The Successes—And Drawbacks—Of Israel’s Interests-based Foreign Policy
Jerusalem is creating strategic alliances that were once unthinkable, however, it has come at the cost of dealing with governments perceived as regressive
A significant occurrence went largely unnoticed last month, when Denmark’s foreign minister announced that his government would no longer support organizations that are part of the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement that aims to harm the Jewish state economically over its alleged mistreatment of the Palestinians. The new guidelines adopted also prevent the funding of any groups “questioning Israel’s right to exist.”
The move came just days after Copenhagen launched a massive manhunt stretching into Sweden that for weeks was shrouded in mystery. The conjecture ended when Denmark recalled its ambassador from Tehran after accusing the Islamic Republic of planning an attack against three Iranians living within its borders.
Notably, Israeli media reported that the Mossad spy agency tipped off their Danish counterparts to the terrorist plot, leading some to speculate about a causal connection between the information provided by Jerusalem and Denmark’s subsequent decision to cut-off financial aid to BDS groups.
If so, it is the latest example of the harnessing and sharing by Jerusalem of its prowess—in spheres ranging from counter-terrorism to cyber-security, from medical research to water management—to result in a tangible, reciprocal benefit.
“In foreign policy, a country uses the advantages it has in order to coordinate give-and-take actions with others,” Dan Meridor, former Israeli deputy prime minister and currently President of the Israel Council on Foreign Relations, explained to The Media Line. “In the 1950s and ’60s, for example, Israel was much poorer but was advanced in agriculture, so the government focused on forging relations with Africa.
“In the last 10-20 years, in the era of globalization, international relations are much more important. Cross-border trade along with security and intelligence cooperation has become essential as the world in many ways is one open market.”
There is a prevalent school of thought positing that Israel is destined to remain a “pariah” so long as its conflict with the Palestinians persists. The Jewish state is bound to be isolated, the theory goes, with only the Americans in its corner, it should be so lucky. Israel will forever be doomed to a kind of diplomatic purgatory, requiring it perpetually to plead its case to no avail, to an unreceptive international community supported by antagonistic media organs.
Yet, a simple glance at the world map reveals a landscape dotted with countries friendly to Israel, a reality that is at least in part attributable to an emergent interests-based foreign policy developed, promoted and practiced by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
A recent illustration of this strategy at work was the Israeli premier’s backing of the Saudi regime in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, despite widespread calls for the kingdom to be punished. Netanyahu’s calculation was premised on the undeniable fact that a disruption in the U.S.-Saudi relationship would effectively destabilize the Sunni Muslim nation and, as a consequence, empower Shiite Iran, the Jewish state’s arch-foe.
“Israel’s status in the international arena has increased substantially due to a few factors, one of them the aggression of the Ayatollah regime in Tehran, not just against the Jewish state but also targeting regional countries that now depend on Israel for their security,” Danny Ayalon, former Israeli deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Washington, conveyed to The Media Line. “The demise of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ led to an outgrowth of radical Sunni Islam which also threatens the Gulf monarchies, so they are looking to Israel for help in dealing with this as well.
“Additionally, the discovery of natural gas off Israel’s coast has allowed Jerusalem to become strategic partners with a slew of nations, including Egypt and Jordan, with which deals have been signed to provide resources. Another reason is the worldwide trend towards conservatism and right-wing governments, leading to the implementation of policies based on strong national defense. Israel is an example of a democratic country under many threats that nonetheless has been incredibly successful because of its insistence on the right to protect itself.”
That Prime Minister Netanyahu professed his support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman—who has been instrumental in fostering under-the-radar albeit expanding bilateral ties with Israel—while attending the Craiova Forum provides further evidence of the centrality of his interests-based approach to foreign policy. The premier, the first-ever foreign leader to be invited to participate in the proceedings between the leaders of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Greece, explained that the goal of his visit was to fortify ties with these nations in order to “change the hostile and hypocritical approach of the European Union.” In this respect, a recent survey found that fifty-five percent of Israelis consider the EU “more of a foe” compared to only 18% that described the bloc as “more of a friend.”
It is within this context that Netanyahu, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, traveled to Vilnius in August to meet with the heads of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This, in turn, followed his attendance at a summit of the Visegrad Group, consisting of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Over the summer, the premier hosted Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whereas he reportedly turned down a request to meet with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Even as ties with Western Europe remain relatively strained, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Israel in October, while Netanyahu has in the past six months been welcomed in both London and Paris.
Moving forward, the Israeli leader is expected to travel to Brazil for the inauguration of newly-elected Jair Bolsonaro, who vowed to make the Jewish state the destination of his first trip abroad and to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. Last year, Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister to visit Latin America, making stops in Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia and Mexico.
Shortly thereafter, these four countries conspicuously abstained from a vote in the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution calling for President Donald Trump to reverse his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Meanwhile, the Jewish state’s ties to Honduras, which voted against the UNGA resolution, and Guatemala, which followed the United States’ lead in May by moving its embassy to the holy city, also appear to be at all-time high levels.
Concurrently, Israel has focused on deepening its connection to many states in Africa, to which Netanyahu has traveled three times in the past two years. Then there is the strong personal relationship he has forged with Russian President Vladimir Putin, manifest in ongoing military coordination in Syria despite the recent crisis over the downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane. Relations are also budding with China, whose most influential vice premier last month spent four days in Israel. The bond between Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart Narenda Modi is well-documented.
None of these achievements, however, comes close to matching what could potentially be the most transformative development in Israel’s history: namely, burgeoning ties with Arab nations and the prospect of regional integration.
Indeed, the Israeli premier’s recent visit to Oman, whose foreign minister later called for Israel to be treated like every other state, was perhaps a foreshadowing of things to come. Simultaneously, Miri Regev became the first Israeli minister to make an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, where she toured the country’s largest mosque just hours before Hatikva—the Jewish state’s national anthem—was played in Abu Dhabi to mark the gold-medal win of Sagi Muki at a judo competition.
All of this comes on the backdrop of last year’s high-profile public meeting between Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi, who this week described the 1979 peace treaty as stable and permanent. For his part, Jordan’s King Abdullah II may talk and act tough but, like al-Sisi, maintains close security ties with Israel and recognizes the important role Jerusalem plays in ensuring his continued rule.
“I never accepted the thesis directed at me by diplomats in Europe and even in the U.S. that the Palestinian issue is the major destabilizer in the Middle East and that Israel needed to make peace in order to be legitimized,” Ayalon stressed to The Media Line. “Instead, I considered this a euphemism for ‘Israel must make compromises that jeopardize its security.’
“The theory has never held water as evidenced by the ongoing mass upheavals in [Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen], which have nothing to do with the Palestinians. Historically, the conflict was not the cause of [Yassir Arafat’s] subversion of Jordan in the 1960s; Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and the civil war in the 1970s; the Iran-Iraq battle in the 1980s, so on and so forth. It has become apparent to more countries that [there is no linkage] between the Palestinians and regional security and economic prosperity. Therefore, the matter has slid down the list of international priorities and this has helped Israel in its foreign policy.”
There is, however, a flip side to this, with some maintaining that Jerusalem’s newfound clout has enabled Prime Minister Netanyahu to tip-toe around, if not completely ignore, the peace process. In fact, Israeli media this week quoted the premier as telling fellow Likud lawmakers that, “power is the most important thing in foreign policy.… There are dominant states that have occupied and transferred populations and no one talks about them.”
The alleged comments came two months after Netanyahu affirmed that, “in the Middle East, and in many parts of the world, there is a simple truth: There is no place for the weak….[who] crumble, are slaughtered and are erased from history while the strong, for good or for ill, survive.”
This worldview, which undoubtedly underpins Netanyahu’s interests-based foreign policy, has exposed Israel to criticism for dealing with what many consider shady characters and unseemly governments. Case in point is the brouhaha that surrounded September’s visit to Israel by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has been fiercely denounced for his heavy-handed war on drugs and even compared himself to Hitler. An example from the past that immediately comes to mind is Israel’s dealings with the apartheid regime in South Africa, which is widely construed as a stain on the Jewish state’s collective conscience.
“Israel does not condition its relationships on the promotion of democracy, otherwise we would not have peace with Egypt and Jordan,” Meridor related to The Media Line. “Nevertheless, there are dangers associated with this approach. If you look at Hungary, Poland, Turkey and Russia, and many more, there is widespread repression and propaganda that blames ‘the other.’ This is concerning as we have seen in the past where this type of approach leads.
“Since World War Two there has been a push in the direction of liberalism and an emphasis placed on universal values and conventions—which have been sustained by institutions and processes—but now there is a backlash to this ideology. Today, if you preach human rights and the rule of law you are declared a leftist, which was not the case some years ago.
“Jews, in particular, have been perhaps the most affected and thus have a responsibility to support these ideals,” he elaborated. “This does not mean that Israel cannot associate with illiberal governments, as a state cannot survive without making some compromises. But in policy-making a line must sometimes be drawn. There is no exact formula but if we don’t fight for [humanistic] values they may not prevail.”
There is, then, an obvious risk of transforming diplomacy into a zero-sum game, in which human rights and democratic norms are deemed expendable. Israel is therefore tasked with finding a balance between promoting Western principles and acting based on realpolitik.
“As a general rule, there has always been a clash between interests and values, and in most instances the former trumps the latter,” Ayalon concluded. “For example, during the Second World War the United States collaborated with Stalin’s [Communist Soviet Union] to fight the evils of Nazism. More recently, the West has dealt with regressive regimes in the Middle East because of their oil resources. Israel is no exception and its dealings with authoritarian governments does not mean that it endorses all of their policies.”
That a confluence of factors has allowed Jerusalem to build an extensive network of bilateral relationships is incredibly important, as once these foundations are created and, progressively, expanded they become difficult to undo even if less amicable governments assume power.
The prime example is the intricate web of ties spanning numerous realms that Israel has forged with the United States, which a future American president would be hard-pressed to unravel in the span of eight years. Though such an eventuality is not impossible, it would take a series of administrations prepared to defy the will of the American people, who on the whole are supportive Israel, and pick a fight with a Congress that at some point is liable to slant pro-Israel as the political pendulum inevitably swings.
Overall, the fundamental characteristic shared by prosperous nations is the ability to create, as a country that has what to contribute is one that will be courted, respected, and, by extension, accepted. Israel has become a model for this type of modern diplomacy, which has opened up to it potentialities once thought unimaginable.
That the window in which to maximize the associated benefits is probably finite demands that Jerusalem act assertively now, all the while upholding to the greatest degree possible the democratic ideals and inclusive values enshrined in Israel’s Basic Laws. In doing so, the Jewish state has the unique opportunity to affect positive change even as it enhances its geopolitical standing to the point of becoming a global power.