Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.
This week, Alpher discusses the fragmentation of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the history and current state of the Mossad, and Israel-Diaspora relations.
Q. Why has Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs been fragmented and the spoils divided up among half a dozen other ministries?
A. This is a unique turn of events that has transpired primarily in the Netanyahu era.
It reflects Israel’s traditional inclination to downgrade classic diplomacy in favor of security, coupled with PM
Netanyahu’s apparent political need to reward certain ministers with additional portfolios torn off from the
Foreign Ministry. This is particularly intriguing in view of the fact that in his current term Netanyahu himself
holds the title of foreign minister. The divvying up of traditional MFA functions is mindboggling. Some of the
newly invented ministries have been given names that conceal their real function. Some appear to have little if any
function other than awarding an impressive title. Thus the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, originally created in
2006 for Avigdor Liberman for coalition-building reasons and now held by Internal Security Minister Erdan, now
deals with combating the BDS campaign against Israel. It also deals with Iran. Erdan is also minister of
information. Leaving aside his internal security function, which is a serious job, the other functions essentially
deal with public diplomacy, a classic foreign affairs function.
There is a Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, held by Education Minister Bennett; it liaises with Diaspora leaders on issues like mixed-gender prayer at the Kotel based on Bennett’s own Orthodox orientation. And it spends Israeli taxpayer money encouraging Orthodox culture in the Diaspora. It should not be confused with the Ministry of Aliyah and Absorption.
Communications Minister Hanegbi doubles as minister of regional cooperation; this brings him to neighboring Arab countries where Israel is already represented diplomatically. Finally, Michael Oren is deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in Charge of Public Diplomacy.
Combatting anti-Israel propaganda abroad, “information”, public diplomacy, Diaspora affairs, regional cooperation, combating Iran at the public diplomacy level--all these are traditionally the province of the Foreign Ministry. Not only have these functions ostensibly been removed from the ministry, but they are distributed among multiple ministers who have plenty of additional tasks.
Note, too, that Transportation Minister Katz is also minister of intelligence and atomic energy. Intelligence is a security function covered by the prime and defense ministers. In addition to this duplication, atomic energy was once the province of the foreign and defense ministries. More bewildering duplication and fragmentation.
Q. You mentioned historical or traditional roots: an inclination to prefer security over diplomacy. How has that evolved?
A. Four prime ministers--Ben Gurion, Eshkol, Rabin and Barak--doubled as ministers of
defense. Even Levi Eshkol, who unlike the other three came from a Finance Ministry rather than security background,
held the Defense Ministry until 1967, apparently because he understood that that was where the money went. He spent
generously on defense and helped ready the IDF for the 1967 Six-Day War.
Ben Gurion set the tone and the precedent, for two reasons. First, because in Israel’s early years he believed security was the biggest priority. And second because his foreign minister, Moshe Sharett, was an ideological rival who could best be countered in Ben Gurion’s view through security initiatives. Note that Sharett did manage to develop a professional cadre of diplomats in the MFA who managed numerous sensitive intelligence functions, many of which appear no longer to be handled by the ministry.
In recent years under PM Netanyahu the defense ministry post has been held by a political rival. It continues to have a “political-military affairs” function that has been quite influential in liaising with neighbors like Egypt and Jordan with which Israel shares security concerns. But under Netanyahu the Mossad, which is under the prime minister’s direct control, appears to have vastly expanded its clandestine diplomacy function, including tasks that used to be handled by diplomats from the MFA.
So the Mossad, meaning the Prime Minister’s Office, must be added to the institutions that have bitten off traditional functions from Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Q. Tamir Pardo, until 2016 head of the Mossad, recently quipped that the Mossad is “a licensed crime syndicate, and that’s what makes it fun.” That’s hardly a fitting description for a clandestine diplomacy organization.
A. As a former Mossad official I can testify here on two counts. First, all operational
intelligence establishments whose work is done abroad--like the Mossad, CIA and the British MI6--find themselves
frequently breaking the laws of host countries or target countries. Pardo can be accused of speaking too freely,
albeit with a wink and a nod, but from an international legal standpoint he was speaking a truth known to all
intelligence personnel worldwide.
This is one reason why it has proven so difficult for the Knesset to legislate a “Mossad law” anchoring in legal language what the Mossad does and does not do. Note that such a law exists for the General Security Service, which operates in areas--the State of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza--where Israeli law can be applied to its activities. But how do you legislate regarding illegal activities abroad?
Second, Mossad operatives are intensely aware that on occasion they are breaking laws. (Not always; clandestine diplomacy and some other Mossad functions don’t break anyone’s laws.) They know that if they run afoul of the authorities anywhere in the world and are apprehended, the only thing standing between them and a public trial and possible jail sentence is the clout and cunning of the State of Israel. So this is a topic of internal discussion and even joking in Mossad circles.
Pardo, who climbed the ranks through clandestine operational tasks, is a product of this culture. I chuckled at his public comment about “a licensed crime syndicate”. I’m sure CIA and MI6 veterans did too. PM Netanyahu hastened to counter Pardo: “The Mossad is not a crime syndicate. It’s a distinguished organization doing sacred work,” etc., etc. He’s right of course and a remark to that effect had to be made. But presumably Pardo drew the prime minister’s fire because he has, since leaving the Mossad, become yet another former security chief who publicly and harshly criticizes Netanyahu over the Palestinian issue.
Q. Getting back to the fragmentation of the MFA, how does this affect Israel-Diaspora relations?
A. It makes a bad situation worse. Netanyahu’s policies on the Palestinian and pluralism
issues in any case reflect an inclination to cater to the American political right wing, to Evangelicals and to
Orthodox American Jewry. His deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, is a supporter of the Greater Land of Israel,
and “Diaspora Affairs” is in the hands of Naftali Bennett, whose Jewish Home party represents the settlers. All
religious parties are fully represented in Netanyahu’s government, meaning that legislation and administration
regarding conversions and pluralism in Israel are currently as un-pluralistic as they have been in recent
This is the regime under which Israeli diplomats in consulates across the US must manage their interaction with local Jewish communities. If and when, at some point in the future, Netanyahu feels he needs to cultivate the support of the liberal, non-Orthodox American Jewish mainstream, he should by all rights run into an angry reaction. And he will have to radically reorganize the distribution of portfolios in his Cabinet.
Q. Will the appointment on Monday of Isaac (Bougie) Herzog as head of the Jewish Agency make a difference?
A. No doubt Herzog’s heart is in the right place. But note that for him, the Jewish
Agency is a consolation prize after being removed from leadership of the Labor party and as he contemplates losing
his status as leader of the Knesset opposition once new elections are held.
Can the Jewish Agency offer an effective and influential counter to Israeli government policies on pluralism issues? Did Natan Sharansky mount an effective counter regarding Jewish pluralism issues over the past nine years of running the Agency? Can Bougie succeed? I doubt it.
In the eyes of many Israelis, the Jewish Agency, like the World Zionist Organization, are anachronisms that should have been eliminated 70 years ago and replaced by Israeli governmental institutions. Today they offer nice jobs and subsidized travel for Israeli politicians. And the WZO funnels money to the West Bank settlements. Whether or not the Diaspora still needs these institutions, Israelis generally feel they do not.