Year in review: 2017’s most important diplomatic stories

US President Trump made clear that the rules of the diplomatic game between Israel and the Palestinians had changed.

January 1, 2018 07:54
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion International Airport

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion International Airport. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

The biggest diplomatic development for Israel that took place during 2017 happened toward the end of the year in a Christmas-tree decorated room in the White House on December 6.

There, US President Donald Trump did something that few really believed he would do – and which three of his predecessor promised, but failed, to act on: He recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and put into motion the process of moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said. “Israel is a sovereign nation with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this as a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.”

And with those few words, Trump made clear that the rules of the diplomatic game between Israel and the Palestinians had changed; and that what was in the diplomatic process in the past is not necessarily what will be in the future.

“We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past. Old challenges demand new approaches,” Trump said. “My announcement today marks the beginning of a new approach to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.”

Predictably, the Palestinians and the Arab and Islamic world reacted with rage, anger and fury, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan convening an emergency summit in Istanbul to spit fire and brimstone, and the Palestinians mobilizing their automatic majority to slam the move at the United Nations.

But, the “Gates of Hell” were not opened by the move, as some had threatened, and by the end of the year the world’s focus on this part of the globe moved from where a sovereign nation decided to put its embassy, to rare protests in Iran – something that holds the seeds of being the most important diplomatic story of 2018.

The Trump era begins

The year 2016 ended on a particularly sour diplomatic note for Israel, when the US – under then-president Barack Obama – allowed the UN Security Council to pass anti-settlement Resolution 2334. This was then compounded by an exceptionally long, frustration-filled speech by then-secretary of state John Kerry, essentially placing the onus for the lack of peace between Israel and the Palestinians on the settlements.
US President Donald Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel's capital and announces embassy to relocate

The eight-year Obama-Netanyahu drama ended with that discordant, yet oddly appropriate, final act.

And then Obama and Kerry exited stage left, and Trump came on the stage. From the very beginning – from the first meeting between Netanyahu and Trump in the White House in February – the tone between Jerusalem and Washington shifted dramatically.

Gone were the days when Washington would publicly scold Israel for every new housing project in Jerusalem over the Green Line; gone were the bitter arguments over Iran; gone were the days of trying to keep Israel at a distance. For instance, while it took Obama more than four years to make his first trip as president to Israel, it took Trump just over four months.

Israel benefited diplomatically by this change of tone. All of a sudden the Europeans, all too ready to jump on the blast-Israel-bandwagon if the US was leading the chorus, were more circumspect in their criticism. The regular condemnations of Israel coming from Brussels and key European capitals dried up.

Moreover, with Israel once again having gone from being perceived as an annoying and petulant child to a favorite son in Washington, Israel’s diplomatic utility to countries who wanted to get on the right side of the Trump administration increased.

Disagreements between the US and Israel obviously continued in 2017; the two states are different countries with different interests. But what changed this year was that those differences were no longer aired in public for all to see, but rather dealt with in back rooms. That is a significant diplomatic change.

Managing crisis
This year was marked by two events that, had they not been managed adroitly, could have spiraled – as some feared and others hoped – into a “Third Intifada.”

The first was the decision to set up metal detectors at the entrance to the Temple Mount in the summer following the terrorist murder of two Israeli police officers at the site.

Days of tension and protests followed, as Jerusalem first said it would set up metal detectors at the site, and then backed down from the decision.

Much has been said over the last 12 months of the unprecedented levels of cooperation Israel is currently enjoying with Egypt and Jordan, countries with whom it has peace agreements, and with the Sunni Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, with whom it shares a concern about Iran and radical Islamic terror.

While this cooperation takes place very much underneath the radar screen, it was evident in the summer by the manner in which those countries did not stir up passions over the metal detectors, but rather worked to calm the tensions down.

The same dynamic was at work following Trump’s decision on Jerusalem last month. While these Sunni states all came out with statements condemning the US actions, they did little – as Erdogan, Iran and Hamas attempted to do – to stir the pot and bring the masses into the streets.

For instance, at the conference Erdogan organized in Istanbul, Jordan’s King Abdullah II spoke, but was much more moderate in his words than either Erdogan or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

And at the UN General Assembly vote to slam the US two weeks ago, none of these countries asked to speak about the issue. They voted against Israel and the US, but pointedly did not want to make a spectacle of it.

With Iran making considerable inroads in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the last thing that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain need is instability and violence here, which could deflect attention from what is foremost in their minds: checking Iranian regional advances.

With Iran making considerable inroads in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the last thing that Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain need is instability and violence here, which could deflect attention from what is foremost in their minds: checking Iranian regional advances.

The nearly seven-year civil war in Syria, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions of people, looked as if it was winding down in 2017.

Ending the unspeakable suffering in Syria is obviously good news. The problematic aspect now for Israel is that it looks as if Iran will be gaining a significant foothold in the post-civil war Syria.

Even though Netanyahu has warned that Israel would not tolerate Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria after the war, this definitely looks to be the direction where things are headed, as tens of thousands of Iranian backed-Shi’ite militias are now in the country, alongside members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps.

Israel has obviously not been involved in the negotiations about the post-war arrangements in Syria, and its efforts to get Moscow – sitting around the table with Iran and the Turks – to represent the Jewish state’s interest have been spotty at best. The Russians have shown no inclination to heed Israel’s wishes and box Iran out of the post-war Syria arrangements, and this despite frequent phone calls and face-to-face meetings between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

What is emerging in Syria will have a profound impact for years on Israel, but Jerusalem’s ability to impact the final arrangements there has proven limited. To make matters worse from Israel’s point of view, the US – which could be relied on to take Israel’s security interests into account – does not have a seat around the table deciding on Syria’s future, because it largely ceded the playing field there to Russia, Iran and Turkey.

Along with the concern and frustration, however, is also the realization that Israel has retained the ability to take military action against what it sees are imminent threats emanating from Syria, something that – according to foreign reports – happened repeatedly in 2017. Most interesting is that Russia could take action to make this much more difficult, but – up until now – has opted not to do so.

Outreach to Latin America
If 2016 was marked by significant Israeli inroads made into Africa as a result of Netanyahu’s high profile visit to Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, 2017 will be remembered diplomatically as the year when Israel – finally – started to look to South and Central America.

In September, Netanyahu became the first sitting Israeli prime minister ever to travel to Latin America, visiting Argentina, Colombia and Mexico in a trip that sent a strong message that Israel deems Latin America important and deserving of attention.

Colombia has long been a strong ally in South America; Mexico has been more of a fair-weather friend, voting against Israel in key votes in international fora even while doing a great deal of trade; and Argentina, for nearly a decade until the election of Mauricio Macri in 2015, was downright hostile.

This has now changed. Columbia remains a strong friend, Mexico has now vowed not to vote against Israel in the UN, and Argentina has shifted from foe to friend. Israel is also benefiting from that fact that – with Venezuela falling apart – Iran’s footprint in South and Central America is not what it was a few years ago.

But even as important as it is to get more and more South and Central American countries not to vote against Israel in international fora – a developing trend – the area is even more important economically as these are huge markets. In the past, Israel paid scant attention to these countries; in 2017 that started to change.

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