Politicians, diplomats struggle to improve foreign service

At launch of new Knesset caucus, Foreign Ministry reveals that Iran invests much more in its international relations than does Israel

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Workers Union chairman Yair Frommer speaking to foreign diplomats outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on Monday, March 31, 2014. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Workers Union chairman Yair Frommer speaking to foreign diplomats outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on Monday, March 31, 2014. (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Politicians and diplomats on Monday launched a parliamentary caucus and a professional organization seeking to improve Israel’s foreign service, on whose sorry state there seems to be little disagreement.

At the founding of the Israeli Association for Diplomacy, intended to promote the interests of Foreign Ministry staff, and the Knesset caucus, initiated by MK Ronen Hoffman (Yesh Atid), Israeli diplomats also presented a report comparing Israel’s foreign service to those of other countries. The annual Diplomacy Index laments, among other things, that Israel invests only 0.38 percent of its budget in its foreign service, some of the lowest figures in the world.

The Netherlands, for instance, spends about 4 percent of the national budget on its diplomatic apparatus, Sweden 2% and Britain 1.7%, said Yair Frommer, the chairman of the Foreign Ministry’s workers union, which has published the index for the last few years.

Iran spends 0.4% on its foreign services, according to the index. “I can’t tell you how we received this data, but it’s more than credible. We received these figures from knowledgeable officials,” Frommer said during the event in the Knesset, which was attended by lawmakers from across the political spectrum.

Last year, the Islamic Republic increased its allocation for foreign relations by 11 percent. Today, Tehran has 167 embassies and consulates across the world, 60 percent more than Israel (which has 106, with three more in the planning.)

Iran is expanding its foreign services because it understands that the international community’s attitude toward the regime is about to change, Frommer explained. “Today, Iran wants relations with the world at large. It’s opening up to the world.” Israel is well advised to take this into consideration as its ponders ways to counter the Iranian efforts to present itself as a responsible and peace-seeking member of the family of nations and stop the country’s rogue military nuclear program.

President Hassan Rouhani’s so-called “charm offensive” is not merely based on smiles but on a drastic increase in its diplomatic apparatus, Frommer asserted. “We will not be able to deal with these challenges if we don’t make a permanent, significant investment in our diplomacy.”

It’s not impossible to open many more embassies and consulates, he added. For the price of one F-35 fighter jet — of which Israel is about to acquire “a nice amount,” Frommer said — Israel could open more than 20 new embassies across the world.

“There is no security without foreign relations. National security is, and must be, based on foreign relations,” said Hoffman (Yesh Atid), who in the 1990s founded the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, and during his maiden term in the Knesset authored legislation to improve the standing of the Foreign Ministry within the national decision-making process.

Yesh Atid MK Ronen Hoffman during an committee meeting in the Knesset, May 30, 2013. (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Yesh Atid MK Ronen Hoffman in the Knesset, May 30, 2013 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“As long as the security establishment and the army are preferred over the foreign service, national security is damaged. A country whose foreign service doesn’t take a central position doesn’t act in the best national interest.”

Indeed, at the Knesset event, lawmakers across the spectrum — from the left-wing Meretz party to the pro-settler Jewish Home — hailed Israel’s diplomats serving in embassies and consulates around the world as tireless defenders of the Jewish state, worthy of praise and support no less than soldiers on the battlefield.

MK Haim Katz of the Likud party, for instance, said he fails to understand why Israel’s diplomats have to put up with low pay and difficult working conditions. “It seems the country wants mediocrity, not excellence.”

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor Party) expressed his deep appreciation to members of the diplomatic corps — “not only because my mother was in the first cadets course in 1947,” but because they do crucial work for the state. “You are the cream of Israeli society,” he claimed.

The problem with pro-Israel advocacy is not that our diplomats don’t know how to explain Jerusalem’s policies, said Nissim Zeev (Shas), but rather that “the other side” is deaf to their arguments, “and so you have to scream loudly.”

Singer Idan Raichel, who volunteers as an Israeli cultural ambassador, disagreed, saying that the people he meets during his performances around the world are indeed very intelligent. Well-trained diplomats are necessary to counter incriminations, he said.

After a year-long labor dispute — the longest in the history of the Foreign Ministry’s workers union — the diplomats signed an agreement with the Finance Ministry on November 16, which will increase their salaries and improve their working conditions. But, agreed diplomats and politicians on Monday, this is just a small step toward repairing a broken foreign service.

The newly founded Knesset “Caucus for the strengthening of the foreign service and Israeli diplomacy” and the Israeli Association for Diplomacy, which is currently headed by Frommer, aim to advance Hoffman’s bill that would enshrine in law the Foreign Ministry’s supremacy regarding the country’s foreign policy.

For too long, diplomats lament, crucial decisions regarding Israel’s external relations have been outsourced — to the Prime Minister’s Office, the National Security Council, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, the newly created International Relations Affairs (headed by Yuval Steinitz, who dealt with the Iran file) or to Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who was put in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians.

But Hoffman’s bill is currently stuck in the Knesset bureaucracy. And, in the likely event of new elections, it is highly doubtful that it will be passed into law any time soon.

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