December 12, 2018

Tipping Point: Israel and the ‘Community of Nations’

News of the surprise two-years-in-the-making visit to Israel by the president of Muslim-majority Chad broke on the same day that the Czech head of state announced in Jerusalem his nation’s intention to move Prague’s embassy to the holy city. This came on the backdrop of reports that the Jewish state is seeking to establish full diplomatic ties with Mali, Niger and even Sudan. Jerusalem also purportedly is eyeing Bahrain and Oman, the latter of which just reiterated that “the Arab states need to come to terms with the reality that Israel is a fact of life in the region.”

For its entire history, the State of Israel has been widely viewed as a pariah, a status quo many assumed would persist for as long as its conflict with the Palestinians — and perhaps thereafter. According to conventional wisdom, it would languish forever in a sort of diplomatic purgatory with only the Americans in its corner.

Yet, a simple glance at the world map reveals a growing landscape dotted with countries clamoring for Israeli expertise in fields ranging from defense and counterterrorism to agriculture and medicine. It seems that the Jewish state is on the precipice of a major, overarching and perhaps redefining diplomatic breakthrough.

After 70 years, Israel may be on the verge of joining the so-called “community of nations.”

To this end, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed he would soon travel to other Arab countries; this, after his October trip to Oman, which immediately preceded Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev’s visit to the United Arab Emirates. Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz this month likewise attended a conference in Oman, while Economy Minister Eli Cohen reportedly received an invitation to visit Bahrain in early 2019 to participate in a high-tech summit organized by the World Bank.

All of this follows Netanyahu’s alleged secret trip to Cairo in May, which came on the heels of his high-profile public meeting last year with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Despite Jordanian King Abdullah’s often-harsh rhetoric, Amman maintains close security and economic ties with Israel and recognizes the important role Jerusalem plays in ensuring continued Hashemite rule of Jordan.

”It is abundantly clear that Arab and Muslim nations would love to establish bilateral relations,” said Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel and currently a senior fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. “The reasoning is threefold: a common interest in curbing Iran; fatigue with the Palestinian issue; and the knowledge that Israel is the only dynamic and high-tech economy, especially in the cyber field, in the region.

“It seems that the Jewish state is on the precipice of a major, overarching and perhaps redefining diplomatic breakthrough.”

“Despite this, the cup-half-empty side of the story is that Israel’s international image is at a nadir, as the overall level of delegitimization is increasing. Even in many countries with which Israel has good working relations, public opinion is horrible. This is most apparent in Europe and is making inroads into the United States. To offset the potential severe consequences, Israel will need to change its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians. It is unclear if anything can be done to end the conflict — and people forget the Palestinians previously were offered comprehensive peace proposals — but Jerusalem could halt settlement activity and publicly reiterate support for the two-state solution. This might not fully solve the problem, but it would help.”

While the stalemated peace process continues to cause friction with Western European countries, Netanyahu nevertheless has over the past six months received German Chancellor Angela Merkel and was welcomed in both London and Paris. Moreover, to counter what the prime minister has described as the European Union’s “hostile” attitude toward the Jewish state, efforts have been made to strengthen ties with lesser powers on the continent.

For example, Netanyahu recently was the first-ever foreign leader to partake in a summit of the Craiova Forum, consisting of Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Greece. In August, he met in Vilnius with the heads of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Before that, he attended a meeting of the Visegrad Group, made up of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Over the summer, Netanyahu hosted Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

A further examination of the West shows relations with the United States — which, along with Israel’s technological and military prowess, forms the bedrock of its global standing — have never been better than under President Donald Trump. 

Moving forward, Netanyahu is expected to travel to Brazil for the inauguration of president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who vowed to make the Jewish state the destination of his first trip abroad. Last year, the prime minister became the first sitting Israeli leader to visit Latin America, making stops in Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia and Mexico. Israel’s ties to Honduras and Guatemala 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. Ghana’s foreign minister recently announced that her government is assisting Jerusalem in its bid to gain observer status at the African Union, a potentiality publicly backed by Kenya and Ethiopia. Representatives from Angola, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, South Sudan, Rwanda and Zambia reportedly attended the opening in May of the American embassy in Jerusalem. Ties have been re-established with the Republic of Guinea and Tanzania.

“Netanyahu during the past half-decade has made an effort to reach out to governments that in the past have not been approached,” said Ofer Israeli, a lecturer and senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzilya. “These are smaller countries in the international arena but when it comes to the United Nations, every vote is equal. So Israel has tried to make as many ‘friends’ as possible.

“This policy is partially the product of ‘liberal’ states like Britain, France and Germany not supporting Israel because of the Palestinian issue. Jerusalem has no other option but to look elsewhere, including to those less democratic in Eastern Europe, Africa and the Gulf. Israel also is trying to create ties with nations such as Brazil, where the leadership [has shifted to the right]. Another main objective is to target whoever might move their embassy to Jerusalem.”

This more-the-merrier attitude has not inhibited Israel from attracting the attention of traditional and emerging powers, including Russia, as evidenced by ongoing military coordination in Syria despite the recent crisis over the accidental downing of a Russian reconnaissance plane. Meanwhile, bilateral relations are budding with China The bond between Netanyahu and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, is well-documented.

Overall, this expanding network of government-government relationships is reshaping Israel’s geopolitical standing, albeit this success has not fully extended to the level of populations. While that is a concern that needs to be addressed, a country that has a lot to offer will invariably 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.