Israel resurrects its ‘periphery strategy’

Israel's Foreign Ministry is reviving an old diplomatic strategy that has been adapted to present realities.

Avigdor Lieberman 521 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avigdor Lieberman 521
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel is located in a region known for its “shifting sands” – both literally and diplomatically. The Middle East is currently going through yet another major transformation, due to the upheavals of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s turn toward Islamism and Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.
Yet unlike other nations, Israel cannot afford to just sit back and wait until the new Middle East emerges.
The challenges and potential threats to its security and well-being are too great to ignore. For those now heading Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the answer has been to revive an old diplomatic strategy that has been adapted to present realities.
As noted in a recent Jerusalem Post column by Michael Freund, this resurrected “periphery strategy” has been under-reported in the media, but it is showing an increasing number of benefits.
Rough neighborhood In the aftermath of the 1948 War of Independence, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his cabinet quickly realized that the newly established State of Israel was surrounded by hostile Arab enemies and needed to seek out friends and allies in the extended region rather than rely solely on more distant help from Western Europe or America.
The Arab countries encircled Israel with a ring of hatred, forcing its leaders to get creative. The solution eventually pursued by Israel’s first foreign minister, Golda Meir, was to make alliances with the non-Arab countries on the periphery of the Middle East, including Turkey to the north, Ethiopia to the south and, as difficult as it is to believe today, Iran to the east.
Ethiopia, a country with which Jews had ties going back to biblical times, was culturally Christian and ruled by the self-styled “emperor” Haile Selassie.
Turkey at that time was a large, non- Arab state with a predominantly Sunni Muslim populace but a modern, secular bent due to the Ataturk revolution. And while Iran was and remains the center of Shi’a Islam, it was then ruled by the pro-Western shah, Reza Pahlavi, who wanted to build a modern state and military and thus was open to Israeli overtures.
So Israel formed alliances with these imperfect and yet relatively stable and pragmatic allies, hoping to give the Jewish state strategic depth, diplomatic support, badly needed export markets for its fledgling economy and – in the case of Iran – energy supplies that were almost impossible to acquire elsewhere.
However, Israel’s relations with these countries were not a one-way street, as Israel sent technical experts in agriculture, industry, economics, security and many other fields to help build these countries. Ethiopia became a gateway for Israel to aid dozens of newly independent countries all over Africa, using its own experience of nation-building to help others struggling with their new-found independence in the post-colonialist era.
The “periphery strategy” worked well for several decades but began to break down after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Saudi Arabia learned the power of the oil embargo. Selassie, ruling one of the poorest countries in Africa, had little choice but to give in to Arab demands to cut ties with Israel, and many other African countries were forced to follow suit.
A few years later, the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran turned one of Israel’s most steadfast allies into a deadly enemy, touching off a confrontation which is reverberating to this day.
That same year, the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt gave hope to many that the “periphery strategy” was becoming unnecessary, as Israel now had an ally on its southern border and a de facto peace with Jordan to the east.
But then the traditional alliance with Turkey, which peaked in the early 1990s with record figures in defense trade and Israeli tourism to Turkish beach resorts, began to sour.
This turning point came in 2003, when the Islamist AKP party came to power in Ankara, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Determined to put a more Islamic stamp on Turkey’s society and its foreign policy, Erdogan slowly tanked the regional alliance with Israel.
Many point to the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident off Gaza in May 2010 as the cause for the rupture in relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, but the slide began well before then. The ruling AKP party is a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood and thus was increasingly identifying with Hamas – the Palestinian chapter of the Brotherhood – once it seized control of Gaza in June 2006. After spent Israeli fuel tanks were found on the Turkish side of the border with Syria in the wake of the air strikes on the al-Kibar nuclear reactor in September 2007, relations between Israel and Turkey were never the same again.
Israel’s sense of isolation in the region has grown more acute as the Arab Spring has unfolded, particularly with the uncertainty of continued peace with Egypt following Hosni Mubarak’s downfall.
However, Israel has not been standing still, just watching the circle of hostility tighten once again. Quietly but surely, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman has revived the “periphery strategy” but with new wrinkles to fit present realities.
Liberman has been busy in recent years enlarging Israel’s circle of friends with visits to such nearby countries as Kenya, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Azerbaijan, sealing economic, strategic, military and diplomatic agreements.
Intelligence cooperation with Kenya is critical to defeating jihadist forces in the region and stopping arms shipments from Iran to Sinai and Gaza via Sudan. Israel’s increased military ties with Greece, Cyprus and Romania are meant to contain Turkish ambitions against each of these countries. And Azerbaijan could play a vital role in stopping Iran’s nuclear threat.
Liberman has also made more distant diplomatic junkets to strengthen ties with other key potential allies, such as Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria, India and China.
Some of these countries have already shown their appreciation for Israel’s outreach by voting with her at the United Nations and by inviting Israel to send representatives to conferences they have hosted. Israel has also secured huge economic benefits from these new partnerships, as exports to many emerging economies have soared, helping provide a cushion against the fallout from the worldwide economic recession.
The Christian Edition recently asked Israel’s deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon about the revived periphery strategy and its benefits so far.
“Many previous Israeli governments ignored too many parts of the world, and it was to our detriment,” explained Ayalon. “Relations were focused on a few capitals, and we placed all our eggs in one basket.”
“There are a lot of nations around the world which have a lot of shared interests with Israel, and we understood that if we want to expand ties for economic, diplomatic and political reasons, we must put the effort in. A nation like Israel needs a more holistic and all-encompassing approach to foreign policy,” Ayalon continued.
“We have seen a lot of eagerness from many parts of the world to expand ties with Israel. In 2009, when we began this strategy after entering the Foreign Ministry, many governments asked us where we have been for the last 16 years. This number was significant because it was the start of the Oslo process, which also saw a decline in a global approach to foreign relations. We are reversing this trend and have been met with a very good response.”
Ayalon said the Foreign Ministry’s focus has been on Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
“We have also seen significant results in the Balkan region and beyond, including Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria. This strategy has significant results, not just in terms of trade and tourism, but also diplomatically.”
Ayalon credits this policy with successfully thwarting the Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence at the United Nations last year, and preventing a second Gaza flotilla.
“As long as we are in the Foreign Ministry, Foreign Minister Liberman, the leader of this strategy, and myself will continue with this approach, which is reaping dividends,” he insisted.
Ayalon pointed out that one tool the Foreign Ministry is using very effectively is its global humanitarian arm, known as MASHAV.
“MASHAV has been recognized as a world leader in assisting developing nations to find solutions to many of their climatic, agricultural and medical challenges. This is a form of humanitarian or environmental diplomacy which is being recognized by countries formerly very hostile in international forums, but who are beginning to see the benefits of cooperation with Israel,” he concluded.
Freund called Liberman’s new periphery strategy “his greatest contribution thus far as foreign minister to Israel’s well-being.” The full results are yet to be seen, but there can be little doubt that the Foreign Ministry under Liberman has been proactive in its response to regional developments, rather than just letting the noose of Arab/Islamist hostility tighten around its neck once again.