Analysis from Israel

Writing in Foreign Affairs last week, Rory Miller made the classic mistake of using accurate facts to jump to an erroneous conclusion. He gleefully pronounced the failure of Israel’s effort to convert burgeoning economic ties with India and China into diplomatic capital, asserting that while Israel had expected these ties to “help secure greater international support” for its positions, in reality, China and India have both maintained staunchly pro-Palestinian policies. But though Miller is right about the Asian powers’ policies, he’s utterly wrong about the diplomatic gains Israel hoped to reap from these relationships.

For instance, Miller makes much of the fact that China still votes against Israel on every conceivable issue at the UN. But you’d have to be an idiot–which most senior Israeli politicians aren’t–to expect it to do otherwise.

Flipping China into the pro-Israel camp might be possible if and when it democratizes, since it’s one of the few countries where public opinion actually leans pro-Israel. Indeed, as the Australian paper Business Spectator noted this month, China was among the few places worldwide where Israel was actually winning the social media war during the summer’s fighting in Gaza. And it certainly makes sense for Israel to cultivate this public support in preparation for the day when democratization occurs. But right now, China remains a Communist dictatorship that sees America as its chief foreign-policy rival. Thus as long as Washington (thankfully) remains Israel’s main patron at the UN, Beijing will naturally take the anti-Israel side–not because it cares so passionately about the Palestinian cause (which, unlike Miller, I don’t believe it does), but because it cares about the anti-American cause.

India, despite growing ties with Washington, also has a long tradition of anti-Americanism, as well as a large Muslim minority. Thus New Delhi was never a likely candidate for UN support, either.

And in fact, Miller doesn’t cite any Israeli politician who actually espoused such unrealistic expectations. He simply assumes, on the basis of vague bromides like Naftali Bennett’s “diplomacy can follow economy,” that they must have held such expectations.

But in reality, Israel is seeking a very different foreign-policy benefit from its trade ties with India and China–one it has never spelled out explicitly, for very good reason: What it wants is an economic insurance policy against European countries that it still officially labels as allies.

The EU currently accounts for about one-third of Israel’s exports. This constitutes a dangerous vulnerability, because Europe is the one place worldwide where Israel faces a real danger of economic boycotts and sanctions. Granted, few European leaders actually want this; they consider the economic relationship with Israel mutually beneficial. But European leaders are generally far more pro-Israel than their publics, and since European countries are democracies, public opinion matters.

To date, the public’s anti-Israel sentiment has produced only marginal sanctions, like those on Israeli exports from the West Bank (a minuscule percentage of Israel’s total exports). But Israel can’t rule out the possibility that public pressure will eventually produce more stringent sanctions if Jerusalem continues refusing to capitulate to EU demands on the Palestinian issue that are antithetical to its security. In short, Israel could someday face a devastating choice between its economic needs and its security needs–unless it can diversify its trade enough to be able to weather EU sanctions if and when they occur.

And that’s precisely what Israel seeks from China and India, two countries with a history of not allowing policy disagreements to interfere with business: If it can build up its Asian trade enough to reduce its economic dependence on Europe, it will be better placed to withstand European pressure to adopt policies inimical to its survival.

Whether Israel will succeed in this goal remains to be seen. But if it does, that will be a diplomatic gain of unparalleled importance–even if it never wins Chinese or Indian support in a single UN vote.

Originally published in Commentary 

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Israel’s constitutional crisis has been postponed, not resolved

After years of leftists crying wolf about democracy being endangered, Israel finally experienced a real constitutional crisis last week. That crisis was temporarily frozen by the decision to form a unity government, but it will come roaring back once the coronavirus crisis has passed.

It began with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein’s refusal to let the newly elected Knesset vote to replace him as speaker and culminated in two interventions by the High Court of Justice. I’m one of very few people on my side of the political spectrum who considers the court’s initial intervention justifiable. But its second was an unprecedented usurpation of the prerogatives of another branch of government, in flagrant violation of legislation that the court itself deems constitutional.

Edelstein’s refusal, despite its terrible optics, stemmed from a genuine constitutional concern, and was consequently backed even by Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, who had opposed Edelstein many times before and would do so again later in this saga. The problem was that neither political bloc could form a government on its own, yet the proposed new speaker came from the faction of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party that adamantly opposed a unity government. Thus whether a unity government was formed or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s caretaker government continued, the new speaker would be in the opposition.

But as Yinon told the court, speakers have always come from the governing coalition because an opposition speaker can effectively stymie all government work. And once elected, he would be virtually impossible to oust, since 90 of the Knesset’s 120 members must vote to do so. An opposition speaker would thus “hurt democracy,” warned Yinon. “We’re planting a bug in the system, and this, too, undermines our constitutional fabric.” That’s why Edelstein wanted to wait, as Knesset bylaws permit, until a government was formed and could choose its own speaker.

Yet despite this genuine and serious concern, the fact remains that a newly elected majority was being barred from exercising its power. Moreover, it had no parliamentary way of solving the problem because only the speaker can convene parliament and schedule a vote. Thus if you believe majorities should be allowed to govern, the court was right to intervene by ordering Edelstein to hold the vote.

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