Addressing an audience of new immigrants, Yuval Rotem, Director General of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, shared insights into Jerusalem's global relations and strategic outlook. The forum was part of the monthly Ambassador Series, organized by the Tel Aviv International Salon, an initiative geared towards conveying Israel's diplomatic positions to the country's youth.
Rotem opened the discussion by rejecting the notion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the central problem in the region. "The Middle East conflict is always described as singular, as if there is only one conflict in the Middle East. But there are many conflicts that have nothing to with Israel," he asserted.
Indeed, the region plunged into chaos in the wake of the Arab Spring, which upended decades of relative geopolitical stability. Fueling the current unrest are tensions between Sunni Muslim countries and Shi'ite Iran, which continue to play out in proxy wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. This confluence of events has, as Rotem noted, led to growing ties between various Islamic nations, notably Saudi Arabia, and the Jewish state, which share concern over Tehran's expansionism.
"Israel ascribes a great deal of importance to the Arab world,” he stressed, highlighting, for example, the recent forty-year anniversary of the landmark peace agreement with Egypt. "The very fact that Israel has a four-decades-long peace accord, despite the upheaval of the Muslim Brotherhood [during the Egyptian revolution] seven years ago, is by far the finest accomplishment of [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu.”
But according to Oded Eran, former deputy director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and currently a Senior Research Fellow at Israel's Institute of National Security Studies, the extent of the rapprochement between Jerusalem and Mideast nations has been "much inflated and will greatly depend on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until that happens," he explained to The Media Line, "the development of relations [with Muslim countries] will [remain] largely 'under the table.'"
Dr. Martin Sherman, Director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies, expressed similar skepticism over burgeoning ties with Gulf countries in particular. "Their relations with Israel are driven by fear of Shiites," he contended to The Media Line, "and I am wary of the depth of relations if worries over Iran are somehow reduced."
Another of Israel's priorities is making diplomatic inroads in Africa, where Jerusalem's expertise in fields ranging from counter-terrorism to irrigation is coveted. In what is reminiscent of Israel's "periphery doctrine"—a strategy implemented after its founding that calls for forging alliances with nations unbeholden to those that are antagonistic to the Jewish state—Netanyahu has placed renewed emphasis on the continent, traveling there three times over the past two years.
"Africa, you have a partner in the Middle East, and it’s us," Rotem proclaimed at the Tel Aviv event, adding that the developing region "is the next big thing." But there remains a lot of work to be done, as evidenced, for example, by the cancellation last October of The Israel-Africa summit. While Israeli officialdom attributed the postponement to unrest in host country Togo, various reports claimed that some African nations came under pressure to boycott the event. On the micro level, Israel's relations with South Africa remain strained, whereas Senegal one year ago voted in favor of a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli "settlements."
Nevertheless, Rotem pointed to Netanyahu's ongoing six-day trip to India as proof of Jerusalem's diminishing isolation. The Israeli premier's visit, along with a delegation of more than 130 officials and businesspeople, is aimed at reinforcing ties with the world's most populous democracy. It comes after Prime Minister Narenda Modi became the first sitting Indian leader to visit Israel last July. "India is a rising economic power with many predicting that it will overtake China," Eran told The Media Line, "but unlike [with] Beijing, there is no existing American veto [of Israeli security coordination with India]." Indeed, New Delhi is believed to be Israel's largest export market for defense products, estimated at over $1 billion annually.
Under Modi, India has also changed its voting pattern at the UN, although it did recently back a General Assembly resolution slamming US President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. While Netanyahu expressed disappointment over the move, his government is sensitive to the fact that Modi must tread a fine line so as not to anger India's estimated two hundred million Muslims.
While Israel has achieved many successes, not all is rosy for the Jewish state, with Rotem acknowledging the inability, to date, "to erase the BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] movement." Still, he argued, "Israel has orchestrated a successful offensive attack on BDS [groups that are now] operating more on the defensive. If we put in the effort, it is going to be contained."
Eran agrees that "there is a need to fight the BDS phenomenon, [but] it must be put into perspective. BDS is not a strategic threat, rather more of a nuisance," he expounded, adding, "it is a pity that instead of allocating a large amount of funds to the Foreign Ministry for global missions, we have to invest in a pricey campaign against BDS." In this regard, the Foreign Ministry last week revealed that, due to budget cuts, seven Israeli diplomatic missions will be shuttered over the next three years, albeit the number is far fewer than the originally planned 22 closures.
Commenting on the development, Eran lamented that "[the budget cuts] have eroded the role that the Foreign Ministry can play in strengthening the strategic situation of Israel abroad." Dr. Sherman also expressed regret over Israel's longstanding "neglect of public diplomacy. If it would invest one percent of its budget into strategic diplomacy, or $1 billion yearly, Israel could improve its global position astronomically," he concluded.
Despite the many obstacles Israel faces—diplomatic, financial or otherwise—the picture painted by the government and its representatives is one of increasing global influence, spurred by the development of new partnerships and the strengthening of old ones.(Daniella P. Cohen is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)
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