Breaking the siege

Israel’s struggle for acceptance has yet to be fully won, but its first 66 years have been more successful than the Jewish state’s first diplomats ever dreamed.

Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilnai cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony for a coffeehouse at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilnai cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony for a coffeehouse at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
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Israel was born in siege.
Besides being greeted by its neighbors’ bullets, the newborn Jewish state was challenged in other ways by much of the outer world. The consequent struggle for acceptance has come to define Israeli diplomacy.
Sisyphean though it’s been, and still remains, this 66-year-old effort’s successes outnumber its failures, and exceed its pioneers’ wildest dreams.
From its first day, Israel faced three overarching diplomatic goals: to pacify enemies, cultivate alliances, and win over the enemy’s friends.
Odd as it may sound now, in 1949 many in Israel felt peace was around the corner. The War of Independence ended with armistice agreements between Israel and its four neighbors, accords that stated their aim to eventually generate permanent peace. The assassination of Jordan’s King Abdullah on the Temple Mount in 1951, just when he was about to sign a peace accord with Israel, made it plain that peace would take longer to arrive, while subsequent violence along the borders indicated that enmity would take longer to depart.
Worse, Israel’s enemies obstructed the young state’s commercial and diplomatic reach.
The Arab Boycott blackmailed companies that intended to do business in Israel. The Muslim world, with the exception of then-secular Turkey, shunned Israel en masse, stretching an anti-Israeli belt from Casablanca to Jakarta. The Vatican would not come to theological terms with the Jews’ political resurrection. Generalissimo Franco’s Spain would not recognize Israel. The East Bloc, with the exception of Romania, severed its ties with Israel in 1967, as did Black Africa the following decade. China, even after its thaw with the rest of the West, would not establish ties with Israel.
India let Israel open a consulate in what was then Bombay, but not an embassy in New Delhi.
Israel, in short, while fighting for its place in its region, was also forced to fight for a place in the world, and its need for allies was both urgent and existential.
THE SEARCH for allies proved elusive already during the War of Independence.
In the West, the US refused to sell Israel arms and Britain would not even back the UN’s 1947 Partition Resolution. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s attempts in 1953 to persuade US president Dwight Eisenhower to openly embrace Israel as a Western bastion of freedom and to foster it as a NATO military hub fell on deaf ears.
In the East, Israel initially got Soviet- approved arms shipments through Czechoslovakia. However, Moscow soon suspected that the Jewish state’s emergence and victories were stirring Soviet Jewry, and also realized Israel would not become communist. The arms shipments stopped hardly halfa- year after they began.
Surveying this chilly geopolitical landscape, Israel toyed for a while with the idea of neutrality. In 1955, when 29 African and Asian nations gathered in Bandung, Indonesia, to set up the Non-Aligned Movement, Israel sought a place at the table. It was a nonstarter. Not only was Israel’s request rejected, China’s foreign minister Chou En-lai used that gathering to broker an arms deal between the USSR and Egypt, thus sowing the elaborate Soviet-Arab strategic relationship that animated three major Arab-Israeli wars.
It was in this increasingly daunting setting that Israel would learn that along the diplomatic walls in whose shadows it was compelled to live a crack could always be found or carved. In the 1950s Israel passed through two such cracks, one economic, the other military.
The first was in West Germany, which signed with Israel the historic Reparations Agreement that helped Israel obtain much-needed cash and raw materials during its first decade of existence. The second crack was in France, which was offended by the Bandung Conference where it was demonized. This is how Israel ended up signing its first large-scale arms deal not with the US, but with France, a deal that included battle tanks and even fighter jets.
The alliances with France and West Germany, coupled with modest but steady economic assistance from the US, reflected Israel’s realization during its first decade that in the postwar world the Jewish state’s natural, if difficult, place was within the Western fold.
This position has since been dramatically consolidated.
The US abandoned its arms embargo in 1964 and, following the Six Day War, entered into the multibillion- dollar strategic partnership that has been a geopolitical mainstay for more than a generation. The European Union, meanwhile, accepted Israel as an associate member, and established itself as Israel’s major trade partner.
Ironically, shortly after the US ended its arms embargo on Israel, France launched its own embargo in the wake of the Six Day War. Israeli diplomacy’s conclusion from this continuum was that what seems at first glance like a siege is never fully such; when one door shuts another might open. Moreover, not only do the enemy’s walls contain cracks, beyond the walls lurk the enemy’s other enemies, and they might be turned into Israel’s friends.
In 1958, Ben-Gurion sensed an opportunity to reach beyond Israel’s enemies. This would not crack the siege laid to the Jewish state by the Arab world, nor would it lower the walls of its siege. It would, however, grant Israel what anyone under siege needs other than food, arms, and victory: the sense that it was not alone.
The opportunity beckoned on the Euphrates, where a coup unsettled an anti-Soviet barrier the US had suspended between Turkey and Iran.
Now in the hands of anti-Western generals, Baghdad was suddenly in the pro-Soviet camp headed by Egypt.
Ben-Gurion now approached non-Arab and anti-Soviet Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia, which surrounded the Arab world on three sides and shared Western alarm in the face of the developments on the Euphrates.
Israel found attentive ears in Ankara, Tehran and Addis Ababa. Though relations with each evolved differently, quiet but extensive collaborations emerged.
What became known as the “periphery alliance” soon expanded to substate level, most notably in Israeli aid during the 1960s to Iraq’s Kurdish rebels. The vision was to cultivate a ring of Middle Eastern states and minorities who were either non-Arab or non-Muslim, from Egypt’s Copts and Lebanon’s Maronites to Morocco’s Berbers and Syria’s Druse.
Some of this vision was impractical, and some of it was dangerous, as it later inspired the adventurism that animated Israel’s ill-fated arrival in Lebanon in 1982. Then again, like the alliances in Europe and America, Israel’s periphery strategy proved that what initially seemed like a hermetic siege was in fact elastic, frayed and pregnable.
Obviously, this strategy was only good as symptomatic treatment, a remedy for the Arab world’s treatment of the Jewish state as a pariah. Events that began in 1979 and culminated in 1989 rendered it an anachronism.
THAT THE peace accord with Egypt revolutionized Israel’s situation is almost needless to say. True, 35 years on, many in Israel view it with disappointment as it did not produce much commerce and dialogue, and the Egyptian media remained virulently anti-Israeli, and often also anti-Semitic.
Still, the taboo was broken and the siege was breached. Moreover, by sheer coincidence, the arrival of an Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv happened two months after Ayatollah Khomeini unseated the shah of Iran.
Israel’s periphery strategy had now been inverted: its newest ally in the region was Arab while its most potent enemy was not.
While the Iranian setback was harsh, the Egyptian gain was later followed by a creeping legitimization of the Jewish state throughout the Arab world, underscored by the peace agreement with Jordan, the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, and the acceptance, if even momentarily, of Israeli envoys in capitals in the Maghreb and the Gulf.
Disharmony with the Arab world in general, and with the Palestinians in particular, continues to feed the global challenge to Israel’s acceptance, yet Israel’s present position in the Arab world is remarkably better than it was in 1949.
So is Israel’s position elsewhere.
The downfall of communism brought the Jewish state a hard-earned diplomatic windfall as the entire East Bloc established full diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, whose defiance of the Soviet Union along the years was an inspiration to dissidents across eastern Europe.
Meanwhile, China and Vietnam established full diplomatic ties with Israel, India raised the level of its relations to full embassies, and the Vatican also exchanged ambassadors with the Jewish state.
True, much remains to be done.
Formally, Israeli diplomacy remains shunted from some important countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Informally, the effort to defame and demonize Israel, both in the developed and the developing world, continues in earnest and, in this writer’s view, constitutes a strategic threat to the Jewish state.
Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem when he arrived there to restore diplomatic ties with Israel, the soon-tovanish Soviet Union’s foreign minister, Boris Pankin, said of the USSR’s previous treatment of the Jewish state: “It was a historic mistake.”
Such a confession will apparently take generations to emerge from the last remnants of the siege on the Jewish state. Then again, had Ben-Gurion lived to see Israel’s present diplomatic legitimacy and reach, even that practical dreamer would be astonished.
With Israeli ambassadors in Moscow, Beijing, the Vatican, Cairo and Amman, and with Israel buying oil in Azerbaijan and selling water to Jordan while Israeli vessels pass through the Suez Canal, and Israeli pharmaceuticals, vegetables, and technology reach China, Armenia, and Albania – the siege that Israel’s founding fathers spent their careers braving no longer exists.
•The writer, the former executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, is Middle East commentator for The Wall Street Journal/MarketWatch