State comptroller says Israel’s foreign service badly underfunded, uncoordinated

In report, ombudsman list various government bodies that deal with same issues, often without communication; Foreign Ministry hails report as vindication of longstanding grievances

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

People gather outside the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People gather outside the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s foreign policy apparatus is woefully underfunded and uncoordinated, a State Comptroller’s report charged Monday, calling for reforms that would centralize the nation’s diplomatic activities.

In addition to the Foreign Ministry, there are over 35 other governmental agencies that deal with international relations. The report said this frequently leads to situations in which the Foreign Ministry and other bodies deal with the same matters vis-a-vis the same interlocutors abroad, without so much as informing each other of the fact.

“Although cooperation and coordination between the Foreign Ministry and the other foreign agencies is necessary to improve the government’s work in the international arena, in reality the government of Israel has difficulty promoting such coordinated activities,” the report stated.

“In the current situation, governmental activity may only reflect the interests of the party leading it. This reality does not promote the government’s goals and policies in the international arena.”

Competing with the Foreign Ministry — whose budget has continued to shrink for years — is the National Security Council, which has a foreign policy division, and the Prime Minister’s Office, which includes the Mossad and its department in charge of ties with countries Israel does not have formal relations with.

There are several ministries that by design overlap with the Foreign Ministry, such as the Regional Cooperation Ministry, the Strategic Affairs Ministry (which deals with the anti-Israel boycott movement) and the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.

Furthermore, nearly all other government offices, including the Interior Ministry and the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage Affairs, have international branches that liaise with counterparts abroad.

But the Foreign Ministry’s main competitor appears to be the National Security Council, which by law is meant to serve as “the centralized advisory body for the Prime Minister and the Government on matters related to foreign affairs and the security of the State of Israel.”

In private conversations, diplomats lament that the NSC is taking on an increasingly operational role. In response, the NSC cites the 2008 law that brought it into existence and which says it is tasked with executing “staff work in the field of foreign affairs” determined by the prime minister.

‘Study every word and every page of this report’

The Foreign Ministry on Monday welcomed the State Comptroller’s report, describing it in a statement as a vindication of its complaints going back years about low wages and shrinking responsibilities as successive governments have given key aspects of foreign policy making — including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear threat or the boycott movement — to other ministries.

“The report clearly indicates that the most professional body, with the broadest view of foreign policy, is the Foreign Ministry,” it said in a statement. Many other countries in the world place diplomacy firmly in the hand of their foreign ministries, which usually has “unique capabilities” and knowledge to lead its international relations, the statement went on.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with CEO of the Foreign Ministry Yuval Rotem, at the International Conference on Digital Diplomacy at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on December 7, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I urge the Finance Ministry to study every word and every page of this report, which unequivocally presents the damage done to Foreign Ministry over the years,” said Yuval Rotem, the ministry’s director general. “The State of Israel needs a strong Foreign Ministry and the way to achieve this is through proper budgeting that allows for appropriate activity to address the significant political challenges we face.”

Foreign Minister Israel Katz, in his response to the report, avoided stepping into the spat between the bureaucracy he heads and the Finance Ministry. He also stopped short of criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long been accused of intentionally marginalizing Israeli diplomats.

“In recent months, as the State of Israel and the world are dealing with the coronavirus crisis, the Foreign Ministry has again demonstrated its importance to Israel’s national resilience and centrality in the activities of the Israeli government in the world,” Katz said, referring to the ministry’s efforts to repatriate thousands of Israelis who were stranded abroad.

Observers have long alleged that Netanyahu appears to seek to sideline the Foreign Ministry, and while the State Comptroller’s report does not explicitly endorse this accusation, it does present figures indicating that the ministry has been neglected.

Since 2015, the Foreign Ministry’s budget has decreased by 14 percent, compared to a 25% increase of the overall state budget, according to the report.

Just last year, the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget was cut by 14.7%, while all other government ministries enjoyed, on average, a 5.7% increase. In 2019, the ministry, which employs 2,750 people, had a budget of less than NIS 1.4 billion.

In this photo released on July 1, 2019, Foreign Minister Israel Katz visits the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Center in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Courtesy Katz’s office)

To remedy the problems, the report suggests the creation of a forum in which the directors of all ministries that operate internationally convene to establish “joint national strategy goals” for Israel’s foreign policy. Furthermore, they should map out every government agency’s responsibility regarding international relations, and clearly define the Foreign Ministry’s place in Israel’s diplomatic efforts.

Furthermore, the comptroller recommends the appointment of a government agency that would oversee Israel’s various activities in the international arena and streamline inter-ministerial coordination. It was not clear whether the intention was to form a new agency or appoint an existing one to do the job.

The report does not explicitly call for the Foreign Ministry to receive more money, but rather urges cooperation with the Finance Ministry in determining the appropriate annual budget that would help Israel’s diplomats meet their numerous challenges.

“The State of Israel needs to deal with complex challenges on a daily basis and act to ensure its national resilience and to guarantee its position and achievements in the world. The constraints within which the state operates — budgetary, security-wise and others — strongly underline the need for its foreign service to act according to meticulous planning and strategic thinking,” the report concludes.

“Therefore, the Government of Israel and its branches must consider a comprehensive reform of its foreign service, in order to move forward and maintain the overall resilience of the State of Israel and its international status.”

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