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Netanyahu’s ‘death blow’ to Foreign Ministry risks leaving Israel vulnerable

The Israeli government’s foreign policy is currently being managed by seven senior officials, a division of responsibilities shaped by domestic political concerns – but with more serious, global implications.

Since forming his coalition government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has himself retained the post of Foreign Minister. Likud’s Tzipi Hotovely was granted the position of deputy foreign minister, but has found her responsibilities reduced through other appointments.

These include Gilad Erdan, now Minister of Public Security, Strategic Affairs and Information (or Public Diplomacy), whose brief includes fighting so-called ‘delegitimization’ and the threat posed by the global, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has made Interior Minister Silvan Shalom the official in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians and strategic dialogue with the US, while Yuval Steinitz, National Infrastructure Minister, is overseeing the Iran file until he hands it over to Erdan in the summer.

Finally, there is Ze’ev Elkin, Minister of Immigrant Absorption, and, the newly-appointed director general of the Foreign Ministry, Netanyahu-confidante Dore Gold.

Earlier this week, the Israeli media cited “growing alarm within the Foreign Ministry” over Netanyahu’s decision to “divvy up the ministry’s roles among various ministers from the Likud”, thus “leaving the ministry itself impotent and unable to function.”

According to the reports, the public diplomacy department at the Prime Minister’s Office has instructed the Foreign Ministry to “coordinate in advance all official announcements, which present the official position of Israel on a series of issues.”

On Israel’s Channel 10, senior Foreign Ministry employees expressed “dismay” at the “division of responsibilities for Israel’s international relations among a bewildering assortment of ministers”, and warned of serious international consequences as a result of “the lack of cohesion.”

Part of this relates to the ‘peace process’. Since the election, Netanyahu has tried to row back on his explicit rejection of Palestinian statehood. It was just in March, recall, that he declared: “We won’t divide Jerusalem, we won’t make concessions, we won’t withdraw from land.”

Bibi has now told EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini that he supports “the vision of two states for two peoples” – though his sincerity, and definition of a Palestinian ‘state’, are both open to question. However, the views of other Israeli officials managing various aspects of the country’s international relations are even less ambiguous.

Hotovely has instructed envoys to cite the Bible in support of Jewish sovereignty over the West Bank, while Silvan Shalom has stated: “We are all against a Palestinian state, there is no question about it.” Dore Gold, meanwhile, believes it is “far more accurate” to describe the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip “as ‘disputed territories’ to which both Israelis and Palestinians have claims.”

Netanyahu seems mainly driven by domestic political considerations. One reason for keeping the Foreign Minister position for himself is to leave it open to offer Isaac Herzog, should he – and all or some of the Zionist Union – enter the government under a unity agreement. In addition, Netanyahu opted to appease senior Likud members with more titles and jobs than there are ministries.

On the other hand, Bibi could also be motivated by a desire to keep a personal grip on foreign affairs. Deputy FM Hotovely, for example, was not even consulted about the appointment of Dore Gold as new director general of the Foreign Ministry – a man who has worked closely with Netanyahu for some 20 years.

Whatever the precise combination of personal and domestic political considerations, Netanyahu’s manoeuvres could be a “death blow” to the Foreign Ministry, according to the warnings of anonymous officials speaking out. Amos Nadai, former Israeli ambassador to China, thinks it could cause “irreparable damage to Israel’s foreign relations.”

As the Israeli media has noted, this division of labour comes “at a time when Israel’s legitimacy is under widespread international pressure.”

boycott and divestment efforts; the Palestinians seeking to put Israel on trial for war crimes via the International Criminal Court, as well as booting Israel out of international soccer; numerous countries and their parliaments recognizing Palestine; Israel seeking to oppose the emerging nuclear deal with Iran; and a host of other challenges.

Thus while Erdan’s post may include a specific focus on fighting BDS – a recognition of how much of a threat the Israeli government now views the boycott movement to be – Foreign Ministry staffers see Israel’s fight against ‘delegitimization’ as severely hampered by the lack of full-time FM and “half-a-dozen politicians holding responsibility for various aspects of foreign policy.”

“There is a lot of confusion over who we are supposed to work with in this government”, said an unnamed European ambassador this week. The Netanyahu government already had its work cut out to stem the tide of growing international disquiet or outright anger at Israeli rejectionism; Bibi seems determined to make it even harder for himself.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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