For all of the talk we’ve been hearing for the last week about how Israel’s new government can’t possibly function, Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to be catching a lot more flack about the likelihood that his appointees will implement changes than about their supposed inability to act. The latest item to provoke international outrage is the appointment of Dore Gold, a respected scholar and veteran diplomat to the post of director general of the foreign ministry. The problem with Gold, according to left-wing critics and the Palestinians is that he has an annoying tendency to see the situation as it is and not through the rose-colored glasses of some of the inveterate peace processors that preceded him in the post. As with Netanyahu’s re-election, the losers in that contest that are warning Israelis the country will pay a heavy price for not doing as Washington orders. But what both the prime minister and his long-time adviser bring to the table is a much-needed sense of realism to the task of representing Israel to the world that their opponents lack.
There is no question that the divvying up of the political spoils in the new coalition is not an edifying spectacle even by the debased standards of Israeli politics. As the Times of Israel’s Haviv Retting Gur points out, the motivation for many of the ministerial appointments has to do with Netanyahu’s efforts to sideline potential opponents. But while those who predict that this scheme can’t possibly last will eventually be right, Netanyahu has outlasted a generation of would-be successors and counting on his streak ending seems a foolish bet. It’s not clear how much, if anything, this government will accomplish in domestic politics since its slim 61-59 majority will always be in question. But on diplomacy, Netanyahu has the opportunity to change things up, and it is a shift that is long overdue.
Gold replaces a Nissim Ben-Shitrit, a diplomatic veteran with a half-century’s worth of experience. Some who believe an honored professional has been pushed out in favor of a prime ministerial crony sees this as outrageous. But the problem here is the assumption that the foreign ministry knows what it’s been doing. As I pointed out last week when writing about new deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely’s attempt to get the ministry to answer Palestinian arguments rooted in rights rather than merely talking about security and a belief in peace, too many of those charged with representing Israel are locked into an outdated and unrealistic Oslo mindset about the peace process. The result is that even though the country has clearly moved on from a policy that failed disastrously, much of the foreign affairs bureaucracy acts as if it has not.
For those who remember the classic British television shows, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, permanent civil servants working in Israel have often played the same game with underqualified and outmatched politicians assigned to supervise them. But by putting Dore Gold, a man who can match anyone in the ministry for knowledge of the situation and who has the confidence of the prime minister, in charge there, that bureaucracy can now be mobilized to help the government rather than ensuring that it will fail.
Nor is it unprecedented for a new government to attempt to clean house in the foreign ministry when a new minister takes office. Left-wingers like Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni, ensured no opposition by appointing someone they trusted. Netanyahu, who retains the foreign minister portfolio for the time being, is doing the same but to even better effect because his man actually has a clear head about Palestinian intentions rather than illusions about a peace deal the other side has no interest in as Peres and Livni did.
The problem with much of Israeli diplomacy during the last 20 years has not been due to a lack of effort given to promoting the peace process. Rather, Israel’s diplomats have often been so heavily invested in the notion of peace that they failed to treat the conflict as one in which both sides, and not just the Palestinians, had rights. This has been a particular problem for Likud governments, which has often handed the foreign ministry over to coalition allies or saddled with leaders like Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former partner and now rival who was clearly unsuited to the task and wound up doing little to change the culture of the ministry.
Contrary to the criticisms of left-wing politicians quoted in the New York Times who want Netanyahu to surround himself with people who agree with Obama about the Middle East, the prime minister did well to name a sober thinker like Gold who doesn’t try to imagine the Middle East as he’d like it to be but instead sees it as it really is.
Instead of cravenly bowing to U.S. dictates, Netanyahu wants his diplomats to stand up for its country and to speak truth to an American government whose view of the region is distorted by their fantasies about both the Palestinians and their new Iranian negotiating partners. Israel must continue to thread the needle between the need to be open to the possibility of peace, however unlikely, and avoiding being sucked down the rabbit hole into talks that are set up to fail and for which it will always be blamed for the failure no matter what the Palestinians do. Rather than seeking to demonize Gold, Netanyahu’s critics should give him credit for seeking to align his country’s diplomatic corps with a strategy based in the reality of Palestinian intransigence. In the long run, truth is always a better foundation for foreign policy than fiction.