What matters is not what the nations of the world say, but what the Jews do.” Even as he declared this, David Ben-Gurion knew the truth was more complex. The state of Israel was not forged on the kibbutz and the battlefield alone. It owes its existence no less to the Zionist leaders who sought out friends and made the case for a tiny, stateless people among the most powerful leaders in the world, winning the support of Great Powers for a project that would otherwise have been impossible.
I currently find myself with more time than usual to think about the role of diplomacy in Israel’s history. For the first time ever, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with its embassies and consulates worldwide, has declared a strike as part of a long-term labour dispute with Israel’s Ministry of Finance. This has been an extraordinarily difficult decision to take. We recognise how frustrating the strike is for those who need consular or diplomatic services (which we are currently providing only in urgent humanitarian cases), and for our many partner organisations whose efforts we cannot presently support. Above all we are deeply frustrated that we are unable to fulfil the mission that is both our career and our passion. But it is because we know how vital the diplomatic corps is in the quest for Israel’s security and prosperity that we are campaigning to protect it.
Having served as a diplomat at the UN during the Security Council negotiations which concluded the 2006 war in Lebanon and the 2008 war in Gaza, I have seen at firsthand how the room for manoeuvre that Israeli forces have on the ground is directly related to the degree of legitimacy that Israel and its actions are understood to have.
Today, the battle against Israel’s delegitimisers is being fought on more fronts than ever before. It is no longer enough to win the hearts and minds of officials behind closed doors; campaigns against Israel now begin and are empowered by individuals, on college campuses and social media. This is a new threat and it demands a new kind of defence—a diplomatic one.
The role of diplomacy does not stop with security. It is also crucial for building economic partnerships, sealing trade agreements, and creating new audiences for Israeli culture. In Britain, these efforts have resulted in a doubling of UK-Israel trade over the past decade, a dramatic increase in academic and research partnerships, and a rise in the presence of Israeli arts.
Yet, for all that Israel’s diplomatic corps has achieved, I fear for its future. The expertise we have amassed is now in jeopardy for want of being properly equipped and nurtured. Working conditions have become almost untenable in recent years. Salaries have not been updated in line with inflation for over a decade; there is no compensation for spouses, who sacrifice their careers to be constantly relocated; diplomats are taxed at the unique high rate of 48 per cent and receive inadequate pensions. Yet Israel’s diplomats are not just any employees; as the Ministry’s memorial wall of the fallen shows only too starkly, they put their own and their families’ lives on the line for the sake of their country.
The price of withholding funds from the diplomatic corps is already being felt. Currently, around 30 per cent of young diplomatic recruits are leaving the service because they are unable to make ends meet. As a result, there is a severe dearth of candidates to fill mid-level jobs, with many positions left unfilled. We will soon not have enough staff with the training and experience to run our embassies.
Abba Eban, one of Israel’s most illustrious diplomats, said: “Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” When it comes to giving Israel’s foreign service the secure future that it deserves, the alternative does not bear thinking about. I hope, for Israel’s sake, that we deal wisely.