Analysis from Israel

In a world where entire countries are collapsing, it’s not surprising that the collapse of a decades-old diplomatic axiom has been largely ignored. This axiom holds that Israel’s international relations are dependent on the fate of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Relations will improve if the government makes progress toward peace and worsen if the peace process stalemates. Yet Israel today, under a government widely (though wrongly) deemed its “most right-wing ever” and equally widely (though equally wrongly) blamed for the nonexistent peace process, has been expanding and deepening its diplomatic relationships at a dizzying pace, as the past week once again shows.

On Monday, on the way home from a visit to Guinea–a Muslim-majority country with which Israel resumed relations this summer after a 49-year hiatus–Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold stopped off in another African country with which Israel still has no formal ties. According to Haaretz, no Israeli diplomat has ever before been invited to this country. That same day, Kazakhstan’s defense minister came to Israel to meet with his Israeli counterpart prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned visit to this Muslim-majority country later this year. According to the Jerusalem Post, that will make Netanyahu the first sitting Israeli premier ever to visit Central Asia. And while Nigerian opposition has apparently stalled a bid by several African countries to invite Netanyahu to this year’s summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the president of Togo has announced that he will host a meeting between Netanyahu and ECOWAS leaders next spring, in yet another first. Nor are such developments unusual these days; just last month, I wrote a post listing several other such firsts.

Granted, the main impetus for this change has nothing to with Israel; rather, it’s the global upsurge in Islamist terror, which has spurred more and more countries to seek to benefit from Israel’s unhappily vast experience in combating such terror. Nevertheless, it’s no accident that these blossoming diplomatic ties are happening specifically under a “right-wing” government.

Netanyahu and his cabinet have been able to exploit this opening to the fullest precisely because they never bought the diplomatic axiom so beloved of the Israeli left. Had the government actually believed diplomatic success depended on progress in the peace process, it wouldn’t have invested much effort on trying to expand Israel’s ties with the traditionally pro-Palestinian non-Western world at a time when the peace process was stalemated because it would consider such efforts doomed to failure. And in fact, before Netanyahu took office in 2009, Israeli diplomacy did focus almost exclusively on the West.

But Netanyahu and certain other key cabinet ministers (most notably former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman) have toiled for years to improve ties with non-Western countries. Thus when changing geopolitical circumstances provided an opportunity, they were fully prepared to seize it, with a skill that won admiration even from diehard critics like Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit.

Yet despite the growing evidence to the contrary, many Israeli pundits still insist that further progress is impossible without movement on the peace process, seemingly oblivious to the possibility that circumstances can change. And it isn’t just leftists; even intelligent center-rightists like Yaakov Amidror have joined the recent chorus proclaiming, to take one example, that formal ties with Saudi Arabia are impossible without an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In the short term, of course, they’re undoubtedly right. But to declare it impossible in the longer run, given how fast things have been changing recently, is sheer folly.

For instance, had anyone predicted, as recently as six weeks ago, that a Saudi delegation headed by a former senior government official would openly visit Israel–a move experts widely agree would be impossible without Riyadh’s approval–they would have been dismissed as crazy. And yet, it happened. Had anyone predicted a few years ago that under-the-table Saudi-Israeli defense cooperation would become an open secret, they would also have been dubbed crazy. But that, too, happened.

Or to take another example, had anyone said, as recently as last week, that an Egyptian foreign minister would tell Egyptian high-school students that Israel couldn’t be accused of state terrorism and had legitimate concerns about self-defense, they would have been dubbed crazy. And yet, that also happened, according to Arab media reports, which were lent credence when Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry issued a “denial” that didn’t actually deny either of those statements (he merely denied that dead Palestinian children were mentioned in either the student’s question or his response).

Indeed, it’s far more likely that such “firsts” will continue, because not only has rising Islamic terror made Israel a more desirable ally, but attitudes toward the Palestinian issue are also slowly changing, even in the Arab world. As I’ve noted before, the collapse of several Arab countries (Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen) has prompted a growing realization that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is far from the Middle East’s worst problem. And as that realization sinks in, the argument for continuing to eschew potentially beneficial relationships with Israel becomes less convincing.

Still, one might ask, what about the West, where the Palestinian issue actually seems to be growing in importance? It’s true that, being more insulated from the impact of the Middle East’s collapse, many Westerners have been slower to abandon the theory of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. But the West’s insulation is fraying, as the flood of refugees and rising terror show. And though in the short term, as I’ve explained before, that may make Europeans even more anti-Israel, over the long term, reality tends to become hard to ignore.

When you add in the fact that Israel already has strong bases of support in the West – even in hostile Europe, as activist Ariel Bolstein discovered on a recent tour of British pubs – there’s no reason to think Israel’s relations with the West will remain hostage to the Palestinian issue forever. The real mistake would be for Israel to throw up its hands and insist no improvement is possible rather than preparing to take advantage of new opportunities if they arise. And that, based on its record, doesn’t seem like a mistake this government will make.

Originally published in Commentary on August 25, 2016

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How the Embassy Move Signals Big Changes to the Iran Deal

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Donald Trump last week, he had two main items on his agenda: thanking Trump for his decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and urging U.S. action on Iran. At first glance, these items seem unrelated. In fact, they’re closely intertwined. The decision to relocate the U.S. embassy has turned out to be a strategic building block in Trump’s effort to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran.

To understand why, consider the dilemma facing his administration when it first took office. Without a serious American threat to scrap the nuclear deal, there was no chance that even America’s European allies–much less Russia, China and Iran–would agree to negotiate a fix for some of the deal’s biggest flaws. Yet conventional wisdom held that the administration would never dare flout the whole rest of the world, along with virtually the entire U.S. policy community, by withdrawing from the deal. So how was it possible to make the threat seem credible short of actually walking away from the deal?

Enter the embassy issue. Here, too, conventional wisdom held that the administration would never dare flout the whole rest of the world, along with virtually the entire U.S. policy community, by moving the embassy. Moreover, the embassy issue shared an important structural similarity with the Iran deal: Just as the president must sign periodic waivers to keep the Iran deal alive, he must sign periodic waivers to keep the embassy in Tel Aviv.

Consequently, this turned out to be the perfect issue to show that Trump really would defy the world and nix the Iran deal if it isn’t revised to his satisfaction. In fact, the process he followed with the embassy almost perfectly mimics the process he has so far followed on the Iran deal.

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