Despite a spike in Palestinian terror attacks and an eruption of violence in Jerusalem, Israel has garnered—in recent months—an unprecedented range of diplomatic achievements that have redefined its international standing.
The list includes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s mediation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky; the tripartite summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, attended by the leaders of Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates; and the “Negev Summit,” which brought together U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the foreign ministers of Israel, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.
The most pressing matter was the mutual alignment against Iran in the face of an impending nuclear deal in Vienna. There are also various economic projects, including the Israel-UAE free trade agreement. Moreover, the latest diplomatic moves—including the newly opened communication channels with Turkey—demonstrate that Israel has thwarted the Palestinian plan to force it into diplomatic isolation.
To sustain this momentum, Israel should continue to counter Iranian ambitions in the region and its efforts to attain nuclear weapons. It should also build and maintain military cooperation with key Gulf states and Mediterranean partners. The policy regarding the Palestinians should be one of conflict management. And diplomatically, Israel should upgrade the Foreign Ministry to take advantage of the new opportunities in the region.
The diplomatic revolution rolls on
A diplomatic revolution—a renversement des alliances—may well be a fitting description for what has been a remarkable transformation of Israel’s standing in the region. What could be discerned already a few years ago has now become a dramatic new pattern:
- Bennett positioned himself alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a helpful mediator in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, thus generating a grudging willingness in Kyiv to recognize the utility of Israel’s unique access to Moscow.
- Meanwhile, after years of overt hostility toward Israel, Turkey has changed and launched a charm offensive. Interestingly, Israel and Greece are closely coordinating (Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis came to Ankara one day after Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s visit) and stand together in seeking ways to resolve the problems of gas export from the Eastern Mediterranean in a manner that would be beneficial for all.
- Egypt, which in past decades has often been quite unhappy with any sign of normalization between Israel and other Arab nations, reversed course. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made a point of giving special attention to Israeli Energy Minister Karin Elharar (who uses a wheelchair) at an energy conference in Cairo in February. In March, he hosted a tripartite summit in Sharm El-Sheikh with Bennett and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahtan. Sisi also allowed Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to attend the Negev summit.
- The unprecedented Negev summit included the foreign ministers from Israel, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain and Morocco. It led to establishing a forum that would meet twice annually in desert locations. It is an elegant way of avoiding the issue of Jerusalem, while also reminding the world of Israel’s unique contributions to desert agriculture and the fight against desertification.
- One of the items on the agenda of the emerging regional alignment is the prospect of turning it into a strategic partnership, at least as far as air defense goes. Given the challenge posed by rockets and drones launched by Iran or its proxies, a Middle East Air Defense Treaty Organization (MEADTO) may no longer be a fantasy. The presence of the UAE air force commander during the Blue Flag international exercise in Israel in November 2021 is but one indication of the potential for cooperation, as was the report that Jordanian aircraft took part in the exercise. With Israel now firmly established in the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility and participating in various activities alongside Arab military forces under U.S. leadership, traditional assumptions about friend and foe in the region are being laid to rest.
- Jordan did choose to avoid the Sde Boker meeting, likely seeking to sustain the kingdom’s credibility in the eyes of the increasingly frustrated Palestinian leadership and its own sizeable Palestinian population. Instead, King Abdullah visited Ramallah and hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and other key Israeli decision-makers in a joint effort to reduce the rising tensions on the eve of a period in which Ramadan, Passover and Easter coincide. However, much of this goodwill dissipated dramatically in response to events in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Bisher Al-Khasawneh praised Palestinians who physically attacked Israelis on the Temple Mount.
- Meanwhile, Israel was set to celebrate the 30th anniversary of establishing formal diplomatic relations with India. However, a visit by Gantz was postponed because of the terror wave while Bennett got Covid-19 for the second time. One sign of the growing relations is the willingness by India to raise the idea of a new “Quad” made up of the U.S., India, the UAE and Israel. The original Asian Quad comprises the U.S., Japan, Australia and India.
In addition, Israeli-British relations are at a high point. Add German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz, who visited Israel in February as the Russian invasion began. He addressed his country’s need to re-arm and spoke explicitly of acquiring Israeli drones. Italy and France are currently the Western anchors of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which has acquired strategic significance in recent years. All in all, Israel’s standing in world affairs is unprecedented in its reach and influence.
Roots: The underlying reasons for Israel’s rise to prominence
At the core of the emerging transformation lies a confluence of several factors. There were significant diplomatic achievements that gained speed during the previous government under Benjamin Netanyahu. The momentum has continued during the present government.
To begin with, a new understanding of Israel’s stance stems from the growing sense that the world is a more dangerous place than many had hoped it would be in the post-Cold War era. This was first triggered by Islamist terrorism and later by Russian invasions into neighboring countries. Israel’s security-oriented policies, once derided as irrelevant in our times, are becoming better understood against this background.
Israel has much to offer in the face of such challenges and many other fields of human endeavor, from irrigation and water management to medical technology. It has even emerged as an energy exporter. The signing of the Israel-UAE Free Trade Agreement is but one sign of the times.
From Asia to Africa to Latin America, Israel has come to be recognized as a powerhouse of innovation. The strength of the Israeli shekel reflects massive flows of foreign investment, a significant trade surplus and sovereign funds held by the Bank of Israel on a scale that the country’s founders did not dare to dream of. The rate of recovery from the COVID-19 crisis is equally striking, and it is driven by sectors that correspond with future trends in the global economy. All this is bound to be reflected in Israel’s diplomatic standing.
Another decisive factor is Israel’s role in forging key regional alliances, particularly with countries that oppose Iran’s revolutionary ideology. Israel’s most valuable asset is its demonstrated willingness to act.
Its relentless Campaign Between the Wars—an ongoing covert campaign against Iranian aggression—has been conducted mainly by the Israeli Air Force and backed by highly penetrating intelligence on Iranian activities in the region. Further, Israel is woven more closely into CENTCOM’s operational scheme, and Israel’s highest-ranking military figures openly visit Arab nations.
True, in an effort to upend Israel’s conflict management with the Palestinians, Iran and its proxies identified Israel’s vulnerability in Jerusalem and helped stoke the flames. Still, violence and terror attacks can be decreased at the strategic level.
In addition to unilaterally applied measures, Israel has found ways to engage the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah even amid the growing acrimony over Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Hamas in Gaza is being addressed and warned off through the Egyptian intelligence channel and with occasional help from the Qataris, so as to persuade its leadership to avert a greater conflagration.
Significantly, Israel’s relations with Arab states (other than Jordan) have not suffered in any meaningful way because of the ongoing Palestinian violence. The cautious and highly selective Israeli response to the latest wave of violence may reflect the constraints of a coalition government that includes Islamist and left-wing elements, but it is also a function of Israel’s closer association with regional partners.
The impact of Israel’s new standing
Israeli diplomacy in recent years was able to thwart the Palestinian strategy that sought to isolate Israel and deem it an apartheid state. While such notions have supporters in certain academic circles, they have largely failed to take hold at a broader policy level beyond ritual UN resolutions.
Despite such votes against Israel at the U.N. General Assembly, the Jewish state is less isolated in 2022 than ever in its history. This, in turn, may be feeding Palestinian frustrations.
Meanwhile, Israel and its allies are confronting a conciliatory U.S. policy toward Iran. There are indications that such regional opposition makes it somewhat more difficult for the Biden administration to pursue its preferred course. Specifically, regarding the question of delisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terror organization as a way to revive the 2015 deal with Iran, Israel is making its voice heard.
Turkey’s aggressive courtship of Israel reflects a new reality. A decade ago, the Mavi Marmara incident in which ten Turkish citizens died in clashes on board a ship when Israel barred the flotilla from breaking the naval blockade on Gaza marred relations. It seems as if Israel’s goodwill has become the key to restoring Erdogan’s standing in Washington and Brussels, where doubts began to arise about his loyalty to NATO.
Further, Israel’s exports are booming and are expected to reach a record $140 billion in 2021.
What needs to be done?
Some aspects of Israeli diplomacy cannot be controlled by government action. Still, to consolidate and expand on the achievements mentioned here, several efforts need to be enhanced:
- For many of Israel’s interlocutors, the special relationship with the United States is still part of what makes it a significant partner. Thus, despite severe disagreements with the Biden administration over the Iran deal, it remains imperative to nurture bipartisan support.
- The military dimension of the relationship is now managed from Israel’s place in CENTCOM, providing growing opportunities for regional cooperation and integration. Effective and ambitious military diplomacy is thus another vital pillar of Israel’s new standing.
- In this context, ongoing covert and sometimes overt war against Iran and its proxies continue to draw Arab states towards Israel. This effect grows by maintaining a channel of communication with Russia.
- In the Mediterranean, given the centrality of Egypt and the Hellenic countries to Israel’s security, it is crucial to conduct dialogue with Ankara.
- Careful management of the conflict with the Palestinians in Ramallah and Gaza also helps Israel’s ability to broaden its reach in the region.
- Israel should improve its diplomatic corps and work to expand its traditional role to deal more with businesses and Jewish communities worldwide, particularly in North America.
In particular, a well-organized system of inter-agency committees, organized but not always chaired by the National Security Staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, must be built to further expand Israel’s diplomatic revolution.
Col. (ret.) Dr. Eran Lerman, former deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council, is the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.