Weeks after berating Senegal and Venezuela for anti-settlement motion at UN, Israel seeks warmer ties with them
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Weeks after berating Senegal and Venezuela for anti-settlement motion at UN, Israel seeks warmer ties with them

Foreign Ministry issues official 2017-18 work plan; curiously brief on Netanyahu's much-hyped talk of potential new regional alliances

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with a delegation of young leaders from Germany, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 3, 2015
(Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with a delegation of young leaders from Germany, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 3, 2015 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Strengthening the partnership with the US, widening economic ties with Eurasia, reviving diplomatic relations with Cuba and Venezuela, monitoring Russia’s involvement in the Middle East, and preventing the European Union from linking a deepening of bilateral relations to progress in the peace process — these are some of the issues on the Foreign Ministry’s agenda for the next two years, as Israel’s foreign policy apparatus braces for what it predicts will be a “challenging” time for the Jewish state.

The government this week published a vast, 760-page work plan, which lays out the goals of the various ministries and government agencies for 2017-18, at times in considerable detail. Strikingly, a mere eight of the 760 pages are dedicated to the Foreign Ministry. They contain a few surprising goals, and shed some light on where the ministry plans to place particular emphasis, in what its director believes will prove a dramatic year for Israel, as the country will celebrate important historical milestones and witness major global changes.

Bizarrely, one of the countries targeted for improved ties is Senegal. Israel had cancelled its foreign aid program and recalled its ambassador from there, after Senegal co-sponsored December’s anti-settlement resolution at the UN Security Council in December, and to which Israel subsequently decided not to return a permanent envoy. Equally bizarrely, another of the four sponsoring countries so bitterly castigated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in December, Venezuela, is also now cited as a target for restoring diplomatic relations.

Curiously, too, the work plan barely mentions a centerpiece of Netanyahu’s diplomatic focus — his insistent claim that Sunni states, which share Israel’s concern over Iran, are potential new partners for Israel, and might help enable progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

“2017 will be a watershed year for the global work environment in which the Foreign Ministry operates,” director-general Yuval Rotem writes in the introduction to his section. (Most chapters in the book are prefaced by remarks from their respective ministers and director-generals, but since the Foreign Ministry has no full-time minister — only Netanyahu filling-in — only Rotem’s introductory text appears.)

“Significant changes are taking place in the map of the world’s leadership,” which require Israel to be well prepared, Rotem writes, referring mostly to a new administration and a new Congress in the US, but also to leadership races in other key countries. This year, elections are being held in Germany, France, the Netherlands and other important Israeli allies.

“It will also be a challenging year, since it marks the fiftieth anniversary of historic events in the country’s history,” Rotem continues. “We will celebrate the glory and the technological advancement of Israel and we will face its critics in historical, geopolitical and legal contexts.”

In 2017, the world marks not only half a decade since the Six Day War, but also 120 years since the First Zionist Congress, 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, 70 years since the United Nations Partition Plan, and five years since the UN General Assembly recognized Palestine as a nonmember observer state.

The Foreign Ministry is not only facing diplomatic challenges, however, but also internal ones, as its Workers Union threatens to call a general strike in an ongoing feud with the Treasury over diplomats’ salaries and working conditions.

After month of fruitless negotiations, the frustrated diplomats have now frozen ministry participation in the government’s project to bring Chinese and Portuguese construction workers to Israel. The union is now threatening a total shut down, without prior warning, of the Jerusalem headquarters and all overseas missions if its demands aren’t met.

Foreign Ministry workers protesting in Jerusalem on March 24, 2014. The sign reads "Strike here." (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Ministry workers protesting in Jerusalem on March 24, 2014. The sign reads “Strike here.” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government’s work plan [Hebrew] for 2017/18 was unveiled during Sunday’s cabinet meeting and described by government officials as a blueprint for more effective bureaucracy.

“It must be understood that we are running the government and the economy here in a relatively innovative manner, one that certainly stands out vis-à-vis the countries of the world,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gushed. “We are setting quantitative goals for the ministries, and it is much easier to reach a certain place when you know where you are going,” he said. “This is how you run a business; this is also how you run a country.”

Eli Groner, the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, was responsible for compiling the document. “This is the most results-oriented granular set of goals put together by each and every government agency in the history of the State of Israel,” he told The Times of Israel this week. “The fact that we have a two-year budget also enables various agencies to think strategically about where they want to be at end of 2018.”

Eli Groner, director-general of PM Netanyahu's office, arrives to the weekly cabinet meeting at PM Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, August 16, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
PMO director-general Eli Groner (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

What Groner said certainly rings true for some ministries, which provided an impressive amount of data and elaborate blow-by-blow accounts of what they aim to achieve in the coming years. The Education Ministry’s chapter, for instance, is 30 pages long; that of the Public Security Ministry 34. Even the Regional Cooperation and the Jerusalem and Heritage ministries have more detailed entries than the Foreign Ministry.

The Foreign Ministry’s eight-page long list of goals for 2017/18 is divided into 12 categories, which each have several subcategories. The first chapter is dedicated to the “preservation of the strategic cooperation with the US and strengthening it as a central anchor in Israel’s foreign policy and national security, while creating a common agenda with the new administration and Congress.”

Formulating a “common agenda” with Washington and maintaining bipartisan support for Israel are listed as top policy objectives, but also strengthening American Jewry’s connection to the Jewish state. The ministry also seeks to “continue developing a dialogue with various publics,” such as liberal, secular and young Americans, as well as minorities.

Common agendas, sustainable development and renewable energies

The second point on the list speaks, somewhat cryptically, of the “realization of potential of Israel’s relations with partners and key players, veteran and new alike,” to promote Israeli Israel’s integration on global trends and processes.” The bullet points fleshing out this item speak of creating “common agendas on a mutual basis,” sustainable development and renewable energies, and increasing Israeli development aid to get it on par with international standards.

The ministry’s third policy priority is about “advancing aspects of national security.” This includes making sure Iran does not violate the nuclear agreement it signed with six world powers in 2015 and preventing the regime from sponsoring terror across the globe.

Eighty percent of Israel’s security problems emanate from Iran, Foreign Minister Netanyahu said Monday during one of his rare visits to the Foreign Ministry.

According to the work plan, Israel’s diplomats vow to create “political pressure” on Hezbollah and Hamas and to safeguard Israel’s red lines regarding the Syrian war (though it its not spelled out how that would be done).

Celebrate the State of Israel’s strength and success

The next agenda item is dedicated to Israel’s reputation. For instance, the ministry plans to promote a “Zionist narrative” and to “celebrate the State of Israel’s strength and success,” especially on the background of the various anniversaries to be marked this year.

To fight for Israel’s good name in a time in which the word “occupation” is likely to be thrown about a lot, the diplomats are gearing up to “create channels of communication and partnerships with civil society and various countries, especially with the younger generation.” The Jewish state’s foundational values are to be stressed in an effort to create a positive image.

Furthermore, the ministry vows to do its part in the national struggle against delegitimization, boycotts, anti-Semitism, and online incitement. It pledges to develop a working plan to fight Jew hatred especially in Europe and Latin America and to help local communities deal with threats.

The diplomats also commit to engage with young Diaspora Jews and with various Jewish religious streams and to deepen interfaith dialogue.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 22, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York on September 22, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CLARY)

The fifth point in the Foreign Ministry’s agenda deals with improving Israel’s standing at the UN. That includes not only blocking efforts of dictate solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also getting the organization to appoint more Israelis to leadership positions and to recognize the importance of Jerusalem and its Jewish holy sites to Israelis. Moreover, Israel wants to increase the fight against anti-Semitism and for the memory of the Holocaust in global forums.

The next six agenda points are dedicated to geographical regions: Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania, Eurasia, Latin American and the Caribbean, and the Middle East.

Naturally, every region comes with its own set of challenges and priorities, though the work plan does not provide an in-depth analysis of what needs to be done anywhere.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows his map of Israel's world relations, at a session of the Knesset State Control Committee, on July 25, 2016. To his side is committee chair Karin Elharar of Yesh Atid. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shows his map of Israel’s world relations, at a session of the Knesset State Control Committee, on July 25, 2016. To his side is committee chair Karin Elharar of Yesh Atid. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In Europe, for instance, the ministry aims to thwart Palestinian moves at the European parliament and halt the erosion of anti-Israel positions by bolstering ties with friendly countries, especially the larger ones: Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy Spain and Poland.

At the same time, Jerusalem seeks to prevent the EU and some European countries from “linking the pace of progress in the peace process with the advancement of direct ties with Israel.”

This bullet point, “Objective 6.2,” is a telling admission of the ministry’s fear that disagreements over the Palestinian issue may harm Israel’s bilateral relationships. This appears to fly in the face of Netanyahu’s often-made assertion that the nations of the world are so eager to cooperate with Israel that they are willing to forget about the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with African leaders in Uganda on July 4, 2016 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with African leaders in Uganda on July 4, 2016 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Africa has long been a focus of Netanyahu’s foreign policy, and the work plan for the coming years specifies nine “target countries”: Ethiopia, Senegal, Rwanda, Tanzania, Togo, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and South Africa.

Members of the UN Security Council vote in favor of condemning Israel's settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016 at United Nations Headquarters. (Manuel Elias/United Nations via AP)
Members of the UN Security Council vote in favor of condemning Israel’s settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016 at United Nations Headquarters. (Manuel Elias/United Nations via AP)

It is somewhat surprising to see Senegal in this list, since Netanyahu decided to effectively downgrade ties with this Muslim-majority country by not returning Israel’s permanent ambassador there, after he was recalled to protest Dakar’s co-sponsorship of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 in December.

Other goals for the continent include the (re)-establishment of diplomatic relations with countries and obtaining observer status at the African Union.

Expanding Israel’s ties with India and China

The section on Asia and Oceania designates China, India, South Korea, Australia, Japan and Vietnam as “priority countries.” Israel intends to negotiate the creation of free trade zones with Beijing, Seoul, New Delhi and Hanoi and to sign agreements to bring foreign construction workers from China and caregivers for the elderly from the Philippines.

“The largest markets are in Asia. I want this to find expression in the expansion of Israel’s ties with India and China,” Netanyahu said Monday, adding that he instructed the Foreign Ministry to set up two new bureaus: a China bureau and an India bureau. “This shows the continuing importance that we place on these two major powers. There is much work to do and there are walls of bureaucracy that must be cracked and this is very, very important.”

Netanyahu is scheduled to visit China next week. His friend Narenda Modi is expected to become the first-ever Indian prime minister to visit Israel in July.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, during the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, during the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference, outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

 

In 2017, Jerusalem celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations with China and India; 55 years of diplomatic ties with South Korea and 65 years of diplomatic relations with Japan; and 100 years since the Australians fought the Battle of Beer Sheva. Events marking these dates will be used to improve Israel’s reputation, “with an emphasis on Israel’s ‘soft power’ — a technological powerhouse in innovation, creativity, R&D, academia and research.”

In Eurasia, the Foreign Ministry has declared Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Serbia as “key countries” with which it seeks to expand economic ties. Israel also wants to negotiate a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Council, which besides Moscow and Astana also includes Belarus, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

Diplomatically, the emphasis in this region lies on Russia, which plays a “central role in Israel’s political and strategic environment.” The work plan does not explicitly mention Moscow’s alliances with Syria and Iran, merely stating that Israel will continue to monitor “everything connected with Russia’s policies in the Middle East.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syria President Bashar Assad arrive for a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. (Alexei Druzhinin, RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syria President Bashar Assad arrive for a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015. (Alexei Druzhinin, RIA-Novosti, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday in Moscow. “Syria and the effort to formulate an agreement there will be at the center of our conversation,” he told his cabinet on Sunday. “In the context of this agreement, or without it, Iran is trying to establish itself permanently in Syria, with a military presence on the ground and at sea, and also a gradual attempt to open a front against us on the Golan Heights,” he said, adding that he will sharply oppose this possibility during his meeting in the Kremlin.

In Latin America, Jerusalem aims to focus on bolstering economic ties, including negotiating trade agreements with Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Panama and others. Interestingly, the Foreign Ministry also wants to make “efforts to renew diplomatic relations with the four countries that severed them” — Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Jordan's King Abdullah II in Amman in 2010 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman in 2010 (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Ironically, given Netanyahu’s relentless focus on the ostensible potential for a dramatic warming of regional ties, the work plan’s section on Israel’s goals for its own neighborhood is the smallest, with only four bullet points. They include the “maintenance and strengthening of the partnerships with Egypt and Jordan,” the “deepening of regional cooperation and the upgrading of Israel’s regional profile.” Furthermore, the Foreign Ministry pledges to continue “developing and positioning Israel’s contribution as a stabilizing regional factor regarding its neighbors, and the implications of this concerning Israel’s position in the international community.”

Israel will furthermore work to guarantee the ongoing commitment to international peacekeeping forces in the Middle East, the ministry pledges.

The twelfth and last item on the agenda deals with intra-ministerial challenges. The diplomats vow to enhance their emergency readiness here and abroad, to improve and upgrade consular services to Israeli citizens, and to streamline internal bureaucratic processes.

In the interest of Israel’s international relations and national security, it is to be hoped that the Foreign Ministry succeeds in implementing at least a part of this ambitious if quite nonspecific plan. If there is no labor strike, that is.

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