Israeli Foreign Ministry officials do not like political appointees, especially when shut out from the most desirable assignments. It’s no wonder, then, that Israeli Ambassador to the U.N. Gilad Erdan, who was appointed during the days of the previous government, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been arousing the frustration of the ministry’s staff.
They share their resentment with the media, and leaks that Erdan is exploiting his role for his personal political interests increasingly appear. Channel 12‘s Dana Weiss reported last month that senior Foreign Ministry officials have been claiming that Erdan “makes shows for his political base all day—instead of working.”
In this spirit, Yariv Oppenheimer, former director of Peace Now, demands that Erdan be recalled, asking rhetorically: “Who, exactly, is Erdan representing, when, in a bullying way, he tears up the Human Rights Council report on the U.N. stage … On whose behalf did Erdan harshly attack Palestinian Authority representatives during a U.N. Security Council discussion?”
Then Haaretz published an editorial calling Erdan a “perfect representative of yesterday’s diplomacy,” and urging Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to “bring Erdan home and send a person who represents the change this government claims to promote to New York.”
Before Erdan is instructed to pack his bags and return to Israel, however, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask: What is this “policy change” that the current government of Lapid and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is working to promote? What exactly is the “tomorrow’s diplomacy” that Erdan is blocking?
If the test for all this is the polite rhetoric used in Israeli diplomacy today, then it is indeed OK to extol the “policy change” and celebrate the Bennett-Lapid government’s steady march toward “tomorrow’s diplomacy.” But good manners don’t constitute policy.
Smiling diplomacy may give the illusion that Israel is navigating in the right direction, but reality is about to strike. Even with increased levels of “niceness,” Israel won’t be able to escape the fact that when it comes to the most significant policy issue—the conflict with the Palestinians and no initiative to resolve it—the Bennett-Lapid government is completely paralyzed.
Indeed, the survival of the government relies on policy inaction, and therefore plays into the hands of opponents of the two-state solution, whose goal is promoted thanks to the (fictional) status quo.
The passing of time deepens the occupation, creates a bi-national reality and erodes any chance of reaching a settlement based on a division of the land. Policy-wise, the Bennett-Lapid government is more right-wing than the one that preceded it. Netanyahu assented to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century.” Despite its bias in favor of the Israeli side, the plan was based on the establishment of a Palestinian state that included the principle of land swaps.
In the distant past, when the right and the left sat together in one government, real dilemmas for Israeli diplomacy did arise. During the days of the rotation government in 1984-1988, for example, when Shimon Peres replaced Yitzhak Shamir as foreign minister, the ministry’s hasbara (public diplomacy) system was torn between two fundamentally different approaches.
The Shamir school worked to fatally tarnish the image of the other side, claiming that there was no one to talk to, as the Palestinians were striving to bring about the elimination of Israel, and the full blame for the lack of peace was on them. The Peres school expressed a completely different line: that there is someone to talk to on the other side and that therefore peace is achievable.
According to the latter, there was no point in blackening the Palestinian leadership; on the contrary, it must be nurtured as a partner. Confidence must be built so that the leopard could, in fact, change its spots.
The ideological gap between the right and the left was deep and seemingly intractable. So, when the foreign minister’s office changed occupants, its hasbara staff found it difficult to reboot—to shake off the policy premises that had been their bread and butter for so long.
The Bennett-Lapid government creates no such challenge for today’s Israeli diplomats. The demand that they be more careful to display a smiling attitude does not compel them to adapt to an actual “policy change” or a genuine “tomorrow’s diplomacy.”
As long as “yesterday’s diplomacy” endures, Erdan and his ilk are fit to continue representing the current Israeli government.
Avi Gil is a senior fellow at The Jewish People Policy Institute, a former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and author of “Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East.”