regional affairs minister.

He told Knesset members at the meeting that he intended to give up “a few portfolios soon.” He added that, “I don’t want to hold on to the Foreign Ministry forever,” but did not say when he would appoint someone to that post or any of the others he holds. (The prime minister has kept the multiple portfolios under his control to make them available to possible coalition partners, but has also been criticized for the influence he has consequently been able to exert in the multiple fields.)

“I didn’t say there is no need for a full-time foreign minister,” he said at the end of the two-hour session. “I am the full-time foreign minister.”

Netanyahu rebuffed the often-made criticism that the Foreign Ministry has been stripped of many of its original responsibilities, effectively crippling Israel’s ability to respond in a coordinated manner to international criticism of Israel. “The assertion that everything has to be concentrated in the Foreign Ministry — I don’t necessarily accept.”

Regarding past tensions between the foreign minister and the prime minister, especially during the last war in Gaza, he quipped: “Since I am foreign minister, there is great coordination.” (Avigdor Liberman, now minister of defense, held the Foreign Ministry helm at the time.)

The prime minister, who was invited to the committee to discuss a recent State Comptroller’s report critical of the coordination between various government bodies responsible for Israel’s image in the world – known as hasbara (literally, propaganda) — defended his policies, arguing that the facts speak for themselves.

A 2014 Middle East Monitor cartoon shows an Israeli war plane bombing Gaza while a 'BDS' missile heads toward the plane. (Courtesy)
A 2014 Middle East Monitor cartoon shows an Israeli war plane bombing Gaza while a ‘BDS’ missile heads toward the plane. (Courtesy)

The annual report, released in May, criticized a range of “failings” in the Foreign Ministry, underlining an inability to present any significant achievements in the battle against the BDS — Boycoot, Divestment and Sanctions — movement that targets Israel over its alleged mistreatment of the Palestinians.

State Control Committee head Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) focused on the comptroller’s allegation of poor coordination between the various government offices in charge of hasbara. Netanyahu acknowledged that there was room for improvement, but disagreed with the report’s conclusions. “There is excellent coordination between all relevant government bodies,” he said.

Knesset State Control Committee chair Karin Elharar leads a committee meeting in the Knesset, June 08, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Knesset State Control Committee chair Karin Elharar leads a committee meeting in the Knesset, June 08, 2015. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“Hasbara is not a goal in itself, unless you are a virtual politician living in a virtual world,” he said. “How do you measure whether our foreign policy is working? How do you we measure success and failure? You do it by looking at trade volume, the number of visits, and public opinion.”

Netanyahu called the BDS movement an “anti-Semitic movement par excellence,” and argued that in recent months Israel successfully rebuffed several boycott efforts. He cited the failed bid to oust Israel from soccer’s governing body FIFA and a number of American states passing anti-BDS legislation. “It’s come so far that they are demonstrating now for the ‘right to boycott,'” he said.

As prime minister, he has visited countless countries and welcomed leaders from nations that used to have a chilly relationship with Israel, Netanyahu said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with African leaders in Uganda on July 4, 2016 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with African leaders in Uganda on July 4, 2016 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“Some things have changed for the better. Israel is increasingly seen as an ally. Sometimes it takes time for these processes to mature, but it’s happening,” he said.

Netanyahu then held up a map of the world indicating which countries have recently improved ties with Israel. “There’s an enormous change,” he said, citing recent overtures and warming of ties with African countries, Russia, Argentina, Colombia, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, India and other countries.

As foreign minister, Netanyahu has held an average of four meetings with foreign leaders per week, he said. “People talk about international isolation. What isolation? Good God,” he exclaimed.

“My intention is — and I know it doesn’t happen overnight — to change the automatic majority (in forums such as the UN) against Israel with the help of African and Latin American countries.”

Netanyahu said he has looked for innovative ways to tell Israel’s side of the story. He cited a video in which he addressed the LGBT community after a deadly shooting in Florida nightclub, which he said has been viewed by 24 million people.

Netanyahu also rebuffed criticism of his policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. “Our policy is simple: the future belongs to the strong. The weak won’t survive.”

He later added: “If there is one thing that influences the countries of the world, it’s the question of strength, and Israel is increasingly viewed as country that is strong in several areas,” such as counter-terrorism and cyber-technology.

He reiterated his readiness to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state, though he said he was not sure whether the Palestinians were a partner for peace at the current time.

Netanyahu also said that he hoped to conclude negotiations over long-term US military aid before the Obama administration ends its term, and said his acting national security adviser, Yaakov Nagel, would travel to Washington next week to try close the deal.

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