New Foreign Minister Israel Katz: My priority is bringing hostages home

At handover ceremony, Katz says country is fighting its ‘World War III’; Eli Cohen highlights achievements during year in office

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Outgoing Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and his replacement Israel Katz shake hands at the ceremony in Jerusalem marking the handover, January 2, 2024. (Shlomi Amsalem/Foreign Ministry)
Outgoing Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and his replacement Israel Katz shake hands at the ceremony in Jerusalem marking the handover, January 2, 2024. (Shlomi Amsalem/Foreign Ministry)

At a ceremony in Jerusalem on Tuesday marking the beginning of his tenure as foreign minister, Israel Katz said Israel was “at the height of World War III against Iran and radical Islam.”

Katz, who replaced Eli Cohen as Israel’s top diplomat according to a previously agreed rotation agreement, also pledged in his address that Israel “will achieve our goal of toppling Hamas.”

Speaking to diplomats and ministry employees, the senior Likud member emphasized that his top priority is bringing back the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza: “Our commitment as a country and as a ministry is first of all to bring the hostages home with new initiatives, to exert global pressure.”

He also wrote on X that his leading concern was, “The hostages. The hostages. The hostages.”

It is believed that 129 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November.

Katz added that his second priority is maintaining international legitimacy for continued combat against Hamas in Gaza and against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Then-energy minister Israel Katz arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 7, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Cohen, who is now energy minister, highlighted in his speech his efforts to keep the hostages in the minds of international leaders, and said the Foreign Ministry’s work since October 7 had brought about “support that no one thought we would receive.”

In a conversation with The Times of Israel on Sunday, Cohen stressed what he said were the Foreign Ministry’s achievements during the war against Hamas, including military aid from the US, the fact that few Western countries have pressed for an end to the fighting against Hamas, and the delegations of family members of hostages that accompanied him for meetings abroad.

Families have flown out to the UN, the EU and Red Cross headquarters.

Cohen also welcomed 30 heads of state and foreign ministers to Israel since the start of the war in Gaza.

At the same time, the outgoing foreign minister found himself at the center of controversies throughout his tenure.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addresses the press at United Nations Headquarters, accompanied by family members of individuals kidnapped by Hamas, on October 24, 2023, in New York City. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/AFP)

In his inaugural speech to the Foreign Ministry, he said that Israel would “talk less” about the war in Ukraine, a statement many allies interpreted as an indication that the new government would not criticize Russia publicly. He also announced that he would be speaking with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before fielding a call from any Ukrainian officials, leading to angry statements from Kyiv.

But amid the war in Gaza and Moscow’s condemnations of Israel and refusal to condemn Hamas, relations between the countries appear to have further cooled.

In August, Cohen revealed that he’d met with Libya’s foreign minister, leading her to flee her country. Cohen was widely castigated for formally publicizing his meeting with Najla Mangoush, with opposition figures denouncing him for an “amateurish, irresponsible” lack of judgment, and senior government sources accusing him of inflicting serious harm on Israeli diplomacy.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Dutch Foreign Minister Henke Bruins Slot meet with the families of hostages taken captive by Hamas in Gaza, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, November 20, 2023. (Miri Shamanowitz/Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

He was also recently accused of politicizing his office by allegedly ordering diplomatic passports to be issued to prominent members of his Likud party, but ministry officials pushed back on those claims.

Cohen filled the role for a year in line with an internal Likud party rotation agreement.

Despite leaving the Foreign Ministry, Cohen will continue to serve as a member of the security cabinet and will return as foreign minister in 2026, assuming the current government is still in power.

Katz had previously served as foreign minister from 2019 to 2020.

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