Netanyahu inflates number of Israel’s diplomatic ties

PM, who is also foreign minister, frequently gushes over relationships with 161 nations. The real number has been slightly lower for years

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)

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, eager to rebut claims that Israel suffers from international isolation due to his policies, has been enthusing over the record number of countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations. The only problem: It’s not exactly true.

“Today we have diplomatic relations with 161 countries — more than at any time in our history. And by the way, there are not that many countries left. There are only about 200 countries in the world,” he said in a speech to the AIPAC Policy Conference on March 22.

Two weeks earlier, he cited the same number in a speech from the Knesset podium, adding that Israel cooperates even with states that do not have full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

“I can count on my ten fingers the number of countries that do not have ties with Israel: We don’t have relations with North Korea, not with Iran and also not with the Islamic State or with the state of the Houtis [in Yemen] — that’s true. But we have full diplomatic relationships with the vast majority of the world’s states. It’s not Israel that’s isolated in the international community, but rather those countries that don’t have relations with Israel, and this number continues to get smaller all the time.”

On Sunday evening, speaking at a pre-Passover reception held by his Likud party, the prime minister — who is also the foreign minister — once again took pride in Israel having “official diplomatic relations with 161 countries.” In the 1980s, when he was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Netanyahu added, Israel only had relations with 80 countries. “That number has doubled.”

That last bit is true and is thanks to the breakdown of the Soviet Union, which created many separate countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and to the Oslo Accords, which paved the way for many countries to establish diplomatic ties with Israel.

But it is not correct that Israel currently has diplomatic relations with 161 countries. Rather, the number stands at 158, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon told The Times of Israel.

“The Foreign Ministry is responsible for listing all countries with which Israel has diplomatic relations,” Nahshon said. “After an additional inquiry, the accurate number is 158 countries. We will make sure the information is transmitted to the Prime Minister’s Office, because it’s our responsibility.”

To add to the confusion, the official Foreign Ministry website, which was updated last month, states that Israel maintains diplomatic relations with 159 states.

Screenshot from the Foreign Ministry website
Screenshot from the Foreign Ministry website

Netanyahu is likely repeating inaccurate numbers due to the fact that he is consulting antiquated Foreign Minister documents. Indeed, a few years ago, Israel did in fact have relations with 161 countries: It was in early 2009 that, in response to the war in Gaza known as Operation Cast Lead, Venezuela, Bolivia and Mauritania severed their ties with Israel.

Since then, Israel established new diplomatic relations with only one country: South Sudan, which declared independence in 2011.

Confronted with the prime minister’s inaccuracy, Israeli officials argued that his point is not to cite an exact number, but to emphasize that Israel has diplomatic relations with a large majority of all the countries in the world today.

There appears to be another area in which the prime minister plays a little fast and loose with the facts to shore up his foreign policy. He hails Israel’s strong bilateral ties with individual nations but lambastes multilateral bodies that do not give the Jewish state a fair hearing.

“While Israel is embraced by a growing number of individual nations, there are those who seek to malign Israel among the nations, and especially in the United Nations,” he said at last month’s AIPAC confab. “At the UN, Israel, the Middle East’s only true democracy, is slandered like no other country on earth. At the UN, Israel is subjected to consistent, systematic discrimination,” he said. “Only Israel is hounded by UN bodies expressly established to delegitimize its very existence. Only Israel is condemned every year by 20 hostile resolutions in the UN General Assembly.”

On Saturday night, Netanyahu slammed the UN Organization for Education, Science and Culture, better know as UNESCO, for passing a resolution denying any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. “This is yet another absurd UN decision,” he thundered. “The UN is rewriting a basic part of human history and has again proven that there is no low to which it will not stoop.”

Netanyahu is right about the UN General Assembly being a body that consistently and unfairly singles out Israel for criticism and about the ludicrous UNESCO resolution. But what he fails to acknowledge is the fact that it is not UNESCO or “the UN” that pass such resolutions. It is the member states who make up these organizations that pass resolutions.

To be sure, the automatic Arab majority in many international bodies makes it virtually impossible for Israel to get a fair shake. But last week’s UNESCO resolution on the Temple Mount, for instance, was supported by France, Russia, Spain, Sweden and 29 other states. It thus seems odd to argue that while multilateral organizations are hostile to Israel, Jerusalem’s bilateral ties with individual nations have never been better.

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