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The Zionist movement launched by Herzl was essentially a foreign policy initiative aimed at Sultans and Kaisers and other world leaders. It drew on a tradition as old as Judaism itself and our forebears’ need to navigate between warring empires. The covenant between God and the Jewish people incorporates concepts and language from ancient treaties. The Bible itself can be seen as primer for how—and how not—to conduct foreign affairs.
This legacy was harnessed by Israel’s founders to secure recognition and legitimacy for the Jewish State and, after its establishment, help ensure its survival. Like our ancestors in the Bible, Israeli leaders had to steer carefully between hostile blocs and maintain strategic alliances. In recent years, the effort to destroy Israel has morphed from an exclusively military to a largely legal campaign designed to delegitimize the Jewish State and strangle it with sanctions. Why then should Israel downplay the importance—and often dismiss—the role of foreign relations?
The reason is the presence of a parallel tradition, one of Zionist distaste for the Diasporic court (shtatlan) Jew combined with the premium Israelis place on self-reliance. The school of thought was best summarized by David Ben-Gurion’s famous quip, “Umm Shmum” (roughly “The United Nations—who cares?”) When, as ambassador to the United States, I first informed IDF and Mossad commanders of the campaign to boycott and sanction Israel, their reaction was, “No worry. The main thing is that we remain strong.” As if tanks and planes could defend the state from a popular movement seeking to pass laws denying us, first, the right to use those armaments, and later the right to exist.
In the contest between the two traditions, the Biblical regard for foreign policy and the current contempt, the latter has won out. The foreign ministry has been stripped of many of its responsibilities and its budget repeatedly slashed. Much of Israel’s foreign policy is today conducted through the National Security Council, the IDF, and the Mossad, by individuals lacking any diplomatic background. Norway, with none of the legal and diplomatic challenges Israel faces, spends twelve times as much on its foreign relations. The Palestinian Authority maintains 120 legations abroad. Israel has 96, with several of those slated for closure.
The situation is unsustainable, irresponsible, and dangerous. Rectifying it, though, involves far more than doubling the foreign ministry’s budget or restoring its purview. The process, rather, begins with educating the Israeli public about the impact of foreign affairs on their daily lives. Diplomacy is not merely the poor stepchild of security, they must learn, but an essential tool for safeguarding their homes and prosperity. Diplomats do not “sip cocktails,” as the popular myth holds, but work long hours for little pay and even risk their lives to represent and defend Israel in an often-hostile world. They provide the time and space necessary for our soldiers to fight and defend them from legal repercussions. By 2048, Israelis must be appreciative of this.
The foreign ministry, meanwhile, must be reformed. An institution infamous for inefficiency and mindless bureaucracy, it must be streamlined and modernized. Gone must be the days when diplomats exchanged some 120 cables to purchase—this actually happened—a teakettle. So, too, must the ministry be purged of the cronyism that consistently led to inappropriate and even damaging postings abroad and chronic leaks to the press. Early in my term in Washington, I briefed several foreign ministry departments, including the most classified unit, and read everything I said in the next day’s newspapers. Israel’s ambassador to the United States never spoke to the foreign ministry again for the next five years!
Generally, the ministry must be made to reflect twenty-first-century realities. No longer can the embassy in Washington have a full-time diplomat in charge of international organizations but not a single political attaché analyzing elections in America. No longer can a mid-level diplomat serve as Israel’s sole liaison to 1.4 billion Christians. The old division of departments according to geography (Asian Desk, European Desk) no longer corresponds to a world linked by the internet and economic globalization. Ambassadors and their staffs must be chosen solely on their qualifications, by a committee free of foreign ministry influence, and instantly dismissed for leaks. The ministry, in short, must be deconstructed and rebuilt in ways that can regain the public’s confidence.
The road turn restoring the foreign ministry to the exalted position it held in the early years of the state, and, more broadly, reviving the Jewish people’s respect for diplomacy, is long and challenging. It is a path that must be taken, though, if Israel is to position itself successfully in the twenty-first-century world and defend itself against delegitimization. Israel can be a light unto nations but only by projecting and protecting the beam.
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