The diplomatic developments that 5779 didn't offer ... and those it did

Here’s a look at some of the key diplomatic events – and nonevents – that shaped 5779.

By
September 27, 2019 17:25
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador David Friedman attend a ceremony to unveil a sig

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and US Ambassador David Friedman attend a ceremony to unveil a sign for a new Golan Heights community named after US President Donald Trump, in June.. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)

Israel knows from dramatic diplomatic years.

The Hebrew year 5738 (1978) was such a year, with the White House signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel.

Another such year was 5752 (1991), with the onset of the Madrid Conference. So was 5753 (1993) with the Oslo I Accord, 5755 (1994) with the signing of the peace treaty with Jordan, and 5778 (2018) with the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem.

But not 5779, which will end Sunday night with Rosh Hashanah. This year will by no means enter the annals of the country’s history as one of those dramatic diplomatic years. It is not as if nothing happened diplomatically; there were some significant events – and especially nonevents – but it was by no means a diplomatic red-letter year.

Here’s a look at some of the key diplomatic events – and nonevents – that shaped 5779.

Twin elections

On the surface, the country’s twin elections this year were political events, not diplomatic ones. But they were political events that impacted heavily on the country’s diplomatic processes.

For example, because of the elections, the Trump administration’s long-awaited and oft-delayed peace plan – derisively labeled by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the “Deal of the Century” – was not unveiled this year.

Had it been unveiled, it would have started some kind of process in motion, either as a result of both sides being willing to enter negotiations over it, or a diplomatic reassessment if the Palestinians – as they promised to do – rejected it out of hand.

In August of 2018, senior US officials Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt beefed up their staffs in what was described as a move aimed at finalizing the “details and rollout strategy of the peace initiative.” After nearly two years, its presentation seemed imminent.

And then Israeli political uncertainty intervened, with murmurings of elections in October turning into the dissolution of the Knesset in December.

The administration, consequently, decided to wait until after the elections in April to roll out the plan.

Then the elections were held, and the administration decided to wait again – this time until after a government was formed, the idea being that it wanted an Israeli government in place able to respond to its ideas. After all, how long could the forming of a new government take?

Well, as it turns out, very long. After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to form a coalition, and the dissolution of the Knesset for the second time in a year, the administration decided to wait through another Israeli election campaign.

Now that the election is over, the administration appears to be waiting again until a government is formed, again using the same rationale of wanting a working government in place able to deal with the plan.

And in the meantime, no plan. With everybody waiting to see the details of a plan, however, the lack of one means that nothing diplomatically is happening, which – for the most part – describes the situation in 5779.

For the most part, but not entirely. Because as a result of the elections, one significant diplomatic action was taken, and one significant diplomatic announcement was made.

The significant action was the US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. The timing of that step, just three weeks before the April voting, seems to have been driven by the elections, with US President Donald Trump apparently wanting to give Netanyahu a preelection present.

Regardless of the reason, the move is important, because whenever the various countries with an interest in Syria sit down around a table to decide on the post-civil-war future of that country, the fact that Washington has acknowledged that the Golan Heights must not return to Syria will have weight.

And the significant announcement – also election driven – was Netanyahu’s announcement just before the second round of voting that if he wins, Israel will annex the Jordan Valley.

Well, Netanyahu didn’t win the election (though he apparently did not lose either), so any expectation that this move would be immediately in the offing has been shelved. However, that announcement put the issue squarely on the Israeli agenda, and moved an idea that a few years ago was seen as completely unrealistic into the mainstream of the Israeli political discourse.

“Peace to Prosperity” in Bahrain and beyond


The most significant diplomatic parley regarding Israel this year was one where Israel was not even present: the US-sponsored Peace to Prosperity meeting in Bahrain, where the Trump administration presented the economic chapter of its peace plan: an ambitious $50 billion economic plan for the region.

Because the Palestinians decided to boycott this meeting, Israeli officials were not invited – but Israeli businesspeople were, and in a glittering hotel in Manama, Israeli businesspeople met openly with officials and businesspeople from the Persian Gulf countries. Adding to the “historic” nature of the conference was the Bahraini willingness to – for the first time – allow Israeli journalists officially into the country to cover the proceedings and even interview the Bahraini foreign minister.

This conference was the most visible sign of the thawing of the iceberg that for so long has stood between Israel and the Persian Gulf countries. No, this was not Anwar Sadat landing in Jerusalem in 1977, but it was a baby step on the road to the normalization of ties between Israel and many of its regional neighbors.

And it wasn’t the only baby step on this path last year. In October the UAE allowed an Israeli judo team to compete in Abu Dhabi, a couple members of that team won their events, and the Israeli national anthem was – for the first time ever – played publicly in a Persian Gulf country, in the presence of a tearful Miri Regev, the culture and sport minister, who went there for the occasion.

That same month, Netanyahu went to Muscat to pay a public visit to the sultan of Oman. Israel Katz – then the transportation minister – went to the same country a few weeks later. Then, as foreign minister, Katz held a meeting in Abu Dhabi with a senior UAE official in July, before meeting the Bahraini foreign minister in Washington that same month, and another foreign minister of an unnamed Arab state at the UN last week.

Taken separately, each of these steps is not overly dramatic; but linked together, a positive pattern of significant improvement in relations between Israel and the Persian Gulf countries emerges, relations that down the line could have a huge impact on the country’s diplomatic standing.

That trouble with the Democrats

Various polls, for months and even years, have been signaling a growing partisan split on Israel in the US between the Republicans and Democrats. While Republican support is at record highs, Democratic support is falling, especially among younger voters, and most glaringly and precipitously among progressives.

The close Trump-Netanyahu friendship is not helping the matter, since Trump is one of the most divisive US presidents in history, and to many Americans right now, the friend of my enemy is – if not exactly my enemy – not necessarily my friend.

Falling Democratic support for Israel obviously has major ramifications diplomatically for Israel, because what will happen when – as is sure to be the case at some point in time, if not in 2020, then in 2024 or 2028 – the Democrats regain the White House?

This problem came into most stark relief in August, when far-left anti-Israel (some say antisemitic) congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were barred entry into Israel on what they described as a mission to “Palestine.”

Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer first said that Israel would allow in the congresswomen, but after Trump – who for his own political reasons wants to make those two representatives the poster girls of the Democratic Party – made clear that he thought this was a bad move, Israel changed its mind and did not allow them in.

Omar and Tlaib milked the refusal to the hilt, blasting Israel as undemocratic and racist, and the party – which just a couple weeks earlier sent a huge delegation to Israel as part of an AIPAC-affiliated trip – was forced to rally around them, something that further highlighted the troubling partisan divide when it comes to the Jewish state.

Baby steps at the UN

On December 7, the UN General Assembly failed to adopt a resolution condemning Hamas. But a funny thing happened on the way to the UN’s failure to condemn an organization that calls for the destruction of Israel: a plurality of nations voted for the measure.

Because of a procedural issue, the US-sponsored measure did not get the needed two-thirds majority. However, 87 countries voted for the resolution, and 57 opposed.

And remember, this happened at the United Nations, the Palestinians’ “home court,” where – as the old saying goes – they could get a two-thirds majority for a resolution declaring the world is flat.

That a majority of countries voted for a measure that the Palestinian representative at the UN was adamantly against – and worked hard to foil – is something that was deemed unthinkable just a few years ago.

For that reason, the Foreign Ministry characterized the vote “historic.”

The vote is diplomatically significant because it shows that the improvement in Israel’s diplomatic stature around the world – in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and even among some countries in Europe – is reaching even the implacably hostile United Nations.

Like some of the steps the Persian Gulf countries made this year toward Israel, this is a tiny, baby step. But it is a step, and a step in the right direction.

Where are the embassies?

Following Trump’s decision in December 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the embassy there, some expected that it would lead, if not to a downpour, at least to a drizzle of countries that would follow Washington’s move.

One of the significant diplomatic developments of the outgoing year is that even that drizzle did not materialize.

More than a year after Washington’s historic and dramatic step, there are only two national flags flying over embassies in the capital: America’s red white and blue, and the blue and white flag of Guatemala.

“I am happy to say there are at least half a dozen countries seriously talking with us about relocating their embassies to Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said in April of 2018, without naming the countries. Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely went even further and talked about 10 countries.

But, at least in 5779, that didn’t happen.

What did happen? Honduras recognized Jerusalem as the capital and opened a trade office as a first step toward an embassy. Other countries also opened various offices since the US move: Australia recognized west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and opened a trade and defense office; Hungary an economic one. The Czech Republic announced that it will open a Czech House in the city that will house trade and tourism delegations, and Brazil announced it, too, will open a trade office, as did Paraguay and Ukraine.

Some speculate that the expected “drizzle” will take place in 2021, if Trump wins reelection. Various countries, realizing that he is not a passing phenomenon, may then want to get closer to him by moving their embassies.

If that does happen – and the offices set up this year blossom into full-blown embassies – it will prove another well-worn dictum: “The road to Washington runs through Jerusalem.”


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