Thursday, March 24, 2016

Op-Ed: How to waste Israeli taxpayer money

Judith Bergman,

Bergman image from article

The Foreign Ministry, in its present form and with its present staff, is a bloated, bureaucratic giant, which has forgotten what it was put into the world to do in the first place. 

On Tuesday, during a session of the Knesset Subcommittee on Foreign Affairs and Public Diplomacy, headed by MK Michael Oren (Kulanu), it was revealed that only about eight percent of the Foreign Ministry’s annual budget is being used for diplomatic activity, with the rest spent on manpower, security and other logistical and administrative needs.

“Only 8% of the Foreign Ministry’s budget goes for actual diplomatic activity. That is somewhere in the vicinity of what we spend on a platoon of Merkava 4 tanks. One platoon! That, to me, defies logic,” Oren said.

According to the report in Times of Israel, in 2015, just NIS 132 million ($33 million) of the ministry’s total budget of NIS 1.65 billion ($423 million) was spent on what officials call diplomatic activities: development aid, conferences and public diplomacy. By comparison, the ministry paid significantly more — NIS 231 million ($59 million), or 14% of the annual budget — on security for Israeli missions abroad.

According to the article, Alon Ushpiz, the Foreign Ministry’s political director, “lamented the dearth of funds, but maintained that a modest budget increase could have a dramatic impact on his ability to improve Israel’s standing in certain parts of the world”.

“We’re breaking down under this burden,” said Ushpiz, one of the ministry’s most senior officials. “We are constantly asking for more, but what they give us is merely a drop in the ocean.”

The average Israeli tax payer, who does not get close to the living standard of an Israeli diplomat abroad, deserves to know why his hard earned money is wasted in such a manner.
When asked if the Foreign Ministry’s situation is so bad, how such a small sum could change it for the better, Ushpiz said that “With this amount of money I know how to do things the United States couldn’t do, because I know how to get along with small sums”. One barely knows whether to laugh or to cry.

If there is something that will emphatically not solve the problem, it is the throwing of more money into what evidently operates as a black hole. Israel’s public diplomacy has been classified as atrocious by dozens of observers – and any teenager, frankly, could ascertain the same, merely by casting a look at the daily headlines of the world’s news outlets -  and as a result, private organizations attempting to mitigate the (lack of) results have mushroomed, making what should ideally be Israel’s primary task in the cognitive war against it a very privatized and scattered endeavor.

As Michael Oren, who is an expert in the field of public diplomacy, as a historian and former ambassador, said, “It’s not just a matter of throwing money at the problem. Part of the Foreign Ministry needs to be fixed, in the way it’s run, making the place more efficient. It’s not efficient. It needs an extensive, far-reaching reform. It’s aching for reform.”

Those are very strong words, coming from a former diplomat. Translated into plain English, they signify that the Foreign Ministry, in its present form and with its present staff, is a bloated, bureaucratic giant, which has forgotten what it was put into the world to do in the first place.

When a private corporation fails to deliver results, year after year, the board of directors evaluates the staff, fires those who do not perform and overhauls the entire organization, if necessary. How is it that the Foreign Ministry continues, for years and years, to commit the same public diplomacy blunders, yet nothing is done about it? On the contrary, more money has been poured into the organization, despite its lack of results, because the ministry always uses “lack of funds” as an excuse. Now it is clear for all to see that those funds are not being used for their rightful purposes. The average Israeli tax payer, who does not get close to the living standard of an Israeli diplomat abroad, deserves to know why his hard earned money is wasted in such a manner.

Two years ago, the entire Foreign Ministry went on strike because diplomats believed that they were being underpaid. Embassies were closed down for the first time in Israel’s history, despite the fact that Israel, no less than now, found itself in the middle of a cognitive war. Imagine if the IDF did such a thing!

Nevertheless, the blackmail worked and the diplomats got a raise. Of course, it made no difference to the quality of Israeli public diplomacy.

Some of the biggest problems with the Foreign Ministry are that it is too often afraid to push unashamed Zionist narratives and that it leans predominantly to the left and is thus not representative of Israel as whole, which does not lean predominantly to the left. There are not many national religious Israelis on the missions abroad, for instance, where the narrative given about Israel is timid and over-focused on pandering to a progressive narrative of what Israel is.

At one time, the embassy of Israel in Denmark, to give one example, co-sponsored a disproportionately large amount of gay and lesbian events. The point was to show how progressive Israel is – and it is indeed – but it was an exercise in futility. What, after all, is the point of public diplomacy in Israel at this point in time? People are not going to understand Israel and its legitimacy on the map of the Middle East from a series of gay and lesbian Israeli films or performers, even if they are a small part of the Israeli cultural scene.

In Canada, recently, the Israeli embassy decided to financially support the appearance of the anything but proudly Zionist singer, Achinoam Nini (also known as Noa) at the coming Israeli Independence Day celebrations in Vancouver. The Jewish National Fund of Canada withdrew its financial support for the events because of reports that she supports the BDS movement. (Nini now covers herself with the fact that BDS’ers have decided that for all her extreme left posturing and pandering, she is still an evil Israeli, who should be boycotted).

Israel has a host of extremely talented musicians and singers, many of them very proud Zionists, who do not use every opportunity, as Nini has done, to bash and smear Israel on the international scene. In 2014, just to mention one example, Nini gave an interview to Italian press agency ANSA about the war in Gaza. In the interview, Nini compared Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I met Abu Mazen [Abbas] in Ramallah,” she said. “I believe that the Palestinian leader really wants peace with Israel, but unfortunately I can’t say the same about my prime minister.”

The question inevitably arises: Could the Israeli embassy not have decided to promote any of these other Israeli singers, especially since the occasion is Independence Day? Was there really no one else available than someone who is so hostile to her own country that she decided to blame and smear her own Prime Minister at the height of a defensive war? The decision to back and finance her, speaks volumes about the ethos that prevails in the Foreign Ministry and among its staff - and the faulty decision-making, which inevitably follows from it.

Over the past many years, there has been so much criticism of the Foreign Ministry and its failure to make the case for Israel, but at no point has the criticism led to any overhaul of the ministry. Now that it is clear to everyone that funds are being wasted and that the ministry’s only response is to ask for even more money, the time has come to heed Michael Oren’s words and commence the thorough reform that is so desperately needed.

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