Over the course of 2017, Israel has secured a series of remarkable and even unprecedented diplomatic achievements. This reflects a growing global and regional recognition of a shared threat from totalitarian Islamism, as well as an appreciation of Israel’s capacity to contribute to its partners in a variety of fields. Israel must act to build on these gains, and nourish the conditions which allow for them. This includes developing shared interests with several key Arab countries, and prudent management of the conflict with Palestinians.
US President Donald Trump’s December declaration recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital can be seen, in retrospect, as the crowning achievement in a string of extraordinary diplomatic breakthroughs in Israel’s favor which have a cumulative significance regarding Israel’s standing in the world.
This remains true despite the subsequent negative vote at the UN General Assembly on the question of Jerusalem. This vote was of no practical significance, but it demonstrates the still-extant gap between the friendly and even strategic relations that Israel enjoys with many countries on the bilateral and regional levels, and the criticism which is still directed at Israel (and the pro-Israel US) in multinational fora.
Overall, over the course of 2017, Israel has secured a series of diplomatic achievements, some of them unprecedented, in the international arena; amounting to a strategic breakthrough. The facts are hard to dispute; even if the matter has become, to the detriment of sober discussion, a point of contention between Prime Minister Netanyahu and his political rivals.
The emerging transformation of attitudes toward Israel is founded, first and foremost, on an ever-widening recognition of the nature and severity of the common strategic challenge which totalitarian Islamism poses to many of the world’s countries.
Along with this comes the growing appreciation of the benefits offered by a closer partnership with Israel in a variety of fields, including security and economics, innovation and technology.
It is also easier to associate with Israel today due to Israel’s prudent management of the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel’s strategy of measured and low-key response to Palestinian provocations is proving to be a wise, long-term strategic approach. This is true, even if this has met with the angry disapproval of significant elements in Israeli society, who would like to see a harder hand applied against Palestinians involved in hostile activity against Israel. .
The emerging transformation of attitudes toward Israel is founded, first and foremost, on the ever-widening recognition of the nature and severity of the common strategic challenge posed by totalitarian Islamism.
Of course, Israel’s diplomatic hardships are not yet a thing of the past. Israel’s positions on the Palestinian issue and on the future of Jerusalem have not been well received in Europe, including by close allies like Germany. The automatic majority against Israel in the UN General Assembly, even if it has been reduced, still exists. Russia’s policy in Syria and its close ties to Iran is troubling. The BDS movement is still active, and has scored occasional successes.
Nevertheless, the string of events and achievements described in this paper is of far-reaching importance. Israel must exhaust all effort to gain maximum diplomatic benefits from the current positive trend, and nourish the conditions which allow its continuation.
This paper seeks to outline the momentum of Israeli diplomatic work; to examine the fundamental reasons for Israel’s achievements; to pinpoint their strategic implications; and in doing so, to suggest a series of operational recommendations.
2017 – A Diplomatic “Anno Mirabilis” (Year of Wonders)
President Donald Trump’s declaration (on December 6, 2017) that the American administration recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and is planning to move the American embassy there (– without, however, setting a date for that move), is consistent with a bill passed by Congress in 1995. It was made in the spirit of election promises made – but not kept – by his three immediate predecessors.
Nevertheless, Trump’s announcement constitutes a significant landmark in the struggle, which has been ongoing since as early as 1949, over the formulation of US position on the question of Jerusalem. For the first time since Israel’s founding, the president has recognized the very fact that Israel is the sovereign in Jerusalem. The willingness to present reality as it is, after two generations of succumbing to Arab and Islamic pressures and threats, constitutes a first-rate Israeli diplomatic achievement.
The American move redefines, to the Palestinians’ vociferous displeasure, the diplomatic framework for any future negotiations (– what is known as “terms of reference”). It also openly reflects the president’s decision to abandon the patterns of appeasing Palestinians and deliberately creating a position gap with Israel; patterns that were adopted by Trump’s predecessor, in a failed attempt to promote negotiations. It would be a clear mistake to continue to attempt what has already repeatedly failed, Trump explained in his declaration, bringing America’s basic diplomatic premises closer to those of Israel.
The “anno mirabilis” that was 2017 saw a long series of strategic and diplomatic events, which in overall balance form a historic transformation of Israel’s international standing.
Despite being unique, this was not an isolated event. 2017 was an “anno mirabilis” (Latin: year of wonders)! It was also the year that marked the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress in Basel, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the 70th anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s vote on the partition plan, the jubilee of the Six Day War, and the 40th anniversary of Sadat’s ground-breaking visit to Jerusalem.
Considering the Jewish people’s and the State of Israel’s achievements over the past 50-70-100-120 years, a historic transformation has occurred in Israel’s international position and standing.
Of note is a long and important series of unprecedented visits by the Prime Minister of Israel to new and important destinations, as well as landmark visits to Israel by world leaders, along with a significant increase in security cooperation between Israel and its partners. The list is extraordinary in both scope and nature.
In February 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Singapore and Australia. Both countries are old friends, yet the framework of the visits indicated a transformation of the relationships. In past, the robust relationship between Israel and Singapore was formed by the security sector and was predominantly conducted in secret. (IDF officers, under the guise of “Mexican instructors”, were involved in building the small island nation’s ability to defend itself since its earliest days). Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s visit in 1986 nearly sparked a military confrontation between Singapore and its Muslim neighbor Malaysia. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s visit in 1993 was abrupt and unofficial.
On the other hand, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s participation in the funeral of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew – one of the greatest statesmen of the previous century – raised no objections. In April of 2016, Lee Hsien Loong (his son, who today serves as prime minister) came to Israel for a visit that was the first of its kind. He even publicly addressed the issue of security assistance and the depth of the ties between the two countries. This new and overt stage in the relations between the two countries manifested itself by the time Netanyahu made his reciprocal visit.
Netanyahu then visited Australia for five days and was shown distinct sympathy both by the (dynamic and strong) Jewish community and by the general public, as well as by the top political echelon, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister of Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop.
The Australians expressed both their support of Israel in international fora and their interest in strengthening the bilateral relations – economic, technological and military. Turnbull’s reciprocal visit to Israel in the autumn of 2017 commemorated the 100th jubilee of the liberation of Beersheba from Ottoman rule by the famed charge of the Australian Light Horse. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding to expand security cooperation, against the background of Australia’s plan to bolster its military.
This journey to Australia was followed by a visit by Netanyahu to Washington in mid-February. Two generations ago, the US was still evading visits of Israeli prime ministers to Washington, but in recent decades such visits have become a matter of course. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that Netanyahu was among Donald Trump’s first guests, less than a month after the latter’s inauguration.
In matters of substance, the nebulous line adopted by the president regarding the possibility of the “two-state solution” marked, if not a sharp turn in the US’s position, at least a willingness to abandon the so-called “common knowledge” concepts. It has become common in diplomatic circles to say that “everybody knows” what the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian accord will be. This has predominated American and international diplomatic discourse during the tenure of Trump’s two predecessors. No more.
In this context, it should be noted that the “accepted” concept of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines, with limited land swaps, did not originate with the Obama administration. It took hold during Condoleezza Rice’s tenure as Secretary of State in the administration of George W. Bush, and was put forward (albeit in private) as part of the Annapolis process. This “common knowledge” (or “received wisdom”) has now been challenged.
Trump’s visit to Israel in May of 2017 was much more significant in both its symbolic and substantive aspects, confirming this break with the immediate past. For the first time ever, an American president chose Israel as one of the destinations for his first trip abroad. He came to Israel directly on the heels of his visit to Saudi Arabia – with the clear message being that the two destinations offer no contradiction in his view.
For the first time, an incumbent president visited the Western Wall. The tone of his speeches in Israel was warm and supportive, especially his speech at the Israel Museum. Conversely, in his meeting with Mahmoud Abbas – in Bethlehem rather than in Ramallah – Trump publicly demanded that the PA should end the extensive financing of families of Palestinian prisoners and “martyrs” (terrorists), in the spirit of the Taylor Force Act which is making its way through Congress. While some voices in Israel expressed dissatisfaction and concern in view of the huge US arms deal offered to the Saudis, the general sense was that a turning point had been reached in US-Israeli relations.
The prime minister’s participation, as the sole non-African speaker, in the summit of the Economic Community of West African States was yet another sign of the sharp upturn in Israel’s relations with most African countries.
In the following month, two additional important landmarks were added. The prime minister’s participation, as the sole non-African speaker, in the summit of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which convened in Liberia in early June of 2017, was yet another sign of the sharp upturn in Israel’s relations with most of that continent’s countries. The warning of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI that he would not participate if Netanyahu were to be invited was met with shrugs – another indication of current African sentiments toward Israel. Like the prime minister’s visit to East Africa and the summit meeting with the leaders of the region in Uganda in the previous year, this visit as well was used, among other things, for a series of bilateral meetings, some of which concerned arranging the return of illegal economic migrants to African countries.
Later in the year, Rwandan President Paul Kagame visited Israel, and in late November the prime minister participated in the inaugural events for the president of Kenya where he also held meetings with African leaders. While it is true that South Africa is taking a hostile approach, which still reflects past disagreements (– the lingering memory of Israel’s relations with the Apartheid regime and the affinity between the ANC and the Palestinian organizations), and the ANC voted to reduce the level of diplomatic representation, this is today the exception which illustrates the rule.
Even more important was the tripartite summit in Thessaloniki in mid-June. It is part of a strategic shift redefining Israel’s place in the world, and to some extent the country’s basic identity. This was the third such meeting between Netanyahu, Cyprus President Nicos Anastasiades and Greek Prime Minister (and staunch left-winger) Alexis Tsipras. Previous tripartite summits had been held in Nicosia and in Jerusalem in 2016. This time, the summit was accompanied by a gesture of remembrance of Thessaloniki’s Jewry, which was once among the most vibrant communities in the diaspora, and which was deported to its death seventy-five years ago.
The joint announcement published at the end of the discussions is highly detailed, and concerns a variety of fields – first and foremost the production of energy in the eastern Mediterranean, where Israel’s economic waters (the EEZ) border on those of Cyprus. In December 2017 additional progress was made in the Italian-Greek-Cypriot-Israeli process for the construction of a gas pipe and/or power line to Europe. Renewable energies, environmental protection, research and development – all these are marked as subjects in which joint initiatives could redirect the economic trajectory of this new bloc of nations.
Even more important in all that pertains to Israel’s long-term interests and to the reshaping, or even redefinition, of its place in its strategic environs, was the tripartite summit in Thessaloniki in June.
The announcement largely skips the military aspect, but it was specifically in this field that 2017 saw impressive developments. This was not the first time that the Israeli Air Force took part in training exercises in Greece, alongside colleagues from several countries, but this was the first time that participants from Arab countries were invited – and came. There were also training rounds in Cyprus for the IDF’s commando brigade in June and for its special forces in December. They trained in warfare in mountainous conditions – which, as is clear to all, is intended to prepare these units for operational outlines in Lebanon. This did not deter the Cypriots from hosting and participating.
This growing intimacy in the tripartite relations of Greece-Cyprus-Israel, which bridges political gaps and delineates future directions, has far-reaching implications for the regional balance of powers. It could even affect Israel’s self-image as not just a “Middle Eastern” country but rather as a “Mediterranean” country. Concurrently, Greece and Cyprus are conducting a similar dialogue with Egypt and Jordan. They share Israel’s position which ascribes utmost importance to Egypt’s stability, and disapprove of the critical tone of European policy toward the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
In early July, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi came for a three-day visit to Israel (and to Israel alone). This, too, was the first ever visit of its kind. With Prime Minister Netanyahu at his side throughout the tour of the country, he openly expressed the unprecedented nature of the ever-increasing cooperation, from agriculture to space. As Netanyahu put it, “not even the sky is the limit.” The security aspect manifested itself in arms deals of a massive scope, as well as – for the first time – participation by India in the Israeli Air Force’s biannual “Blue Flag” exercise, alongside the U.S., Germany, France, Italy, Poland and Greece. Beyond the economic and industrial interest, the relationship with India demonstrates an extraordinary set of commonalties, rooted at the personal and political levels and in both countries’ self-image as democracies opposed by ruthless Islamist enemies.
”Not even the sky is the limit” to advancement of India-Israel relations.
The diplomatic momentum of July 2017 did not end there. During that month, the prime minister participated in the Paris events to mark seventy-five years since that city’s Jews were deported to the extermination camps after being rounded up at the Velodrome d’Hiver. During the memorial services, French President Emmanuel Macron – who, upon winning the elections, became one of the pillars of the center-left in the European Union – made it clear that in his view, anti-Zionism is a form of contemporary anti-Semitism. This is an important moral and political message in an age when the boycott movements in the West are attempting to deny the very legitimacy of the Zionist project, above and beyond any criticism (which is also heard from friends) regarding Israel’s policy on the Palestinian issue.
From France, Netanyahu went on to a summit of the heads of state of the Visegrád Group – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – which for about twenty years now has served as a political and strategic anchor for what Rumsfeld once called “the New Europe.” This is a group of countries whose positions on Israel are sympathetic, and close military-technological and intelligence ties have been formed with some of them. The addition of the prime minister to the summit meeting, rendering it “V4 plus one”, added an important symbolic tier to this relationship created over the past several decades.
The event garnered press coverage due to Netanyahu’s sharp words to his counterparts, behind closed doors, on the lack of sense embodied in the European Union’s policy toward Israel. The press was able to obtain a recording of their discussion, which caused a stir. But it is probable that his hosts, particularly Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, welcomed these comments, which reflect their own sentiment toward the institutional apparatus in Brussels.
In his frequent conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including a brief visit to Sochi in August, the prime minister focused on the Syrian issue. He raised the need to avoid friction between the Russian forces stationed there, and to secure de-confliction with IDF elements active as part of what Israel calls an “interwar campaign” to prevent the conveyance of strategically-significant war materials to Hezbollah. He also raised the wider and more long-term issue of the Iranian presence in Syria, a presence which can be assumed to have different long-term strategic objectives than those of Russia. Nevertheless, a significant, and perhaps even dangerous, gap between Jerusalem and Moscow on this question remains. Meanwhile bilateral and economic ties – grounded in cultural and historic affinities – are growing, and are expressed in the intensive relationship between the two countries on all levels.
A significant, and perhaps even dangerous, gap remains between Jerusalem and Moscow on the question Iran’s presence in Syria.
In line with this series of unprecedented moves, Netanyahu left in early September for a visit – again, the first ever by an Israeli prime minister – to three destinations in Latin America. His first stop was Mexico, with whose president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a warm personal relationship was formed over recent years. From there, he went on to Colombia, which is an old friend (and a partner in the struggle against the vitriolic anti-Israeli line of the “Bolivarian group” led by Venezuela); and to Argentina, where the end of 2015 saw the ascendance to power of a friend – Mauricio Macri – after years of particularly dismal relations with his predecessor, Cristina Kirchner.
The latter, among other actions, took far-reaching steps to cover Iran’s involvement in the terrorist attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires in 1994. The contrast with her attitudes could not have been starker. The trip once again highlighted Israel’s importance and utility as an economic and security partner. Sadly, a tragic occasion to illustrate this came to pass almost immediately, when rescue teams of the Israeli Home Front Command were dispatched to Mexico following the earthquake on September 19.
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, another important diplomatic meeting, unprecedented as well, took place between Netanyahu and Egyptian President el-Sisi. This was the first public meeting between the two since Sisi came to power in 2013 ( – although it is known, from unofficial publications, that el-Sisi met with Netanyahu and the King of Jordan at a secret summit in Aqaba in January of 2016, and with Netanyahu and the then-opposition-leader Isaac Herzog later that year).
The mere fact that a public meeting took place – let alone in a relaxed mood and garnering positive coverage – illustrated the vast transformation in Israel’s standing in the region, and the sense of commonality against the threat of Islamist forces: a transformation which also reflects on the treatment Israel receives on the international arena. All this, despite the Temple Mount incidents of summer 2017.
For a while, there was deterioration in Israel’s relationship with Jordan. The direct reason for this was Jordanian indignation at the fact that the Prime Minister embraced, in public and in the presence of Ambassador Einat Schlein, the Israeli security guard who shot to death two Jordanian citizens (one of whom was involved in assaulting the security guard). Attempts to resolve the crisis have been ongoing ever since, and seem to have come to fruition only now, in January 2018, following an Israeli expression of regret and a willingness to compensate the families.
A special importance, mostly in symbolic terms but with significant diplomatic implications as well, was ascribed to Netanyahu’s November visit to London, where he participated in the events marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Faced with the Palestinians’ demands – expressed in an op-ed by Abbas in the Guardian on that very date – for Britain to renege on the declaration and apologize for the historic wrong it caused them, Prime Minister Theresa May chose, rather, to emphasize Britain’s commitment to Israel and to the vision of the Jewish People’s revival in its homeland. This carries unique significance in an age when Palestinians are still highly active in their attempts to delegitimize both Israel as a state and the Zionist project as a whole, as demonstrated by Abbas’ speech at the PLO Central Council on January 14, 2018.
Despite Palestinian demands, Prime Minister Theresa May chose to emphasize Britain’s commitment to Israel and to the notion of the Jewish People’s revival in its homeland.
As already mentioned, in late November the prime minister left for Kenya. Not long after his return, he was involved in the final preparations for Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem. Some of the agitated reactions which the declaration elicited from both sides of the conflict are clearly unwarranted. (This includes Trump being compared by excited Israelis to Cyrus the Great and to Balfour, as well as the declaration being described by Palestinians as a “crime against humanity”). Still, it was a highly significant act. Moreover, the inability of the Palestinians, the Arabs and the Muslim world to come up with anything effective in response to the American move, other than UN verbiage and a lopsided but meaningless UNGA vote, should be viewed as yet another important manifestation of the transformation which is occurring in Israel’s standing.
Later in December, Netanyahu left for a brief visit to Paris and Brussels. Despite facing harsh criticism at his session with the European ministers of foreign affairs, the very fact that these meetings took place illustrated that the Palestinians would not be able to lay a diplomatic siege to Israel following Trump’s declaration. President Macron’s statement that he will not, at this stage, cooperate with any diplomatic initiative other than that of the US, empties Mahmoud Abbas’ threats to “fire” Trump as a mediator and find a replacement.
In January 2018, Netanyahu conducted a triumphant, almost royal, reciprocal visit to India that was unprecedented in its enthusiastic embrace of Israel. More than 100 businessmen accompanied Netanyahu, and dozens of cooperation agreements were reached over the course of one week. Next is an expected fourth summit meeting with Greek Prime Minister Tsipras and Cyprus President Anastasiades, in Nicosia.
The momentum of the work at the prime ministerial level is therefore expected to continue, along with the broadening of Israel’s diplomatic horizons. The implications of this trend, the reasons for it and its lessons, have an increasing significance as a seminal factor in Israel’s national security policy. These developments deserve to be taken seriously, regardless of the political derivatives and of the prime minister’s personal efforts to display prominently his own part in these actions.
Reasons (and Circumstances)
In building the string of achievements listed above, great weight has to be ascribed to the Prime Minister’s Office and his national security staff, as well as to the Israeli diplomatic service (whose professionalism does not always gain the appreciation it deserves).
They were assisted by important institutional elements in the defense establishment and in the intelligence community; by the relevant economic ministries, whose importance has been growing in this context; in some cases, by influential business interests in foreign countries which seek closer ties with Israel, and Israeli companies with leverage abroad; as well as by Jewish organizations – American and otherwise – who over the years gained diplomatic stature of their own and regularly assist in promoting Israel’s strategic agenda.
A major factor is the recognition of Israel’s ability to significantly contribute to the capabilities of its partners in military, intelligence and technological fields.
At the same time, the transformation of Israel’s political standing was driven, or made possible, by four fundamental factors. This might more accurately be defined as two reasons generating change, and two sets of circumstances which allowed that change to be realized.
A first reason is the new awareness, which gained a firm hold at the political as well as the professional level in many countries worldwide, that there is indeed a tangible security threat which must be effectively combated. The horrors of Islamist terrorism, alongside the pressures of immigration, have illustrated to the decision makers at the political level that without a determined struggle against the threat, public opinion would be swayed away from them toward the stances (and the parliamentary parties) of the populist right.
The professionals engaged in this work – the “cognitive community” of military and intelligence personnel – are now gaining a more receptive audience. In most cases, this also leads to a better understanding of Israel’s positions and considerations in all that pertains to the defense of the country and the security of its citizens. This understanding is also reflected in the positions of the political level, even in European countries in which the professional diplomatic establishment is still fundamentally hostile to Israel.
No less important is the recognition of Israel’s ability to contribute significantly to the capabilities of her partners. This capacity is gradually becoming more established, once the door has been opened for cooperation in both security and economic matters. On the civil and economic level, Israel has wisely made a name for itself as one of the centers of knowledge in fields which require an innovative and creative approach. Israel finds markets in developed nations; in countries, such as China, which have started on a track of accelerated growth; and even in places (like Africa) which are just getting ready to take the plunge.
On the military-security level, all countries share the increasing awareness of the existence of new and asymmetrical threats which require a response. Derived from this is an interest in what Israel has to offer in these fields. Without elaborating too much, or purporting to present an exhaustive list of the subjects of the cooperation (there are many more which will not be mentioned), three specific complexes stand out in which Israel has things to offer.
Expertise in the fight against terror: Extensive experience has been amassed in Israel – sadly – as to this threat and the means of interdiction, based upon the intelligence penetration required for concrete early warning and effective operations. Among other things, in recent years, the Israeli services found ways to deal with the phenomenon of “lone wolves,” monitoring their intentions through the social networks – an issue which today is no less relevant in the outskirts of Paris or Brussels than in the confrontation zones between Israel and the Palestinians.
Expertise in anti-rocket defense: This is a field in which Israel was the first in the world to deploy an interception system on the battlefield, at success levels of over 85% in 2012 and approximately 90% in 2014. Israel chose to develop a three-layered architecture, with the “Arrow” missile as an upper tier, “Iron Dome” as the lower one, and “David’s Sling” as an intermediary layer. These systems, and the technologies supporting them, elicit growing interest in countries facing a similar threat.
Expertise in cyber defense: This is a field in which Israel has become, by force of circumstance, a world leader. An immense percentage – about one fifth – of the total global investment in defensive cyber capabilities has been flowing to Israeli companies in recent years. The synergy between military, academic and business capabilities is expected to grow even closer upon the move of relevant units to Beersheba, which Netanyahu calls the “world’s cyber capital.” The critical importance of robust defenses for the very existence of the e-commerce system (and its various derivatives) is what gives strategic significance to the scale of the Israeli activity in this field.
Side by side with these causes of change there are also enabling factors which have made the breakthroughs of the past year possible. The expansion of economic, intelligence and military cooperation between Israel and countries around the world, which in the past had kept their distance from Israel (or hid their ties with her), could not have happened on quite the same scale if it was not for the change in the attitudes of key players in the Arab world toward Israel.
Even if their formal stances remain hostile, their true sentiments are quite different. Thus, their reactions toward countries which form overt partnerships with Israel are much less virulent, if at all. In the past, quite a few governments, especially in Asia, avoided establishing security and diplomatic ties with Israel, or at least took pains to hide such ties. They had reasons, back then, to fear that such friendship would put at risk their vital economic interests – especially those of countries which are completely dependent on imported energy sources.
Today, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states (excepting Qatar) are no longer likely to punish Israel’s friends. One can even point, if only implicitly, at the opposite. The dangers of the new regional reality – as well as the fear that US power is waning and Washington (under Obama) was no longer committed to their security as it once had been – pushed the “camp of stability” countries into Israel’s welcoming arms.
A pattern of a partnership of interests and the coordination of positions effectively exists between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and additional entities in the Arab world.
A joint struggle is underway against the far-reaching challenge posed by the ambitions of the Iranian regime. The latter is already asserting its predominance in a series of countries (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen). These considerations have yielded a pattern of an effective partnership of interests and coordination of positions between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the UAE and additional entities in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia’s frosty reaction to the attempts to inflame sentiments on the issue of Jerusalem – in July of 2017, and again in December following Trump’s declaration – illustrates this. Under these circumstances, maintaining an open friendship with Israel no longer entails real economic, political and diplomatic costs in the Arab world.
In the unique case of Russia, the very conflict of interests is what paradoxically creates intensive dialogue between Jerusalem and Moscow. On the one hand, the Russians support Assad and cooperate with Iran, while on the other hand they respect the IDF’s military might and wish to avoid direct confrontation. Ultimately, Moscow’s purposes in Syria differ from those of Tehran.
At the same time, the accumulation of steps listed above has also been made possible thanks to the rational and prudent manner in which Israel today manages conflict with the Palestinians (versus both the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas regime in Gaza).
The state of affairs at this stage is not one of progress toward a permanent status agreement (conflict resolution), but rather the prevention of escalation and deterioration, i.e. a conflict management approach. Public opinion and the political environment, in countries with which Israel is acting to improve relations, are therefore not forced to deal daily with the ugly sights of violence, fire and blood on television. Had this been the case, as it was in 2001-2004, images of violence could have placed a burden on the rapprochement with Israel.
Harsh Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, which is immediately reflected in the propaganda of such stations as Al-Jazeera and on social networks, could make it more difficult for Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, to adopt more relaxed stances toward Israel.
The rational and prudent manner in which Israel today manages the conflict with the Palestinians also serves to make space for expansion of Israel’s diplomatic ties around the world.
These considerations are evidently implemented in the day-to-day conduct of the IDF and the General Security Services towards the Palestinian populations, despite the wave of Palestinian violence which began in the fall of 2015. Restraining elements, including economic and infrastructure projects, are encouraged. A distinction is maintained – notwithstanding exceptional cases – between the fight against terror, which relies on specific and accurate intelligence, and the treatment of the general populace.
This policy, influenced to some extent by the American discourse on counterinsurgency and the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq, is sometimes criticized by those in Israel who seek a harsher response to Palestinian violence. But the policy of restraint should be viewed as an important, and even imperative, tier of the comprehensive strategy described in this document.
Recommendations: What Next?
All the above does not detract from the permanent need, which could even be described as having an existential significance, to preserve and improve Israel’s special relationship with the US. It is also important not to be tempted – precisely because we are in the age of Trump! – by the notion (which has gained a hold in certain circles) that a bipartisan support base in Congress is no longer necessary.
In this context, the crucial partnership with US Jewry, in all its denominations, is highly important. An intense effort must be made – despite Israeli interior political constraints – to repair the considerable damage done to Israel-Diaspora relations in recent months.
It is important not to be tempted – precisely because we are in the age of Trump! – by the notion that a bipartisan support base in Congress is no longer necessary.
At the same time, as a high priority, Israel should continue to develop its ties with India and eastern Mediterranean countries. Israel has an interest to anchor these relationships in a structure of regional consultations – either formal or informal. This could mean a framework of mutual assistance in certain security and technological fields with like-minded countries in the Asian-Pacific region (India, Australia, Singapore and others). On the other hand, it is important to ensure that Israel is not seen in Beijing as joining the circle of containment against China.
In the Mediterranean basin, it would be useful to integrate the “tripartites” (which Greece and Cyprus are conducting with Israel, Egypt and Jordan separately) and to add Italy, creating a steady 3+3 framework (involving Italy, Greece, Cyprus with Israel, Egypt and Jordan), like the 5+5 framework in the western Mediterranean (involving Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Malta with Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania). In this case, Erdogan’s open hostility frees Israel of the need to consider the way such steps would be construed in Ankara.
The continued diplomatic efforts in a variety of arenas – in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa –require a significant upgrade of Israel’s diplomatic toolbox. Without such an upgrade it will be impossible to take the actions necessary to maintain the diplomatic bridges currently being constructed. They require day-to-day political and economic dialogue, keeping the Prime Minister’s promises in the fields of trade and assistance, and preparing for the next moves. The decline in recent years in the size and standing of Israel’s Foreign Ministry is a highly problematic trend, certainly for a country which is gaining momentum in the diplomatic sphere. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be given back the areas of authority taken from it, and must be allocated such resources as will allow it to attract and retain the best personnel.
The importance of the regional dimension, especially the Saudi position, in creating the conditions which allow Israel to attain its achievements, requires continued investment.
A significant increase of the budgets of the Center for International Cooperation (CIC/ MASHAV) is also required, as is an informed strategy for creating synergy with civil society organizations and with volunteers from among world Jewry –which are active in the fields of assistance abroad, both in emergencies and on a more regular basis.
The National Security Council staff must continue to play an integrative role of delineating a comprehensive policy, preparing the Prime Minister for his personal efforts in the international arena, and carefully monitoring all the relevant government ministries to ensure that promises and commitments made to the Prime Minister’s international interlocutors are indeed kept.
In the African arena, it is important to persevere in the current efforts (while acting to prevent a counter-erosion in the positions of South Africa). All the while, one must avoid creating an image that Israel’s chief interest is in removing African labor immigrants from its territory, and to ensure that facilitation payments made for this purpose actually reach their destination.
The importance of the regional dimension, especially the Saudi role, in creating the conditions which allow Israel to attain her achievements, requires continued investment. This means responding to shared interests and solving problems which encumber the relations with the “camp of stability” – such as the recent disruption in relations with Jordan.
Continuation of Israel’s restrained policy toward the Palestinians should be viewed as a political asset which must be preserved as much as possible.
For this very reason, continuation of Israel’s rational and calculated policy toward the Palestinians should be viewed as a political asset which must be preserved as much as possible. The chances of a breakthrough toward a diplomatic solution seem scant, even if the Trump administration pursues a peace initiative; which is all the more reason to sustain a coherent conflict management approach.
Such an approach, aimed at the reduction if not prevention of violence, will continue to be a supplementary component – beneficial in and of itself, and contributing to the wider diplomatic effort – in enhancing Israel’s global diplomatic standing.