Around bowls brimming with cut apples, sticky glass containers full of honey, and dishes piled high with pomegranates, Israelis around the country will – over their upcoming Rosh Hashana meals – discuss and argue the state of the nation on the eve of the new year.
More likely than not, one of the common themes will be how bad everything looks: how the economy is tanking, the security situation is deteriorating and the diplomatic situation is worsening. Many of the complaints to be aired among family and friends over the next two days will assuredly deal with Israel’s position in the world, and the perception that many people have that the Jewish state’s global standing has never been worse.
Those people should go meet Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold.
Gold, a veteran diplomat who in June moved from heading the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs over to his new position at the Foreign Ministry, does not have the demeanor of an alarmist.
If anything, his bearing and manner of speaking are those of an anti-alarmist. He weighs each word, tries to put things in context.
And all this comes out clearly when he is asked a simple opening question: “How are we doing?”
“A mistaken impression exists that Israel is facing a new level of diplomatic isolation, but when you sit in the office of the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, you quickly understand that is simply not true,” he tells The Jerusalem Post from a comfortable armchair in his office.
First, he says, Israel’s relations in Asia are opening up; and second, Israel is not as isolated in the region as many people believe.
“The Arab world is interested in talking to Israel,” Gold says, then states the obvious that this dialogue is not out in the open. “But it exists, and I point to the fact that Israel has many common interests with the Arab countries and is far from being as isolated, as some people try to assert.”
The problem, of course, is that all contact with the moderate Sunni states – contact to which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often alludes, but on which he never elaborates – seems to be happening out there somewhere in a closet.
This raises the question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? Or, in the world of diplomacy, if talks with the Saudis are taking place but nobody knows about them and it is not trickling down to the people to change their attitudes, does it matter? Gold, stressing diplomatically that he is not saying whom Israel’s contacts are with, says that “not everything has to be reported in the newspaper or appear on television. But when there are official contacts that exist that perhaps 20 years ago were hard to imagine, that is an important change.
“My point is very simple,” he continues, “Israel is a country with a foreign policy machine that is very active, and Israel has many new friends in the world.”
Those sitting around their Rosh Hashana tables might scoff at that last statement, pointing to the latest Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions moves
, or anti-Israel statements by some European politician. Yet Gold insists it’s true – although to see it, he says, you need to look beyond Europe on the map.
“We have been very European-centered in the past, and Europe is still probably our most important trading partner, but there are other relationships emerging at the same time, and one has to be cognizant of them before reaching the conclusion that Israel is in a more precarious position today diplomatically than it was before,” he says, referring to growing ties with India, China, Japan and Vietnam.
Yes, but how about Europe? Europe, he replies, is currently going through a transitional period. He quotes an interlocutor from a key European country as telling him recently that with the continent facing a massive influx of refugees, “the European perspective is beginning to sound a little bit more like Israel’s perspective on security issues, compared to what it was in the past.”
Some 20 to 30 years ago, he explains, Europe was talking about a new, borderless world and European community.
“That perspective is dramatically changing today, and the Europeans are becoming more worried about these waves of people who are coming from Syria and Iraq into their territory, and are beginning to think much more seriously about their need to have defensible borders for Europe.”
“Defensible borders” is a concept Gold – as both academic and diplomat – has been pushing for Israel for years, arguing that the 1967 lines are not defensible borders.
“Israel always faced the problem in the past that its national security perspective was completely out of sync with how Europeans were viewing the emergence of the European community and the borderless world that was emerging,” he says.
In this John Lennon mind-set of imagining a world without borders, Israel’s security requirements and insistence that it needs secure borders have meant that Jerusalem was often, as Gold puts it, speaking a “completely different language than the Europeans.”
“If you say that everyone is becoming one nationless group of people, in the European models that existed 25 or 30 years ago, it is kind of difficult to hear an Israeli argument. But now things may be beginning to change a little,” he says.
Gold recognizes that while there may now be a greater convergence between how Israel and the EU see some aspects of the world, that will not translate immediately.
Still, he says, “I’m just trying to point out that it is not as if all the trend lines are negative, as some people think.”
The trend lines, he says, are also positive with regional Sunni Arab states, though he stresses this is “a work in progress.’ “A lot of people,” Gold says, “are thinking about how Israel can progress with its neighbors, given the fact that we face such common challenges – the first and foremost one being Iran.”
Here, he adds, it is possible to learn from the European model, but not in the way most people think.
In the 1990s, he points out, the old paradigm of Middle East peace postulated that economic relations between Israel and its neighbors would lead to new political relationships; that prosperity would contribute to peace.
And that formula, he says, was to a certain degree based on the model of the European Coal and Steel Community founded in 1952 as a common market of old European adversaries Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Decades later, this evolved into the European Union.
The underpinning of the European model, Gold explains, was the “doctrine of functionalism,” meaning that once countries begin cooperating in a certain functional area, it will spill over into other areas. For that reason, he says, there was such an emphasis in the Oslo accords on regional economic cooperation.
But if you want to look at postwar European history, Gold argues, what brought about the emergence of a new Europe and great cooperation was not the economic factors, but rather the security factors that were threatening once-enemy countries.
“Once France and Germany faced the common threat of Soviet armored divisions deployed in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, that brought about the eventual formation of NATO and the cooperation of European countries, with the US at the helm of that organization.”
The analogy is obvious: If the Soviet threat could unite former adversaries in Europe, the Iranian threat might be able to do the same in the Middle East.
“I think the analogy here is that when you have Iran on the one hand posing a threat to multiple countries in the Middle East, and on the other hand you have ISIS [Islamic State] and its related organizations posing a second threat, then that forces countries to look at the situation in very similar ways, and maybe eventually cooperate in the future,” Gold says. “And I think that is the analogy one should look at, rather than the economic factors being the key to regional peace.”
Asked if this type of cooperation is already taking place, he acknowledges that it isn’t, but that as a “student of history” he is trying to comment on what are the “relevant lessons for Israel today from the European experience, much more in the security realm than in the economic one.”
Talking of trend lines, he says that with the signing of the Iranian nuclear deal, there are experts around the world now saying that Iran has a positive role to play in the region.
For that reason, he says, it was important for Israel and Netanyahu to rail against the Iranian nuclear deal, even if not enough votes could be mustered in Congress to block it.
“I think it is important for Israel to point out that Iran is the major force undermining security in the Middle East and exporting terrorists on five continents,” he says.
But is that something over which Netanyahu should have waged a losing frontal battle with Obama, and might that now impact negatively on Israeli-American relations in the future? “Interstate relations are not interpersonal relations, and the US and Israel have a deep and strong alliance,” Gold says. “The challenge for the United States and Israel is how to engage in a very difficult and public debate, and at the same time to come back at the end of the day and work together as partners in the Middle East. I think that is possible, and is probably what is going to happen.”
Intriguing cup-half-full observations from Gold on the eve of a new year.