When Interpol clashes with the 'Bibi doctrine'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks widely about Israel’s vastly improved global position. Then Interpol votes to admit ‘Palestine’ as a member state. Is this reconcilable?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It was the type of snotty tweet regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that one has come to expect from former prime minister and Netanyahu- social-media-troll Ehud Barak.
Shortly after Israel suffered a stinging diplomatic setback at Interpol on Wednesday, when the international police organization voted to accept “Palestine” as a member state, Barak – who as defense minister in 2011 predicted Israel would soon face a “diplomatic tsunami” – wrote: “Another failure for Netanyahu. The gap between reality and impressive but hollow speeches is growing. This leadership of ‘all talk’ is endangering Israel.”
One of the speeches Barak was obviously referring to was the one Netanyahu delivered a week earlier at the UN General Assembly in New York.
“We’re in the midst of a great revolution, a revolution in Israel’s standing among the nations,” Netanyahu began, expanding on a theme that he had touched upon at the UN a year before. “This is happening because so many countries around the world have finally woken up to what Israel can do for them.”
The prime minister continued: “After 70 years, the world is embracing Israel, and Israel is embracing the world.”
And then just a week later, 75 countries voted for a measure at the Interpol General Assembly in Beijing that Israel, together with the US, fervently fought against. Only 24 states opposed, and another 34 abstained in the secret ballot.
Perhaps, in light of that vote, it would have been more accurate for Netanyahu to have declaimed in his UN speech: “After 70 years, Israel is embracing the world, and the world is sometimes – when it is good and convenient for it – giving Israel a hug with the expectation of getting something big in return.”
Some might downplay the Interpol vote by saying it is really not that big of a deal; that Palestinian membership in the organization will have no real practical impact; that the Palestinians only mustered the support of about 40% of the members of the 190-member strong organization, not much of a feat considering that they can automatically count on most of the 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to vote for them no matter what.
But the diplomatic significance of the vote should not be discounted.
If after Israel managed to defeat a similar measure in 2016, and Netanyahu at the time hailed that as an important success for Israeli diplomacy reflecting the country’s changing position on the world’s stage, the Jewish state’s failure to thwart the move this time is a stinging defeat.
Israel fought this diplomatic battle hard and lost – and it lost just days after Netanyahu ended his speech at the UN proclaiming that “Israel is becoming a rising power among the nations.”
The juxtaposition of the vote with Netanyahu’s speech illustrated once again the truth that things in life in general, and in diplomacy in particular, are neither as good nor as bad as they are often presented.
Or, to borrow Netanyahu’s penguin metaphor from his recent UN speech, reality is not black and white.
Listening to Netanyahu wax on in the UN speech about Israel as a rising world power widely appreciated around the globe, one could be excused for thinking the country has suddenly become the darling of the international community.
By contrast, looking at the scorecard from the Interpol vote, one could think that the bad old days of ostracizing Israel have returned.
Yes, countries now need much of what Israel has to offer – be it natural gas, the cement of Israel’s ties with Cyprus and Greece; weaponry, a key element in Israel’s flourishing ties with India; technology, the oil greasing relations with China and Latin America; water, agriculture and security expertise, what Africa wants from Israel; or intelligence, in demand in every country, from Saudi Arabia to Belgium.
Yes, countries are keen to learn from Israel about how to breed innovation, and they want to learn from the Jewish state how to protect and defend their own airports, harbors and cities.
But, no, Israel has not – despite what it has to offer – suddenly become the world’s favorite child or succeeded in overcoming Arab enmity or the pressure some Arab countries are able to wield upon others.
Has Israel come a long way in international forums? Yes. The proof being that 58 countries either abstained or voted for Israel in the Interpol ballot, and another 56 didn’t vote at all. Does it still have a long way to go? Also, yes.
The Interpol vote was a reality check – the Palestinians still have the ability to muster significant support to diplomatically embarrass the Jewish state. Just think back to recent UNESCO votes declaring Hebron’s Old City and Cave of the Patriarchs a Palestinian World Heritage site, or expunging a Jewish connection to the Temple Mount.
None of the above, however, detracts from significant achievements Israel has made in the world since Barak made his “diplomatic tsunami” comment in 2011.
In the ensuing six years – years that witnessed a strained relationship with former US president Barack Obama, which colored how some other countries also viewed Israel; years of a diplomatic impasse with the Palestinians; and years that gave birth to the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement that many feared would lead to Israel’s utter isolation – Israel’s bilateral ties with many of the countries of the world have taken off.
This is reflected in everything from trade figures, to the number of high-level visits, to invitations to Netanyahu to visit, to the fact that Netanyahu was this year the first sitting prime minister to ever have visited Latin America, Australia, Singapore, Kazakhstan and Liberia.
And it is the product of what one could fairly call the Bibi Doctrine, a well thought out, systematic approach to Israel’s ties with the world.
Since the country’s founding in 1948, there have been several different doctrines governing Israel’s relations with the nations of the world.
The first, and most famous, was Ben-Gurion’s Periphery Doctrine, which posited that given the country’s hostile immediate environment, and the fact that there was little chance for alliances with any of its immediate neighbors, Israel would have to build alliances with non-Arab countries on its periphery: Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia. This doctrine governed a good part of the country’s foreign policy for nearly the first three decades of its existence.
In the 1990s, following the Madrid Conference, the signing of the peace agreement with Jordan, and the heyday of the Oslo process, there was a sense in Jerusalem – some would call it a doctrine as well – that Israel’s relations with the world would simply improve as peace would blossom with the Palestinians. This way of thinking was reflected in then-foreign minister Shimon Peres’s decision in 1993 to eliminate the Foreign Ministry’s hasbara department, explaining that if Israel had “good policies,” it would not need hasbara – as if a change of Israel’s policies would lead to a dramatic change in its foreign relations, and it would no longer have to explain itself to the world.
This was the period, following the fall of the Iron Curtain, that saw a burst of diplomatic ties with countries with whom ties had either never been established or frozen after the Six Day or Yom Kippur wars.
But now, with Iran implacably hostile and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan no great friend, and with no peace process with the Palestinians out there to pave the way to better relations with other countries, Netanyahu has developed his own strategy, which he explained to journalists accompanying him earlier this month on his visit to Buenos Aires.
The idea is simple, he explained: The world wants Israeli technology across a wide range of fields, and it needs its expertise in fighting terrorism. But Israel’s tremendous intelligence capabilities, for example, cost a lot of money, and Israel’s technological developments – be them in the sphere of cyber security or new weapons systems, water or agriculture technology – also cost a lot money.
To be able to afford all this, Netanyahu explained, the country needs a strong economy. And for a strong economy, Israel needs to expand its markets – which is why he went to Argentina, Colombia and Mexico: to expand Israel’s markets to those countries so it will be able to produce the technology and intelligence that those and other countries will want to get from Israel. It’s all interconnected.
Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu said, hoped to build ties with Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia. “We are going much beyond that to six continents, and leveraging Israeli technology and its economy, together with our expertise in security and intelligence, to turn Israel into a world power. It’s happening.”
Maybe so, but not without hiccups and occasional setbacks, like the one that came out of the recent Interpol meeting.