05:55 GMT10 April 2020
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    It's been a year since Yisrael Katz took over Israel's foreign ministry, replacing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has held this position for four consecutive years but decided to let it go after he was indicted in a series of graft probes that included buying positive press and receiving expensive gifts from a rich donor.

    Israel's MFA has not had a dedicated full-time minister since 2015 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "jumping" from one post to another. That's why the appointment of Katz, who previously overhauled the country's transportation ministry, led many diplomats to believe that he would rebuild the sinking image of the institution and would give it a much needed financial boost. But one year down the line not much has been achieved.

    2019 was particularly harsh for the ministry. After its $500 million budget was cut by more than $100 million, important projects, including the exchange of students with countries like India and China, were cancelled and Israeli diplomats abroad complained about their inability to buy a train ticket or even a coffee during a work meeting. 

    But the problems with the ministry started long before 2019, said Hanan Goder, Israel's ambassador to South Sudan and a deputy chairman of the Foreign ministry's workers' committee.

    Depleting Resources

    In late 1990s and early 2000s Israel allocated 0.6 percent of the country's total budget to its foreign affairs ministry. Today it invests less than 0.3 percent, way behind other developed countries and way behind Israel's other governmental offices including the ministry of education, defence and public security that received $17 billion, $16 billion and $5 billion respectively in 2019.

    "You understand the magnitude of the problem when you sit in a meeting and you don't have money for table flags. It sends a bad signal to your guests but it also hurts the image of Israel," said Goder.

    Until the late 1990s, the MFA was regarded as one of the country's most prestigious offices, playing a pivotal role in establishing ties with states Israel had little or no relations with and boosting cooperation with those that sympathised with the Jewish state.

    MFA as a Victim of Political Games

    That, however, changed when Benjamin Netanyahu became the Prime Minister of Israel in 1996. In a digital age where everything became accessible and where video calls could replace face-to-face meetings, maintaining 103 missions around the world, with each costing up to $5 million annually, was seen as a waste of funds, especially if those funds could be utilized for other purposes, including appeasing coalition partners.

    In 2018, the premier cut more than $73 million out of the ministry's budget, instead boosting the Judea and Samaria Regional Council. Several years earlier, in 2015, he allowed the Ministry of Strategic Affairs (headed by Likud member Gilad Erdan) to take over the issue that has traditionally been under the jurisdiction of the Foreign ministry - the fight against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that started lifting its head in the US and around the world in the early 2000s.

    Existing governmental bodies have also been given some of MFA's responsibilities. The ministry of economy, for example, was made responsible for establishing and maintaining trade ties with the various countries, whereas the ministry of tourism was given the right to promote Israel's image as a safe and attractive tourist destination.

    Lost Battles?

    The repercussions of the move have been devastating, says Goder.

    "New projects or fresh initiatives were taken off the table. We stopped signing trade deals and ceased opening cultural offices. Nor did we invest in student exchange or diplomatic gatherings. When you throw rocks at MFA, you don't know which target you will end up hitting. One thing is certain: this approach will inevitably lead to Israel's losing its battles in the international arena".

    One such battle has already been lost, says Godar. In 2018 the UN General Assembly voted down Washington's bid to condemn Hamas' violence against Israel, 11 weeks after the eruption of the so-called March of Return riots that have seen more than 100 Palestinians dead and 11,000 wounded.

    Similarly, Israel failed to prevent the opening of the International Criminal Court's probe into the country's conduct in the West Bank and Gaza, a move that has been slammed by the country's leadership.

    "The threat that Israel is facing emanates not only from Gaza. The battle for the country's future starts abroad, in our missions around the world".
    Challenges Keep On Growing

    And it seems Israel has plenty of issues to worry about. 2018 has seen a surge of anti-Semitic incidents around the world. A recent survey revealed that a third of Jews in 12 European countries reported having experienced anti-Semitic harassment. Same goes for the US, where the Anti-Defamation League registered 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in 2019.

    The BDS has also taken a more active role in the international arena, contributing to a series of steps taken by the EU that included the labelling of Israeli goods produced in the settlements and the introduction of the so-called blacklist of companies that operate in the West Bank, which is considered occupied Palestinian land under international law.

    For Netanyahu, however, Israel's position in the world has never been stronger. In 2018, he boasted that under his leadership Israel has become the world's eighth most powerful country in the world after the US, Russia, China, Germany, the UK, France and Japan.

    Indeed, during his decade at the helm of Israel, the premier embarked on a worldwide campaign to strengthen the country's near-non existent relations with such world powers as China, India and Russia. He has also established good relations with once anti-Semitic states including Hungary and Poland.

    Even more so, Israel's image continued to improve in the Middle East too with Tel Aviv establishing ties with Chad and Sudan, both of which had been previously hostile to Israel, and leading back-channel talks with such states as Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Bahrain.

    "Our international stance is great but it could have been way better. Netanyahu is a magician and he does know how to speak to world leaders, but when the meeting is over, there should be an institution that does the follow-up and all the groundwork. This should have been us".

    But Goder is not ready to give up, saying Netanyahu is still able to reverse the decay process of the ministry.

    "The MFA comprises of professionals who devoted their lives to serving Israel. We have the capabilities, the education and years of experience under our belts to do the job. All we need now is to be given [a suitable] budget. More importantly, though, we need to employ new people and get a minister who will be proactive and who will initiate stuff".
    Tags:
    Israel Foreign Ministry, antisemitism, EU, U.S, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel
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