Ido Aharoni
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The State of Israel’s Diplomacy

Ido Aharoni is a Global Distinguished Professor for International Relations at New York University, a member of the International Advisory Council of APCO Worldwide and Chairman of the Charney Forum for New Diplomacy. He was Israel's longest serving consul-general in New York (2010–2016).


Yair Lapid, Israel’s new Foreign Minister has stepped into a foreign service riddled with complex challenges, but by embracing a ‘diplomacy of opportunities’ approach, Israel can successfully leverage diplomacy to build bridges and promote its self-interests.

To truly understand the state of Israeli diplomacy – including its ineptitude in the face of technological disruption, imbalance of threats vs. opportunities, obsession with crisis management, and the strict adherence to the archaic ‘advocacy model’ of diplomacy – one must grasp the militaristic nature of Israeli society.

Those who consume Israeli media will notice that it regularly celebrates events related to the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), even ones as insignificant as low-level appointments. Routine training courses are deemed important by editors of national media and receive disproportionate coverage. Yair Lapid’s former employer, Yediot Aharonot, is undoubtedly the main endorser of this uniquely Israeli genre: civic militarism. Israel has been dominated by its ruling anxiety agents for decades, and the endless celebration of the country’s security assets—the IDF, Mossad, Secret Service—is a pillar of its philosophy.

The centrality of security and militarism has had profound implications on Israel’s diplomacy philosophy — Israeli leaders were, and still are, rarely inclined to exercise pure diplomacy. This likely stems from a genuine belief that “diplomacy is the continuation of war with other means”, as wrongly attributed to military theorist Carl von Clausewitz (d. 1831). The purpose of diplomacy, in their eyes, is to ‘assist’ the military in achieving a decisive victory.

But viewing diplomacy as a means to achieve victory, fails to recognize the true essence of diplomacy – which is not about defeating the other, or crushing an enemy – it is about forging lasting ties with people and institutions, to promote a country’s self-interests. And, in conflict, the role of diplomacy is to find opportunities and creative solutions.

Historically, Israel has not been able to practice a ‘diplomacy of opportunities’, and those who attempted it were quickly labeled by the dominant security narrative as dangerous daydreamers, the likes of Moshe Sharet and Shimon Peres of the 1990’s. Such a diplomacy, one that celebrates opportunities, rather than winning debates, has been seen to contradict the need to fiercely defend the country’s interests.

Israel’s diplomacy, as well as pre-statehood Zionist diplomacy, has heavily relied on the need to advocate policy. The diplomat is viewed as a litigator whose job is to “make the case for Israel”. The goal is to win the debate. This is part of our tradition, from the Nachmanides to Abba Eban. With the rise of participatory culture, in which consumers are pro-active participants, who seek warm emotional connections rather than cold facts, and where the ability to tell a good story has become central, the old advocacy model has become obsolete. Sadly, in the post-truth era, facts are less important. Israel’s diplomacy must invest in the well-being of the country’s brand rather than engage in an endless clinical debate based on facts.

To engage with the new participants, modern diplomats should be trained to become the chief marketing officers of their country and its assets and national ethos. The famous MFA cadet program would be benefitting from embracing creativity and rejecting conformity, with a set of new specialty programs in areas that top the global agenda. The Foreign Ministry should recruit recognized professionals that can turn the foreign service into a highly specialized organization with world class expertise in key areas. Diplomats should promote a measurable agenda that centers around actual performance, and be measured by clear KPIs, like the number of foreign students they bring to Israel, foreign tourists, direct foreign investment, film and TV productions, and cultural exchange programs, to name a few.

In Israel, where ‘urgent’ always overrides ‘important’, diplomacy has struggled to dictate national agenda. Crisis management is addictive, and the system has wholeheartedly surrendered to the adrenaline that comes with it. But this is also an impediment to long-term strategic thinking. The so-called BDS problem is a perfect example: rather than focusing on the boycotters, a tiny and vocal minority, a global strategy should have been developed to build Israel’s brand among the 95% who do not care about politics and the Middle East.

In reality, the inability to prioritize opportunities over threats, has landed Israel’s foreign service in an undesirable position, it may likely be the weakest link in executing the country’s foreign policy. Can you imagine the Bank of Israel being excluded from discussions surrounding Israel’s monetary policy and its implementation?

With Yair Lapid at the helm, Israel should resist the temptation to surrender to crisis and adopt a long-term strategy around the celebration of the country’s creative spirit. This would require deep and independent world-class social and psychological research. The current reliance on ‘public opinion surveys’ and polls is insufficient at best.

Prioritizing threats over opportunities is not Israeli diplomacy’s only pitfall, the foreign service lacked the foresight and preparation for the technological disruption to traditional diplomacy. The fact is, this is not unique to Israel by any means, and still, there is no consolation in the global diplomacy ‘Kodak moment’ for a country that desperately needs a strong, cutting edge, skilled and energized diplomatic service.

Traditional diplomacy has been severely disrupted by technology and the information revolution. Ideas know no physical boundaries, and diplomacy is all about the ability to communicate ideas. Yet traditional diplomacy is still heavily territorial. The nation-state is still the main point of reference. It would be prudent for any foreign service to recalibrate traditional diplomacy to effectively deal with the new rising stars of global policy: multi-national corporations (especially the tech giants) and major cities.

Israeli diplomacy should develop a plan to seriously engage companies like Amazon, recognizing that in today’s world, if there is an entity that could handle the global food crisis it might well be Amazon, and not the United Nations. Similarly, Israel’s diplomacy has not given ample consideration to cities as relevant and independent targets. This might give insight as to why Israel’s consulate in Los Angeles, undoubtedly one of the most important cities in the world, has not been expanded since the 1950’s.

While Israel has neglected emerging forces in global policy, it has continued to devote disproportionate attention and energy to the United Nations. This was perhaps justified when Israel’s existence was in question during the early years. But now, when Israel’s legitimacy stems from its actual performance and tremendous contribution to the world, this is unwarranted at best. Shrewd, but also reckless, Israeli politicians have turned the United Nations into a public affairs platform for domestic consumption only. Here’s a little secret: when Israeli leaders address the UN general assembly, the world is not really listening. It is a costly production primarily meant and designed for the Israeli media and public. Scores of diplomats continue to travel annually to New York to report on the discussions during the general assembly. Hundreds of cables are sent. These reports go nowhere. This waste of organizational energy should be stopped and redirected elsewhere.

Historically, Israel’s diplomacy has been Euro-centric. After all, Europe is the birthplace of modern Zionism and was viewed by its founding fathers as the main source of its legitimacy. To this day, Israeli diplomacy is heavily tilted toward Europe: 28 diplomatic missions in Europe, only 10 in the USA, 5 in Chinese speaking countries and only 2 in India. Certainly, Europe is important, but Israel’s diplomatic strategy should also look elsewhere: Asia in the first place, with an emphasis on China and India, and North America, focusing on public diplomacy and the new participant that has emerged.

Israel’s advocacy model has proven inadequate in the case of the USA and the Iran deal. Setting aside the bottom line (Iran has never been closer to a nuclear bomb – undoubtedly, the biggest diplomatic failure in Israel’s history), Israel voluntarily gave up on the opportunity to exercise diplomacy, and ended up without a seat around the relevant table. While Israel’s diplomats were busy ‘advocating’ the ‘facts’, a new coalition emerged in American politics.

Almost twenty years ago, Israel’s foreign service was alerted that this was coming –   that a new generation that sees force as illegitimate is rising, and that ‘twinning’ with the Palestinians is viewed by them and much of the world as toxic – and, that Israel needs to urgently engage them in a broader conversation about its place in the world.

There are many ways to engage new participants, but winning debates is not one of them.

Israel must break the ‘twinning’ with the Palestinians, highlighting its competitive edge, unique advantages, and value proposition. What does that look like in practice?

Inviting hundreds of influencers to visit, launching a national program to increase the number of foreign study-abroad students (from the current 3K to at least 50K per year), and establishing a national faculty exchange program for doctoral candidates in the humanities and social studies, are just a few examples.

It is time for Israel to recognize that technology has irreversibly disrupted traditional diplomacy, and embrace a new diplomatic paradigm – a shift from a traditional model of advocacy to a modern model of marketing, public diplomacy, and the deployment of soft assets - a true ‘diplomacy of opportunities’.


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