Industry and Trade Minister Dalia Itzik is a highly talented woman. Despite many obstacles, she rose to political heights in her own right. However, to appoint her as Israel’s ambassador to the Court of St. James’s would be outrageous. Moscow, which was the alternative ambassadorial posting offered by her patron, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, would be equally unacceptable.
If appointed, Itzik would become the third successive political – as opposed to professional – ambassadorial appointment to London. The current envoy, like his predecessor, has poor command of English and is lacking in communication skills. Both have failed to effectively present the case for Israel to the media, the public, and even to the Anglo-Jewish community. As in the case of Itzik, their jobs were rewards for political services irrespective of their qualifications. In a phrase, “jobs for the boys.”
This is happening at a time when we are engaged in a bitter war with existential implications. We have one of the best armies in the world which is rightly precluded from maximizing its assets in the field because of political and humanitarian considerations.
But much of the critical battle is taking place in the international diplomatic arena. In this arena, the people of the book – the scholars, the intellectuals – have proven to be appallingly inept. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to describe Israel’s dismal presentation of its case to the world as an unmitigated disaster.
Given the nature of Israel’s fractious coalition, much of its unappealing image is self-inflicted. Almost every time the prime minister makes a statement or articulates a new line of policy, ministers rush to contradict him to score points with their cronies and comrades. Most of the time, they behave as if they were members of the opposition rather than as members of the government. In such an environment it becomes almost impossible to project an effective or coherent image to the world at large.
Add to that the generally appalling caliber of Israel’s diplomatic representatives and spokesmen, many of whom are primitive bumblers unable to speak English fluently, and you have an image disaster.
This is a relatively recent phenomenon. From the establishment of the state until a decade or so ago, Israel’s diplomatic corps was one of the most highly respected in the world and included people of outstanding professional and intellectual ability. But over the past 10 years, this has changed. The Foreign Ministry appointments committee, in addition to fighting against outside political appointments, seems to favor seniority over professional ability. That was exemplified by the ministry’s protest against the appointment of Danny Ayalon as envoy to Washington. The objection to Ayalon – a highly qualified Foreign Ministry professional, acting as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s foreign policy advisor and an ideal candidate – was his lack of seniority.
Now it is understandable that a civil-service body would seek to promote seniority as the most important criterion for promotion. But if seniority is to override other qualifications for the selection of envoys, it will inevitably deprive Israel of some of the best candidates when they are in their prime.
THE GREATEST example of this is the Foreign Minister’s political appointments. These seem to have degenerated to a level in which key diplomatic postings have become sinecures or paybacks for politicians.
This is obviously not unique to Israel; and of course there are political appointees who have qualifications that make them ideal candidates, in some cases even preferable to professionals. For example, the communication skills and exposure to the global business world of Danny Gillerman, president of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce, should make him an excellent ambassador to the United Nations, far outweighing his lack of experience in the world of diplomacy.
But these are exceptions to the rule. And, given its particularly hazardous and sensitive balancing act in the family of nations, Israel cannot afford to have a situation in which party cronyism becomes the criterion for diplomatic appointments in lieu of ability.
It is therefore irresponsible of our foreign minister to dismiss and trivialize the widespread criticism of Itzik’s appointment by saying that “foreign policy is not about competing with Shakespeare in English nor even about eating politely at a luncheon.” After Washington, London is the most important and sensitive posting in the world. England is the most influential country in Europe – which, despite the legacy of the Holocaust, is seeing a revival of anti-Semitism and become intensely hostile towards Israel. If Israel cannot communicate with the British, the rest of Europe is virtually a lost cause. England is also America’s most influential ally and has the potential to influence Washington in relation to Israel.
In diplomatic terms, then, the Court of St. James’s is a critical and strategic outpost for Israel. It is a sophisticated political and media battleground. Quality language and communication skills are elementary prerequisites for an ambassador there. This posting is for someone of the caliber of Shlomo Argov or Yehuda Avner, who were both role models of the genre of Israeli Ambassadors desperately needed today: professionals with charisma, able to promote the case for Israel, and confront the BBC and other media with sophistication and knowledge. This is not a job for Dalia Itzik.
We must try to convince our politicians that their grubby political payoffs, which damage our standing and our cause, will ultimately bring about a backlash and exact a price they will have to pay.
Especially now during this difficult period, the battle for the minds is at the heart of our struggle no less than the battle for our security.
The writer is senior vice president of the World Jewish Congress. (firstname.lastname@example.org)