The provisional Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, chaired by MK Orna Barbivay (Yesh Atid), heard a briefing on Wednesday from Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. The meeting was closed to the media, but at the start of the meeting the committee chair and the foreign minister each made a statement.
Committee Chair MK Barbivay said: “There are no words to define the importance of Israel’s foreign relations for the country’s national resilience. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in December 2020 about the work plan, the repositioning of the ministry’s vision and the way the ministry’s objectives were defined. No one imagined at the time the major challenges that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would face now — from the increase in anti-Semitism around the world, the challenge of the International Criminal Court and the change of administrations in the U.S. to Operation Guardian of the Walls — with all the public diplomacy challenges it entailed. I would like to express my appreciation for the way that you, Gabi Ashkenazi, led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The challenges are great and diverse, but the ability to pinpoint the challenges, set priorities and create a work plan with indicators for success is very significant. My thanks to you and to the Foreign Ministry personnel in Israel and abroad.”
Ashkenazi said: “In the past year, Israel has faced many challenges, shaped by three main factors: the COVID-19 challenge, which required COVID-19 diplomacy; signing the peace and normalization agreements, which mark a dramatic paradigm shift; and the third factor — the entry of a new U.S. administration. I tried to show the State of Israel’s value as an asset, to take advantage of the opportunities and the challenges.
“In the past year, the State of Israel’s standing in the international arena has become stronger, with a distinction between governments and international organizations and public opinion. This was put to the test during Operation Guardian of the Walls. During the operation, Israel enjoyed broad international support; major countries around the world recognized our right to defend ourselves and condemned Hamas, and that afforded us freedom of action. During the operation and at its conclusion, no [anti-Israel] resolutions were passed — although anti-Israel attempts were made — in either the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. General Assembly or the European Union.
“To the best of my judgment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has returned to being a relevant ministry. Upon assuming my post, I spoke about the [ministry’s] goals of being a leading ministry, an integrating factor, and making an impact on Israel’s foreign policy. I think that we’re there. We were partners to decision-making processes in all the forums, we were given an opportunity and we created access for the ministry in these places, and that is important for the state’s decision-making process.
“Despite the COVID-19 crisis, we succeeded in maintaining foreign relations. Over 45 foreign ministers visited here in the course of the past year. This is a record number. In addition, I made 10 trips abroad during the COVID-19 period, including visits that hadn’t been made for a long time. I was in Cairo at the invitation of [Egyptian Foreign Minister] Sameh Shoukry, after 13 years that no [Israeli] foreign minister visited there. Do you know how long it’s been since an American secretary of state set foot in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs? A decade.
“I think that a relationship of a foreign minister with other foreign ministers is very influential and shapes relations [between states]. Most of my work in Operation Guardian of the Walls, beyond discussions within the ministry, situation assessments and the like, consisted of conversations I had with over 80 foreign ministers — the conversations have a greater effect than interviews to the media. This tool, of a relationship and ongoing dialogue at the level of foreign ministers, is very important.
“In the past year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has undergone a difficult change, in terms of resources. When I took office, the budget was NIS 1.2 billion; it dropped from NIS 1.6 billion to 1.2 billion in one year. That is a cutback that no other ministry faced, and it should be examined why that happened. It paralyzed the ministry, and I’m glad that immediately after taking office I reached an understanding with the finance minister and we increased the budget and reached NIS 1.7 billion. There were situations in which ambassadors asked Jewish communities for money in order to hold an event — that’s how bad the situation was. We changed the budget and the work culture, we are integrating the work with different ministries. Our work processes are more orderly. The ministry works in a more systematic way, including in the latest military operation.
“I liked working in the ministry very much. There are outstanding people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and everything that happened could not have taken place without these people. There are people of extraordinary caliber there. I held a meeting on how to prepare for the new administration, and I looked around the room and there were about 300 years of experience among people who had worked with the Americans. There is no substitute for the global reach of the ministry. These are excellent people, who were treated poorly before I took office, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them. It was a privilege to be with them.”
Chair MK Barbivay said: “It was evident in the past year that the esprit de corps was restored to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel, who had felt in the past years that they were being pushed aside and were unable to exercise their responsibility. That is a change that can certainly be attributed to you.”
The rest of the meeting was closed to the media, and during the meeting the committee chair and the committee members thanked the foreign minister and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs personnel for all their work.
In conclusion, the committee chair said: “The goals defined by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 2021 are in line with the current challenges in Israel’s foreign relations, primarily:
- Preserving and strengthening the special relationship with the United States
- Thwarting the nuclear threat from Iran and other threats posed by Iran and the opposition axis
- Consolidating, expanding and leveraging the circle of peace and normalization
- Preserving and enhancing Israel’s international standing
- Strengthening the Israeli economy and advancing economic interests, while leveraging them for diplomatic purposes
- Seizing international opportunities to cope with the COVID-19 crisis
- Providing optimal service to citizens and the range of service recipients in Israel and abroad.”
Barbivay noted further that during Ashkenazi’s term, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ sphere of influence grew, but added that she believes that the potential of influence has not been fully exhausted and that it can be expanded further — with a different attitude by the government — for the purpose of advancing Israel’s interests.
Barbivay summed up by saying that she believes that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee should place a great emphasis on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a focus on discussions that are open to the public. She voiced the hope that whoever replaced her in the future would be mindful of this.