Diplomacy: Old habits die hard

This month’s UNESCO vote on ignoring Judaism’s ties to Jerusalem provides a peek at the nuanced nature of Israel’s ties with a number of the world’s countries.

April 30, 2016 14:01
Priestly blessing prayer service at Western Wall

Priestly blessing prayer service at Western Wall. (photo credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)

It is a theme that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hammers upon constantly in both public comments and private meetings: the dichotomy that exists in Israel’s relations with the world.

Dozens of delegations from around the world beat a track to Jerusalem every month out of a desire to cooperate and join forces with Israel.

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“Every day high-level delegations land at Ben-Gurion Airport,” Netanyahu said last month in a speech to the annual AIPAC conference in Washington, articulating a message he repeats in speech after speech.

“They come from America. They come from Europe. Increasingly they come from Asia, from Africa, from Latin America. As many of them confront the rise of militant Islam and its accompanying terrorism, they come to Israel to strengthen their security. They wish to learn from Israel’s proven security and intelligence capabilities how to better protect their own people.”

And they also come for another reason, he said, repeating one of his favorite mantras. They come “because they want to upgrade their economies with Israel’s technology.” They want Israeli expertise and know-how to upgrade their water management, agricultural yields, medical systems and much, much more.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that some of the same countries eager to work with Israel for their benefit on one day, spit on Israel in international forums the next.

“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,” Netanyahu said at AIPAC.

What he didn’t mention is that in some instances those countries – those that embrace Israel and those that malign it – are one and the same.

A vote earlier this month on Jerusalem at the UNESCO Executive Board proved this point very well. By a vote of 33-6, with 17 abstentions, the organization entrusted with guarding and preserving the world’s cultural heritage voted to ignore any link between the Jewish people and its capital.

For instance, the language of the resolution ignores Jewish ties to the Temple Mount, expunging the term “Temple Mount,” preferring instead to refer to it only as al-Aksa Mosque/al-Haram al-Sharif.

In two instance where the resolution referred to the Western Wall Plaza, it put the words “Western Wall” in parenthesis, referring to the plaza by the Arabic “al-Buraq Plaza.”

It took more than a week, but eventually the Foreign Ministry sent letters of protest to all the countries that voted for the resolution. And what was surprising was the list of countries that received the letters. Some of these countries – India, China, Russia, France, Vietnam – are countries with which Israel has strong and even close ties.

A close look at who voted against Israel, who voted for, and who abstained gives an interesting peek at Israel’s nuanced relations with many countries of the world, and also at the difficult road ahead.

For the resolution The following 33 countries voted for the resolution: Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Chad, China, Dominican Republic, Egypt, France, Guinea, India, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritius, Morocco, Mexico, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Senegal, Slovenia, Sudan, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Togo and Vietnam.

When one looks at that list, a couple of key points immediately emerge.

First of all, of these 33 countries, Israel does not have diplomatic relations with 12 of them, or 36 percent. These countries are Algeria, Bangladesh, Chad, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Nicaragua, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar and Sudan. Subtract these countries form the vote, and the tally becomes a lot closer (21 for, 6 against, and 17 abstentions).

Second, four European Union countries voted for this resolution. Judging by the text, France – the leading European country that voted for the resolution – does not feel that Jews have a historic connection to Jerusalem.

Paris’s vote is interesting because France now has aspirations of leading an international Mideast peace effort, calling for a summit of some 30 countries in Paris to discuss the parameters of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal (without the participation at that meeting of Israel or the Palestinians). This, France hopes, will lead to an international Paris peace conference.

One might think that Paris, therefore, would want to earn Israel’s trust as somewhat of an honest broker. One would also think that, to do so, it would be a good idea to admit that Jews have a historical connection to the Temple Mount. But one would be disappointed.

The three other EU countries that voted for the resolution were Sweden, which is currently the most unfriendly country to Israel inside the EU; Spain, which traditionally takes a very critical line toward Israel; and Slovenia, the least supportive of the European Union’s states that emerged following the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Interestingly enough, and a sign of the degree to which the EU is split on Israel-related questions, four EU countries voted against Israel, another five voted against the resolution and for Israel – Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom – and two abstained, Greece and Italy.

Italy’s abstention shows the degree to which the country has shifted on Israel since the days of Silvio Berlusconi, when it surely would have voted against the resolution.

And Greece’s vote is somewhat of a disappointment for Jerusalem, which would have liked to see its new Mediterranean ally vote against such a negative text.

The other European country that voted for the resolution was Russia, proof that old habits die very hard. Never mind that, of late, Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin more than with US President Barack Obama. (He has met Putin three times since September, and has another meeting with him planned for June, but has met with Obama only once since September.) Never mind that Israel and Russia have created a mechanism designed to ensure that their militaries do not interfere with each other in Syria. This vote is a reminder that the relationship with Russia still has a long way to go.

Another major disappointment came in Asia. Netanyahu, when he speaks of the countries interested in ties with Israel, always mentions China and India as “small countries” very keen on benefiting from Israel’s technological prowess, and that the ties with those countries are strong and getting stronger.

Except when it comes to votes in international organizations.

While India did alter its anti-Israeli voting reflex a handful of times in 2015, the UNESCO vote is an indication that these patterns are deeply ingrained.

One diplomatic official, however, came to India’s defense, saying that on issues that come up again and again, such as Jerusalem, India will not change its historical voting pattern, but it will not vote for any newly minted anti-Israel resolutions. Plus, the official said, India does not sponsor these resolutions or speak out on their behalf.

And while China’s vote is a disappointment, it is rationalized in Jerusalem as having to do with that country’s complete dependence on imported oil and natural resources.

Such rationalizations are not made for Vietnam, however, which was one of the major disappointments in this vote.

Unlike India and even China, Vietnam does not have a large Islamic population it needs to placate, and it has huge economic interests with Israel.

Yet it continues to vote against Israel at the UN time and time again.

In Africa, the following countries voted for the resolution: Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Guinea, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, South Africa and Togo.

Of that list, Togo raised some eyebrows, as Israel has good ties with that country, and Nigeria’s vote is an indication of how that country is changing toward Israel. When Goodluck Jonathan was president, until May 2015 (since replaced by Muhammadu Buhari), it could be counted on to at least abstain on anti-Israel resolutions. No longer. The rest of the African list holds no real surprises.

The same cannot be said of the Latin American countries that voted against Israel. This list includes Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Nicaragua.

That Brazil, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic voted against Israel was expected, but not Mexico and Argentina. Israel has strong economic ties with Mexico, and its president is expected to visit in the coming months, so that vote was disappointing.

But not as much of a disappointment as Argentina’s vote.

Argentina’s new president, Mauricio Macri, told Netanyahu soon after his election in November that Argentinean- Israeli relations will now change for the better. This vote indicates that this sentiment will take some time to trickle down.

Against the resolution The following countries voted against the resolution: Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The US vote needs no explanation, and is yet more proof – if any were really needed – that despite differences with the Obama administration, and despite growing ties with countries such as Russia, India and China, the one capital in the world that Israel can count on is Washington.

Germany’s and the Netherlands’ votes cement their status as the most favorable nations toward Israel in Western Europe, and the UK’s vote shows that despite often harsh anti-Israel public opinion among Britain’s chattering class, the government of David Cameron is friendly.

Estonia’s and Lithuania’s votes show that inside the EU today, Israel’s strongest supporters are the countries that gained independence after the fall of the Soviet Union. Were countries such as Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia members of the UNESCO Executive Board, they, too, would most likely have voted against the resolution or at least abstained.

Countries that abstained The following countries abstained: Albania, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Greece, Haiti, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Nepal, Paraguay, Republic of Korea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Serbia, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Ukraine.

And another two were absent during the vote: Ghana and Turkmenistan.

What is interesting in the abstentions is that four African countries were among that list: Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Uganda – an indication of Israel’s growing ties with the continent. Netanyahu is scheduled to make the first-ever visit by a sitting prime minister to Africa in the summer, going to Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

The visit is an effort to vastly improve relations with Africa, and the list of abstentions shows that this is possible.

That there were three Caribbean countries on this list – Trinidad and Tobago, Haiti, and Saint Kitts and Nevis – indicates that Israel should not ignore that region, and should lead to questions in the Foreign Ministry whether Israel should indeed, as is currently planned, do away with the roving ambassador to the Caribbean who is stationed in New York. Haiti’s vote – it consistently abstains – is undoubtedly due to Israel’s relief efforts there following the 2010 earthquake, and a similar explanation – Israel’s relief efforts there following the 2015 earthquake – can be given for Nepal’s abstention.

Paraguay is arguably Israel’s closest friend right now in South America, and Israel would like to eventually move that vote from an abstention to voting in favor of Israel on Mideast-related votes.

Albania is the only Muslim country that was present during the vote for the resolution and voted against, and Ukraine’s abstention is an indication that Kiev holds no grudge against Jerusalem because of Israel’s fiercely neutral stand on the Crimean crisis.

Japan and Korea should be voting for Israel, one diplomatic official said, considering the close economic ties with those countries, but they often follow Europe’s lead on the Mideast, and when they see Europe divided, they split the difference and opt to abstain.

Back in November, at the Paris Climate Conference, Netanyahu told Israeli journalists during a briefing that the Foreign Ministry would take a more aggressive role in getting countries to change their voting patterns, asking countries with which it has friendly ties and which want Israeli cooperation to reflect this friendliness by changing their anti-Israel voting patterns at the UN.

The time has come for the friendship and cooperation of these countries to come out in votes in international institutions, Netanyahu said. “You will hear this [demand] more and more – this is our natural expectation.”

The problem is that this expectation has not materialized.

At a meeting with diplomatic reporters this month, held after the UNESCO vote, Netanyahu said that he has not forsaken this demand.

“It will take time until foreign ministers around the world change their voting pattern,” he said. “I have directed the Foreign Ministry to begin demanding this change.”

Demanding the change is one thing, but getting countries to actually break the anti-Israel voting habit – as the UNESCO vote showed – is something else entirely.

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