Go figure: Israel’s standing in the world is both fantastic and awful

Seeking high-tech and counter-terrorism expertise, world wants ‘close relationship’ with Israel, PM gushes. No, critics reply, the world shuns us because of the stalled peace process. Both are right

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

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 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)

How is Israel’s standing in the world? It couldn’t be better, says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s never been worse, argue his critics.

It’s an important debate, which does not merely deliver good material for political talk shows or theoretical discussions in Knesset committees, but could provide crucial lessons for foreign policy makers. And both sides of the argument make valid points.

The “it couldn’t be better” camp argues that in the age of terrorism and global economic crisis, the civilized world is mainly interested in two things: protecting itself against Islamist terrorism and good trade relations with countries that have what to offer. While many leaders still pay lip service to the Palestinian cause, in their meetings with Israelis counterparts they focus on Israel’s prowess in the fields of high-tech, cyber security and counterterrorism and hardly ever mention the peace process, according to Netanyahu.

Asian giants such as India, China and Japan are thirsting for Israeli technology, he gushes in virtually every speech he makes, and despite minor quarrels with the EU over the Palestinian issue, ties with most individual European states remain excellent, he insists.

“There are many problems in the international arena. One of our problems is the schedule; there is simply a scheduling problem,” the prime minister — who is also the foreign minister — said in late November, poking fun at doomsayers by pointing out that he hardly has time for all the world leaders who want to see him. “Whoever spoke about the collapse of our relations with the US, with the world in general and with the Arab world in particular, is mistaken.”

Netanyahu was referring to a long list of foreign dignitaries he had met or was about to meet. At the Paris climate conference last month, he spoke to Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Francois Hollande and the leaders of India, Canada, Australia, Egypt, Poland, the Netherlands, Greece and many other countries, including Arab states with which Israel has no diplomatic relations.

“Israel’s position is very strong. People are seeking out a close relationship with us,” Netanyahu declared at the time. “They understand that Israel is a major regional force as well as a major global force in technology and the cyber arena. There is hardly anyone who hasn’t spoken with me about this and they also understand that we can help in the war on terrorism and radical Islam. This is strong and genuine.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, outside Paris on November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference outside Paris, November 30, 2015. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO/Flash90)

Adherents of the school of thought that believes in Israel’s growing international isolation do not buy this. Rather, they paint a gloomy picture of a beleaguered country that has few friends left on the planet.

The global boycott movement is gaining steam; most countries in the world have recognized a Palestinian state against Israel’s expressed will; the EU has started to label settlement goods due to a never-ending feud over what is perceived as Israeli intransigence in the peace process, relations with the White House are in tatters due to the Iran nuclear deal; and now Brazil refuses to accept Israel’s designated ambassador, Dani Dayan, because he is affiliated with the settlement movement.

Chairman of the Yesh Atid Party, MK Yair Lapid, seen during a faction meeting at the Knesset, Jerusalem, December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Yair Lapid during a faction meeting at the Knesset, December 21, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It’s never been worse. Since 1948, our international status hasn’t been as bad as it is right now,” MK Yair Lapid, Israel’s self-styled shadow foreign minister, told The Times of Israel earlier this month. Similar sentiments can be heard from all opposition parties. The fact that Netanyahu meets with many statesmen doesn’t say much about Israel’s standing in the world, Lapid argued. “They walk down the corridors [at international conferences] and meet each other and talk to each other,” he said. “They talk to you about the things that are pleasant, instead of talking to you about the things that are unpleasant. I wouldn’t be confused by niceties.”

Whom to believe? The specter of international isolation is undeniably haunting Israelis, but at the same time the Jewish state recently celebrated a number of foreign policy achievements, such as the opening of a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi and the first-ever visit by an Indian president.

On the one hand, there is the EU’s labeling of settlement goods, BDS (the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) and the tangible threat of a anti-Israel resolution at the United Nations Security Council. On the other hand, there is growing trade with Asian superpowers and unprecedented security cooperation not only with Europe and the US but also with the Arab world.

“The truth is somewhere in the middle between these two poles,” said Oded Eran, a former Israeli top diplomat and currently a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.

‘China and Russia always vote against Israel in international forums and supply Israel’s enemies with weapons’

The Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State terror group have pushed the Palestinian question to the bottom of the international agenda, which helps Israel’s standing somewhat, he explained. While the peace process is not entirely forgotten, and foreign statesmen do bring it up occasionally in conversations with Israeli counterparts, they are preoccupied with other issues. The global economic crisis further accelerates many countries’ desire to do business with Israel, which is recognized widely for its innovative high-tech industry.

“If you judge bilateral ties only by economic and trade relations, Israel’s standing in the world is improving,” said Eran, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the EU from 2002 to 2007. Turkey is a good example: While diplomatic relations between Jerusalem and Ankara are currently at a nadir, bilateral trade is growing every year.

However, Eran cautioned, “obviously you cannot measure international relations only by trade ties.” Some countries are interested in Israeli technology and anti-terror know-how, but are still hostile in other avenues of diplomacy, he said. “China always votes against Israel in international forums and supplies Israel’s enemies with weapons. The same is true for Russia.”

The key to improving political ties with the international community lies clearly in the peace process with the Palestinians, according to several experts interviewed for this article. Historical precedent proves the world is keen on warming up to Israel as long as Jerusalem is perceived as taking steps toward a solution of the conflict, they posited. The Oslo Accord and the peace deal with Jordan not only were behind the establishment of diplomatic ties with China and India but also led to the 1995 landmark Association Agreement with the EU, Eran said.

Israel’s standing in the world is thus both great and horrible at the same time, depending on which aspect of it you are examining.

“In a certain context it’s really very good — there is indeed great appreciation for Israel’s economy, its high-tech sector and its achievements in cyber security,” said Sharon Pardo, who chairs the Center for the Study Center of European Politics and Society at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “But Israel’s political-diplomatic situation is actually very terrible.”

It is true that much of the international community is currently not much interested in the Palestinians’ plight. Especially Israel’s new friends in the Far East are not bothered by the peace process when they ask for increased trade or seek Israel’s technological or counter-terrorism expertise.

Promoting ties with China, Japan, India, Russia, Brazil and other large markets is of course a good idea. However, Pardo warned, Israelis should not forget that these countries are mere sidekicks to Europe and America, without whose support the Jewish state would be in a lot of trouble.

“Israel’s greatest economic partner is still the EU. And Israel’s greatest security partner is still the US,” Pardo said, referring to the $3 billion annual military aid package from Washington. Yes, Israel’s ties with India and China are on the upswing, but these countries are not crucial to Israel’s survival, he posited. “The basis for Israel’s existence was and remains the EU and the US, and there the situation in the political-diplomatic arena is not good.”

And yet, Pardo added, there is no need to panic. True, BDS is gaining strength in Europe, but not a single government on the continent is about to endorse a full-blown boycott of Israel. Even the countries most critical of Jerusalem, such as Sweden, are fully committed to Israel’s security. There is growing frustration over the lack of progress in the peace talks and yet European states are eager to upgrade trade relations with Israel, he said.

‘In diplomacy, many people talk to many other people behind closed doors. That in itself means very little’

And what about Israel’s much-hailed yet still unofficial ties with the Arab world?
Last month, Israel celebrated the opening of a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi. “This reflects the fact that Israel is appreciated in many fields including technology, and other fields, both within the Middle East and beyond,” Netanyahu said on November 29. (Five days later, the Foreign Ministry published a clarification stating that the office was established to represent Israel at the International Renewable Energy agency and is not “an embassy or consulate representing Israel bilaterally in the United Arab Emirates.”)

It is no secret that Israel and some Arab countries cooperate clandestinely and have done so for years. Netanyahu has long been saying that many moderate Sunni states no longer see Israel as an enemy and are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in fending off their common foe, Iran.

“There are Arab states that our sought our assistance. If I mentioned their names you’d fall off your chair,” Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold said last week.

Israel's incoming Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold and former Saudi government adviser Anwar Eshki shake hands in Washington DC, June 4, 2015 (Debby Communications Group)
Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold and former Saudi government adviser Anwar Eshki meet in Washington DC, June 4, 2015 (Debby Communications Group)

The expansion of secret contacts with Sunni states is certainly a welcome development, but so far have not paid off, a senior diplomatic official argued. As long as Israeli athletes cannot obtain visas for certain Arab countries or are not allowed to display their flag there, the much-hailed rapprochement is nothing to brag about, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Israel always had behind-the-scenes contacts with Arab countries, but they also need to be translated into concrete achievements. “In diplomacy many people talk to many other people behind the closed doors. That in itself means very little,” he said.

“How does it help Israel if Dore Gold meets someone from Dubai to talk about the mutual threat emanating from Iran and agree to meet some time in the future to chat about Syria, when publicly the same person is still trashing us, telling everyone we’re murderers and genocidal maniacs?”

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