Benjamin Netanyahu Is Bleeding Israel’s Foreign Ministry to Death
Deep funding cuts and the gutting of Israel’s diplomatic service is undermining the prime minister’s ambitious foreign-policy agenda.
JERUSALEM—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to boast of his diplomatic prowess, frequently touting the great benefits accrued through his personal relationships with foreign leaders.
While even Netanyahu’s detractors acknowledge that he is a wily and charismatic political operator, the Israeli prime minister shares U.S. President Donald Trump’s outspoken disdain for “elites” and his distrust of career members of the foreign-policy establishment. Both have played up their interpersonal skills at dealing with foreign leaders and the importance of one-on-one relationships.
This July, as Israel headed to its second election in less than a year, Netanyahu placed his strong bonds with the U.S. president and other heads of state at the center of his campaign, of himself standing alongside Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sides of his ruling Likud party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv. “Netanyahu: A Different League,” the posters declared.
Now, as Israelis reluctantly prepare themselves for a third election (Netanyahu having yet again failed to cobble together a governing coalition), Israel’s longest-serving prime minister appears to be betting his political future on convincing his countrymen that .
And while Trump has launched his own attacks on U.S. diplomacy, recalling and smearing U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and , Netanyahu has gone even further in dismantling the apparatus of diplomacy in Israel, taking apart the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and handing out its responsibilities to a host of other agencies, often as a form of political patronage.
In Israel, a country at war since its inception, diplomats have always played second fiddle to members of the security establishment when it comes to budgets and policy influence, but under the past decade of Netanyahu’s rule, this trend has accelerated in an unprecedented way.
Things came to a head in October when the Foreign Ministry workers’ union went on strike, shutting down Israel’s 103 overseas missions in a dispute with the Ministry of Finance over the reporting and taxation of expense stipends. It was the culmination of years of increasingly strained labor relations. In 2011, a Foreign Ministry strike forced then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to cancel a much-anticipated state visit. This was followed two years later by a work stoppage that caused a cessation of all consular services and a 2014 strike that shut down the ministry’s Jerusalem headquarters and Israeli embassies worldwide.
By the beginning of 2018, the government had announced the pending closure of seven missions abroad, and by the end of the year, Israeli media were reporting that the ministry was facing a $95 million budget shortfall. This was unsurprising. As the Times of Israel recently reported, most ministry budgets have doubled over the past two decades while that of the ministry of foreign affairs was repeatedly cut until it reached a nadir of only 1.3 billion shekels ($367 million).
In explaining this year’s work stoppage, which occurred against the backdrop of the announcement of a and the release of a state comptroller’s report indicating that some diplomatic premises owned by the government abroad were , the Foreign Ministry alleged that its counterparts at the Ministry of Finance had decided “to violate agreements … and to enforce unilateral procedures on representatives abroad that change practices that have been in effect for decades.”
“We are not striking because of the budget as such but because of working conditions,” Hanan Goder, Israel’s nonresident ambassador to South Sudan, speaking on behalf of the Foreign Ministry workers’ union, told Foreign Policy during a recent meeting in the ministry’s stone and glass headquarters in Jerusalem. “We’re on zero. We have no budget,” he complained, searching a kitchenette for powdered coffee before finding a lone can in another worker’s cubicle. “We’re counting cups.”
“We don’t have money for the plastic table flags” that the ministry would set up during meetings with foreign visitors, he continued, citing a recent directive from the Ministry of Finance.
Goder said that there have been cases in which nonresident ambassadors tasked with “representing Israel in several different capitals could not afford to fly and present their accreditations,” causing great offense to the countries in question. “It’s an insult. … They don’t understand that there is no budget,” he said.
Despite the ministry’s woes, the issue that had brought his fellow foreign-service officers to strike was one closer to home. For years, Israeli diplomats have been granted a stipend for expenses by the Ministry of Finance on top of their regular salary that allowed them to host diplomatic events and travel throughout their assigned countries. However, the Finance Ministry has recently pushed for changes to the arrangement, declaring the funds taxable and demanding detailed receipts for expenditures.
Ambassadors, he said, frequently serve in hardship postings, and their travel makes it almost impossible for diplomatic spouses to have a career, limiting them to a single income. While Goder believes that the request for documentation was reasonable, he and his colleagues objected to taxing funds used for work purposes.
For its part, the Ministry of Finance told Foreign Policy that it believes that “employees of the Foreign Ministry have chosen to avoid paying taxes,” a claim that Goder rejected.
Current and former employees of the foreign ministry who spoke with Foreign Policy described the current situation in dire terms, painting a picture of a ministry where “capacities are being starved to death.” The ministry is “rudderless,” one former senior official said. “It’s extremely dispiriting to the people who have to run Israel’s diplomacy. I know officials in foreign capitals who had to pay for meals and transport when doing their job and quite a few that had to cancel events because there was no budget. It’s harming our diplomatic relations and our image in the world and ability to sign agreements.”
Part of the reason for the ministry’s financial woes is the growing influence of other branches of government, which have taken over core areas of responsibility that used to belong to the foreign service. In 2009, when Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office after a decade’s absence, he began to decentralize the functions of the foreign service, reopening the then-defunct ministries of Regional Cooperation and Strategic Affairs and giving them away as prizes to political allies.
And, as Aharon Klieman, professor emeritus of diplomacy at Tel Aviv University, wrote several years ago in the Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, since Netanyahu’s victory in the 2013 elections, “those various duties and functions normally associated with foreign ministries have been arbitrarily parceled out among half a dozen and more rival agencies and ambitious ministers.”
The bodies such as the prime minister’s office, National Security Council, Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, Ministry of Regional Cooperation, and others have taken over responsibility for issues ranging from diaspora Jewry to the peace process and relations with the United States. The issue of combating the international boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) was given to the Strategic Affairs Ministry, which spends millions on public diplomacy projects that many in the Israeli diplomatic world .
With an annual budget of around 300 million shekels ($86 million), the ministry has been accused of making little headway in the fight against the purported isolation of Israel, spending millions of shekels on “” and an app which has come under fire by critics for its “’.” All of the money spent on these efforts have done little to combat a campaign that, according to Israeli business daily Globes, has “.”
The Foreign Ministry’s problems were “partly its own fault and partly part of a vicious cycle,” Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security advisor on Israel’s National Security Council, told Foreign Policy.
Freilich, who is currently an adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University and Tel Aviv University, explained that as the Foreign Ministry’s responsibilities were divvied out to various bodies as political spoils and it was increasingly left “with almost nothing of consequence,” its staff become increasingly dispirited.
While Israel’s precarious security situation always gave the defense establishment more clout in the decision-making process, it wasn’t until recent decades that the ministry—which was previously kept as apolitical as possible—became a prize sought in coalition negotiations. And that’s when its problems really started, he said.
“It became politicized. Many of the ministers really didn’t care about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. For them it was a stepping stone they needed for their political resumes,” he said.
Over the years, “even the important parts of day to day management” either went to the prime minister’s office, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), or the defense establishment, he said. Relations with Egypt and Jordan were handled through the Defense Ministry, the peace process through the prime minister’s office, and the Iranian nuclear program via the Mossad.
“They’ve lost anything of importance. It’s been taken away from them,” he said, which has caused many in the ministry to “lose whatever motivation they had” and discouraged new recruits.
While many prime ministers have used personal envoys and centralized relations with key allies within their own bureaus for years, this trend has accelerated under Netanyahu. “Netanyahu doesn’t like the ministry, never did,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who served as chief of staff to two foreign ministers and as an advisor to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
“He sees it as a bastion of anti-Bibi sentiment,” he continued, using a common nickname for Netanyahu. “He thinks he knows better on foreign policy and he sees them as well positioned to undermine things he wants to do on foreign policy.” The problem, Pinkas said, agreeing with what appears to be the consensus in Israeli diplomatic circles, was that “when working with personal emissaries, there will never be follow-up and there will always be loose ends.”
Dan Shapiro, who served as former U.S. President Barack Obama’s envoy to Israel from 2011 to 2017, painted a similar picture, explaining that Netanyahu has “preferred to centralize the [U.S.-Israel] relationship to a significant degree, and that has made a challenge for other parts of both governments” to coordinate their work.
Neither the Foreign Ministry spokesman nor the prime minister’s office responded to requests for comment.
The complaints of Foreign Ministry officials within Israel were echoed by Israeli diplomats stationed abroad. One, who asked only to be identified as a senior ambassador, told Foreign Policy that the persistent budget cuts have made it “difficult to follow up on opportunities [Netanyahu] created, and it makes it harder for the foreign service to create its own opportunities.”
While Netanyahu has overseen what has been described in this magazine as “’,” strengthening ties with Latin America and Eastern Europe and rebuilding ties with African nations that began disintegrating during the 1970s, a lack of follow-up certainly has prevented Netanyahu’s breakthroughs from paying the dividends one would expect.
Working on long-term projects abroad takes a lot of resources, and “one of the most valuable tools is a representation allowance, so you can entertain people and meet them and develop a relationship with them,” the diplomat explained. “We have no budget for operational expenses.”
“We don’t have a budget even to travel out of the capital. … There is no more budget for basic things, like coffee and biscuits,” said the senior ambassador. “We don’t have money to sponsor cultural activities. We don’t have the money if we want to initiate a day devoted to Israeli economy.”
Like his colleagues, he also criticized the Strategic Affairs Ministry, stating that it had “received tremendous budgets, and those budgets have been taken away from the Foreign Ministry and for the moment we don’t see—or I have not seen—results justifying this decision.”
(For his part, former Strategic Affairs Ministry director-general Yossi Kuperwasser told Foreign Policy that he had worked well with his counterparts at the Foreign Ministry and that he didn’t think that there was “any change in the stature of the ministry.”)
One way in which the gutting of the foreign service has harmed Israeli interests is in its approach to Africa—where Israel now has relations with 41 sub-Saharan nations (with embassies in 10 of them) but where funding for projects and diplomatic initiatives is bare-bones.
The Israeli aid agency Mashav, which has served as a defining feature of Israel’s Africa policy for decades, has been effectively shuttered for lack of funds, and Israeli diplomats on the continent are “trying to do their job blindfolded and with their hands tied behind their backs,” said American Israeli businessman Yosef Abramowitz, whose firm Energiya Global does extensive business across the African continent.
“There is an international gold rush for projects throughout the continent” and Israel has lost one of its primary tools for building relationships there, he said. “China, Russia, and many European countries” are now operating in Africa, and even the “U.S. is about to step up its game” there, he said. “Those world powers are deploying lots of people and lots of capital to support their private sector groups, [which are] grabbing market share.”
The lack of full-time envoys in many countries has prompted whispers among African leaders “that they feel neglected, despite the proclamations of the prime minister that Israel is coming back to Africa.”
Abramowitz detailed one example of Israel’s failure to follow up on Netanyahu’s successes in Africa in an article for Jerusalem Post in which he described how only seven African nations voted in favor of a U.S.-backed U.N. resolution condemning Hamas rocket fire.
“Every Israeli ambassador for Africa with whom I spoke mentioned that they have zero travel or activities budget and therefore relations with most of these countries remains symbolic and ineffective,” he wrote. It “should have been an easy win” to win their support at the U.N., but “Israel simply didn’t have the firepower to get the job done.”
While Netanyahu’s skillful handling of relations with Russia has been widely lauded for providing him with the freedom of action necessary to launch strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, the prime minister’s outreach to other less-than-liberal states have come over the objections of career diplomats.
Netanyahu’s “personalized version of diplomacy,” which is evident in relationships with authoritarian foreign leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, “stands in contrast to what the professional echelon is calling for,” explained Nimrod Goren, who heads Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.
He recalled Netanyahu’s downplaying of Hungarian anti-Semitism in the face of objections from the local Jewish community and his own diplomats, which he said demonstrated that a “lack of responsibility and budget eventually becomes a lack of impact on policy.”
However, there is another reason for Netanyahu’s approach to countries such as Hungary, and that is his view that the Foreign Ministry’s efforts to strengthen ties with Western European liberal democracies have not paid off in terms of policy on issues such as Iran and the Palestinians.
In recent years, Netanyahu has worked hard to strengthen ties with the Visegrad Group—a bloc that comprises Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia—which he believes can stand as a nationalist counterweight to the Middle East policies pushed by Brussels, Paris, and Berlin.
However, these efforts have often entailed , Holocaust denial, and human rights abuses—leading to intense criticism from both liberal Israelis and Jews in the diaspora. Like Trump, Netanyahu is often perceived as placing realpolitik above morality in statecraft.
This approach has not always paid off, especially as Israelis have not always been willing to look the other way. After Poland passed a law in 2018 criminalizing claims that “the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible” for “crimes against peace, crimes against humanity or war crimes,” Netanyahu faced a public outcry and was forced to confront Warsaw’s attempts to exonerate Poles of any blame for anti-Semitic violence before and during the Holocaust.
However, after several contentious months (and a Polish amendment to the law), Netanyahu appeared to backtrack, releasing a joint statement with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki that was seen by historians as a .
Despite his best efforts, Netanyahu did did not manage to solve the underlying problem, a fact that became apparent this February when newly appointed Foreign Minister Israel Katz, in office for less than a day, went on television to claim that ethnic Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk.” Poland promptly pulled out of a Visegrad summit scheduled to be held in Jerusalem, scuttling the meeting.
Resurrecting the Foreign Ministry could require “pumping millions into the ministry,” argued Pinkas, but also “changing the culture.” However, this may be harder to accomplish than it sounds.
According to Dore Gold, a former Israeli envoy to the United Nations, who served under Netanyahu as director-general of the Foreign Ministry from 2015 to 2016, the Finance Ministry’s influence on internal Foreign Ministry matters makes it incredibly difficult for it to engage in any internal readjustments. (The Finance Ministry is highly influential and has a say in issues ranging from the Ministry of Health’s service provision to the defense budget.)
During Gold’s tenure, the Finance Ministry decided to start taxing funds granted to diplomats to take their families on minivacations within Israel when working out of the ministry headquarters in Jerusalem. When Gold decided to close down several projects he felt were not providing an adequate return on investment, “I learned that as director-general I had no control, it was all in the hands of the Finance Ministry.”
Despite his complaints about budgetary issues, however, Gold expressed a more nuanced view of Netanyahu the diplomat than many other ministry veterans, saying that “issues related to Israel’s standing in the world are very important to him,” and he has “devoted an enormous amount of time” to improving its foreign relations. According to Gold, Netanyahu’s ability to secure results from foreign leaders has “served Israel’s interests directly.”
Unfortunately, there is little chance of a legislative remedy to the problem, said Merav Michaeli, a Labor member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and former member of its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, noting that several attempts at pushing through legislation defining the Foreign Ministry’s mission in recent years failed due to lack of coalition support.
The committee is overwhelmingly focused on defense issues, and “even when we do discuss the situation of the Foreign Ministry, we have very few tools to force the government to actually do something about it.”
“If you look at the ways in which Bibi took power and authority away from the Foreign Ministry, all of these are things that don’t go through the Knesset at all,” she said. “For instance, taking the fight against BDS away from the Foreign Ministry and giving to another ministry is not something that needs Knesset approval, so we can’t do anything about it.”
The consensus among most of those who spoke to Foreign Policy seemed to be that the only chance for a change in the Israeli foreign service’s fortunes was a change in government. Opposition politicians such as Blue and White party deputy leader Yair Lapid have criticized Netanyahu for his personalization of foreign policy.
Lapid, who previously came into conflict with Israel’s diplomats during his term as finance minister, has been tapped to lead the Foreign Ministry should Blue and White manage to take over from Netanyahu. Despite his previous conflicts with the ministry, Lapid has worked hard to burnish his foreign-policy credentials, meeting with foreign leaders over the past year and publicly that “the same way we expect the IDF to show up to every battle, I expect the Foreign Ministry to show up to every battle.”
But even in a potential post-Netanyahu Israel, it’s unclear whether anyone can reverse the trends the prime minister has set in motion and put the pieces of Israel’s foreign-policy establishment back together again. Resurrecting Israeli diplomacy would pay dividends, creating a space for the reestablishment of a bipartisan consensus on Israel in the United States, enabling diplomats to better enlist allies help in pushing Israel’s agenda in international forums, and paving the way for better trade relations with developing countries across the globe.
Even for Netanyahu’s supporters who argue, rightly, that the prime minister has a gift for diplomacy, there is no question that a strong and properly funded diplomatic corps would not undermine his achievements. Rather, it would allow for them to be developed even further.