The challenge of Israeli diplomacy

This should lead Israel to adopt, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, a precautionary policy, to take the initiative rather than wait to be attacked.

January 1, 2015 16:59
4 minute read.

Soldiers stand near the Iron Dome missile defense system outside Tel Aviv.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)


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Israeli diplomacy faces a challenge: on the one hand, it has to project an image of Israel as a powerful country; on the other, it has to project an image of Israel as a vulnerable country. Striking the right balance between the two is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing Israeli diplomacy.

Israel has to convey an image of power to deter and an image of vulnerability to convince. Israel is both powerful and vulnerable; conveying such an image to an international audience, often impressed by images devoid of context, is a particularly daunting task.

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Israel is powerful not only militarily, but also technologically, scientifically and economically. Further, it is widely believed that Israel possesses nuclear capacity, though it has never confirmed it. Israel is also vulnerable.

Surrounded by enemies calling for its destruction, Israel is a tiny state with no defensible borders, certainly not in its pre-Six Day War version, having thus almost no margin of error. Israel’s first prime minister’s dictum that the Arabs can afford to lose as many wars as they want while Israel can’t afford to lose even one reflects this geopolitical reality. David Ben-Gurion’s statement explains Israel’s tendency to adopt a proactive national security policy. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, Israel’s crucial battle is the first, not the last one.

This should lead Israel to adopt, again to paraphrase Kissinger, a precautionary policy, to take the initiative rather than wait to be attacked.

However, doing that has created serious diplomatic and public relations problems for Israel. To demonstrate that it is vulnerable, Israel has to wait to be attacked. This is the dilemma of a country in Israel’s geopolitical situation: having almost no margin of error, diplomatically Israel must wait even though militarily it must not; and even when it does wait, and then reacts, it runs the risk of being leveled as aggressive, engaged in “disproportionate” retaliatory acts.

Thus, Israeli diplomacy must explain Israel’s vulnerability in the aftermath of retaliatory acts which supposedly portray a far from vulnerable country.


Israel enjoyed widespread international support when it was perceived to be vulnerable. Thus, prior to the Six Day War, tiny Israel was seen as a vulnerable country fighting the entire Arab world bent on its destruction.

Even under a right-wing government, headed by the seemingly hawkish Yitzhak Shamir, Israel enjoyed considerable international backing during the First Gulf War in 1991 as it was attacked with Scud missiles by Iraq. Of course, Israel did not retaliate, which helped in this regard. Also, Israel was seen to be part of the anti-Iraqi coalition, even if it was not officially so, thus it was easier to identify with Israel’s plight.

The last two wars against Hamas and the other armed groups in Gaza highlighted the challenge facing Israeli diplomacy. Due to its vulnerability, Israel has created the anti-missile Iron Dome system, which, coupled with one of the best civil defense organizations in the world, was able to save many lives and spare much destruction.

Thus, while images of destruction were shown from the Gaza Strip Israel could only engage in “what if” scenarios. What would have happened had Israel not had the Iron Dome system? How many dead and wounded citizens would there have been? How much destruction to Israel’s infrastructure would have been inflicted as a result of the missiles directed at Israel’s civilian centers? Conveying Israel’s vulnerability becomes an intellectual exercise which requires an imaginative leap totally unnecessary in the case of clear images of destruction devoid of context, bereft of explanation (which is not to say that those images do not reflect true suffering by the local population on the other side).

Israel is a powerful country precisely because it is vulnerable. If Israel were not vulnerable it wouldn’t need to be powerful. Israel’s vulnerability becomes more difficult to explain also because the immediate security challenge it faces is from non-state actors perceived to be weaker than Israel. The image of the weak seeking freedom, however distorted it might on occasion be, can easily neutralize the effect of a coherent explanation by the perceived stronger side. To engage in a logical discourse on one’s own vulnerability is less effective than portraying a simple image of vulnerability. After all, who is more vulnerable, the one holding a knife or carrying a bomb or even launching a short-range missile or the one wielding the most sophisticated weapons known to humanity? To be sure, if Israel were facing only this security challenge, Israel’s strategic position would be considerably better than it actually is. However, Israel has to confront other enemies, and potential enemies, seeking its destruction, such as Iran, Hezbollah, groups affiliated with al-Qaida, Islamic State and others.

Israel’s former prime minster Golda Meir once said, “I would rather be alive and unpopular than dead and popular.”

The challenge facing Israeli diplomacy is less stark than that, but it is nevertheless difficult to overcome.

■ The writer holds a doctoral degree in modern history from Oxford University (St. Antony’s College) and a master’s degree in international relations from Cambridge University (St. Edmund’s). He has been published in the US, Britain, Argentina, Uruguay and Israel. He is a lecturer in the Diplomacy Program at Tel Aviv University.

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