Over the coming months, two foreign-policy issues will predominate: the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the six powers over its nuclear program; and American efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian deal. In both cases, Israel has vital interests at stake, yet in both cases, these interests don’t necessarily coincide with those of its American and European allies. This raises the question of how Israel can best protect its interests: through quiet diplomacy or public confrontation?
Among both Israel’s chattering classes and American Jewry, the dominant view seems to be that quiet diplomacy would be best. And at first glance, this makes intuitive sense. Israel’s alliance with the US is one of its greatest assets, so a public rupture with Washington could seriously undermine its diplomatic and military deterrence. And while Europe provides neither diplomatic nor military backing, it remains Israel’s largest trading partner; hence an open rupture could undermine Israel’s economic well-being.
Yet Israel’s own recent history demonstrates that public confrontation is sometimes vital to secure diplomatic achievements. To understand why, it’s worth studying two examples.
One is Israel’s acceptance earlier this month into the Western European and Others Group at the UN in Geneva. Previously, Israel was the only country excluded from any regional grouping in Geneva, which meant it was automatically barred from various UN posts that rotate among the different regional groups. Israel was also the only country to which the UN Human Rights Council had dedicated a permanent agenda item – meaning Israel’s alleged human rights violations were criticized at every council session, whereas other countries’ records were scrutinized only every few years. In short, Israel was discriminated against twice over compared to every other UN member.
For years, Israel tried to rectify this situation through quiet diplomacy, but in vain. Though Western allies agreed the situation was unfair, it didn’t negatively affect their own interests, whereas solving the problem would have antagonized Arab and Islamic states that some Western countries had invested heavily in cultivating. Israel’s interests thus diverged fundamentally from those of some of its natural allies – and in that situation, quiet diplomacy is of limited value.
Yet the West’s calculus changed dramatically once Israel switched to open confrontation. Infuriated over the HRC’s decision to launch yet another investigation of Israel even as it ignored massive abuses like the Syrian regime’s slaughter of its own citizens, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman persuaded the government to sever all ties with the council and refuse to participate in its Universal Periodic Review process.
Israel’s Western allies feared this boycott could lead other states to follow suit, thereby emptying the UPR of all content. And since they are deeply committed to this process, they suddenly had a real interest of their own in accommodating Israel’s longstanding concerns. Feverish negotiations thus ensued, and eventually, a compromise emerged. First, Israel would finally be admitted to the WEOG. Second, for the next two years, members of this group would refuse to participate in any debate held under the auspices of the permanent agenda item on Israel (which they don’t command enough votes to repeal). In short, confrontation had achieved what years of quiet diplomacy failed to do.
The second example is sanctions on Iran. Two previous prime ministers, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, adopted a low-profile approach to Iran’s nuclear program. They considered it crucial for Iran to be seen as the world’s problem rather than Israel’s, and therefore believed Israel’s interests were best served by working behind the scenes and letting the West lead the public battle. Yet this approach produced meager results. It took four years after Iran’s secret nuclear program was discovered for the UN Security Council to impose its first sanctions, and even then, they were largely toothless – as were additional rounds approved in the following years.
But when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took office in 2009, he scrapped the quiet-diplomacy approach and adopted a much more confrontational posture, including vocal threats of Israeli military action against Iran. This ultimately produced the first truly biting sanctions ever imposed on Tehran: America and Europe effectively disconnected Iran from the global banking system, and the European Union also imposed an oil embargo.
Here, too, quiet diplomacy had failed because Israel’s interests diverged fundamentally from those of its allies. First, Israel viewed a nuclear Iran as a much greater threat than they did. As chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey admitted in a rare moment of candor, Israelis “are living with an existential concern that we are not living with.” Second, Europe had a major economic interest in continuing to do business with Iran. Hence to much of the West, the costs of stiff sanctions simply outweighed their benefits.
These calculations changed only when the West concluded that Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iran were serious. Since they believed an Israeli attack would be destabilizing to Western interests, they had a strong interest in trying to forestall it by offering an alternative form of pressure on Iran – stiff sanctions. A senior French official acknowledged this openly last year when he explained why his country now supported an oil embargo it had previously opposed: “We must do everything possible to avoid an Israeli attack on Iran, even if it means a rise in the price of oil and gasoline,” he said.
This history is important for understanding how Israel should deal with its current challenges, since in both the Iranian nuclear talks and negotiations with the Palestinians, Israel’s interests once again appear to diverge fundamentally from those of its allies. The West now seems more interested in reaching a deal with Iran – any deal – than in actually halting Tehran’s nuclear program. And it appears far more interested in creating a Palestinian state than in ensuring that this state doesn’t threaten Israel’s existence.
In short, on both issues, quiet diplomacy is liable to prove ineffective. Hence Israel must be prepared to stand up for its own interests via confrontation. For only if the West has something to lose by not accommodating Israel’s interests will it consider such an accommodation to be in its own interests as well.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator. Follow her on twitter here.