Only about eight percent of the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget is being used for diplomatic activity, with the rest spent on manpower, security and other logistical and administrative needs.
In 2015, just NIS 132 million ($33 million) of the ministry’s total budget of NIS 1.65 billion ($423 million) was spent on what officials call diplomatic activities: development aid, conferences and hasbara (public diplomacy). By comparison, the ministry paid significantly more — NIS 231 million ($59 million), or 14% of the annual budget — on security for Israeli missions abroad.
Those figures were revealed Tuesday during a session of the Knesset Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs and Public Diplomacy, headed by MK Michael Oren (Kulanu).
“Only 8% of the Foreign Ministry’s budget goes for actual diplomatic activity. That is somewhere in the vicinity of what we spend on a platoon of Merkava 4 tanks. One platoon! That, to me, defies logic,” Oren told The Times of Israel.
During the poorly attended subcommittee meeting, Alon Ushpiz, the Foreign Ministry’s political director, lamented the dearth of funds, but maintained that a modest budget increase could have a dramatic impact on his ability to improve Israel’s standing in certain parts of the world.
“We’re breaking down under this burden,” said Ushpiz, one of the ministry’s most senior officials. “We are constantly asking for more, but what they give us is merely a drop in the ocean.”
His department, which oversees the various regional divisions and is in charge of running diplomatic activities across the globe, has a yearly budget of NIS 28.2 million (about $7.2 million), he said.
A third of that amount, or about NIS 9.1 million ($2.3 million), goes to Europe, while 24% (NIS 6.6 million) is spent in North America. Some 18% (NIS 5.1 million/$1.7 million) goes to Asia, and a mere NIS 564,000 ($144,000), or 2%, to the Middle East.
“Let me tell you about my dream budget,” Ushpiz said. “Add 12 million shekels to the 28 million I have, and you will get from me whatever you want.”
If the Foreign Ministry’s situation is so bad, how can such a small sum change it for the better, MK Nahman Shai (Zionist Union) asked during the session. Ushpiz replied that with an extra NIS 50,000 ($12,000) he could totally change the way smaller embassies, such as the one in Pretoria, functioned.
“With this amount of money I know how to do things the United States couldn’t do, because I know how to get along with small sums,” he said. Substantially improving the missions in Berlin and Brussels, however, would require a higher increase, he said.
“A relatively small increment in the budget could yield an immense benefit, diplomatically,” Oren told The Times of Israel after the subcommittee meeting.
“If you increase the budget by 20% in Europe, it won’t have a huge impact,” he acknowledged. But, he said, a larger impact would be felt “if we increase our budget in Africa, which is only 4% of the 8%, or in Latin America, which is only 11% of the 8%.”
Oren, who as a historian has studied Israel’s international relations for decades and recently served as Israel’s ambassador to the US, called for “a sea change in Israelis’ attitude” toward foreign policy.
“In the State of Israel, for all kinds of psychological and historical reasons, we make a distinction between security and foreign policy. And yet that distinction is completely artificial,” he said. “If we don’t have strong foreign relations, then our security will be impaired. And Israel’s place in the world is crucial to our wellbeing and our future.”
Oren also questioned the wisdom of Israel spending a third of its budget for diplomatic activity in Europe. “A much greater share should go to areas of opportunities like Africa and Latin America,” he suggested. “In the UN, a vote of Rwanda is worth exactly the same as the vote of China.”
While he strongly advocates for more funds to be allocated to Israel’s diplomatic apparatus, Oren acknowledged that, on its own, a budget infusion would not fix all the Foreign Ministry’s woes.
“It’s not just a matter of throwing money at the problem. Part of the Foreign Ministry needs to be fixed, in the way it’s run, making the place more efficient. It’s not efficient. It needs an extensive, far-reaching reform. It’s aching for reform.”