2021 was a year of diplomacy for the State of Israel

What historic diplomatic event did 2021 bring in its wake for Israel, in the spirit of the three previous years?

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office in August. (photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office in August.
(photo credit: REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNST)

Some years are known for dramatic diplomatic events.

The year 1974, for instance, is remembered for Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy and the Israel-Egypt, Israel-Syria disengagement agreements it delivered. The year 1978 is remembered for the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian Camp David Accords, and 1993 will always be linked with the Oslo Accords

The year coming to an end tonight, 2021, is not one of those red-letter diplomatic years. And by not being a particularly memorable diplomatic year, it brought to an end a streak of sorts dating back to 2018.

In 2018 the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem. In 2019 the US recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. In 2020 former president Donald Trump unveiled his “Deal of the Century,” which went nowhere, but also hosted at the White House the signing of the Abraham Accords, which normalized ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. These accords were later expanded to include Sudan – though that link remains somewhat tenuous because of internal turmoil there – and Morocco.

And 2021? What historic diplomatic event did it bring in its wake for Israel, in the spirit of the three previous years? None. Which doesn’t mean that there were not some significant diplomatic developments this year that impacted heavily on the country. Here’s a look at five of the most significant.

 On-again, off-again talks on Iran: International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna (credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters) On-again, off-again talks on Iran: International Atomic Energy Agency headquarters in Vienna (credit: Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

Iran

Iran was a major story for Israel and the world in 2021, just as it was in 2016, 2011 and every year going back to the late 1980s, after the Iran-Iraq War, when the ayatollahs started their nuclear march.

If 2015 will be remembered as the year when the world powers reached a nuclear agreement with Iran called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and 2018 will be remembered as the year when Trump pulled out of the deal, 2021 will go down as the year where the leading world powers tried to resuscitate it – though so far not to much avail. 

And the failure to resuscitate it is not because the United States, Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China are not trying, but because the Iranians are interested in squeezing as much out of the negotiations as possible. 

This led one observer to channel a Talmudic expression and quip this about the on-again, off-again talks in Vienna: “More than the calf wants to suckle, the cow wants to nurse.” In this description, the cow is the US, and the calf is Iran, meaning the US is keener on restarting the deal than the Iranians, who are content to drag the whole process along as their centrifuges merrily continue to spin.

And in the meantime, Israel – which has the most to lose from a nuclear Iran, not only because of Tehran’s threats to exterminate the Jewish state, but also because of the degree to which an Iranian nuclear umbrella would embolden Hezbollah and various Palestinian terrorist organizations – is outside of the negotiating room, trying to influence events the best it can, but limited in what it can do. 

In 2021 Jerusalem adopted two tactics. The first was to jettison former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s approach of not wanting to engage the Americans about the deal, for fear that this would lend it legitimacy. And the second was to present a possible Israeli attack as both credible and doable. 

Unlike 2015, the year the deal was inked, when Netanyahu went toe to toe over the issue with president Barack Obama and barred Israeli officials from talking about the deal to the Americans out of a fear that such engagement would signal acceptance and limit Israel’s freedom of action, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is trying to work with the US on the matter, not publicly against it. 

True, there have been some tough phone calls between Jerusalem and Washington about the matter, but that means that there are calls about it, with Israel letting the US know what it feels needs to be part of any new accord. 

And as far as projecting power, this year was marked by numerous declarations by senior Israeli military and political officials that significant funds have been reallocated to draw up plans, train, and acquire the necessary military wherewithal to attack Iran if the order is given. Why the bluster and the publicity? In the hope that this will prod the West into taking the serious steps needed to prevent an Iranian nuke; otherwise, Israel might act; and to prod Iran to be more forthcoming in the negotiations; otherwise, Israel might act.

A new Israeli government

This year it really happened.

After four tries in two years, a government was established that put an end to a seemingly endless cycle of inconclusive elections – though it is a rather unusual Right-Left government headed by Yamina’s Bennett now, with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid to take over in another year and eight months.

More significant, at least diplomatically, is that for the first time in seven tries – the number of elections going back to 2009 – Netanyahu was unseated. 

Netanyahu served 12 years consecutively from 2009 to 2021 and left an indelible diplomatic mark on the country. This legacy could be summed up as Iran first, the Palestinians last, and leveraging Israel’s security, technological, scientific and intelligence advantages into much better relations around the world in between.

The world knew Netanyahu and what he stood for. Some loved him, some hated him, but regardless, he was a statesman of stature who punched way above the country’s weight on the world stage. 

And then came Bennett.

Unlike Netanyahu, the world does not know him, he is not a familiar face on television screens from Anchorage to Zanzibar, his advice and presence are not sought out – as Netanyahu’s were – by leaders such as India’s Modi, Brazil’s Bolsonaro and former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who wanted visits by Netanyahu to prop up their right-wing credentials for their own domestic purposes. 

All that being said, Israel’s relations with the world did not collapse, as Likud’s campaigners warned would happen, once Netanyahu was no longer at the helm. 

Granted, Bennett does not have the close personal ties with Russia’s Putin or India’s Modi that Netanyahu developed, but relations with those two countries, and with most others, are continuing along a similar trajectory as they did under Netanyahu.

Also, Israel now has a foreign minister, Yair Lapid, who is actually working to strengthen the country’s foreign service and does not view it – as Netanyahu did – as a nuisance and threat to his control of foreign policy.

As Trump said to journalist Barak Ravid in an interview published at the end of the year, what he did for Israel he did because of Israel, not Netanyahu.

A new US administration

As is the case every eight years, and – as happened this year – sometimes every four, the changing of the guard in the US marked by the swearing-in of a new president on January 20 on the Capitol steps is an event of great diplomatic significance for Israel. Why? Because the president sets the tone of the most important relationship Israel has in the world. 

So it was with not a small amount of trepidation that some in Jerusalem greeted the new resident of the Oval Office. After all, President Joe Biden is the leader of a party, the Democratic Party, with a progressive flank, rising in influence, that is increasingly hostile to Israel. He was also vice president during the Obama administration, one of the rockiest periods in US-Israel ties. 

Following the golden years of the Trump administration, during which the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem, backed out of the Iran deal, recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, declared that settlements are not illegal per se, and brokered the Abraham Accords, there was more than just a little concern that Biden’s election would herald a return to the tension of the Obama years.

But it hasn’t. It hasn’t because Biden has a visceral sympathy for Israel that Obama never displayed; because Biden does not seem to feel that America’s ties with the Arab world will improve if he places daylight between Washington and Jerusalem; and because Bennett does not think that confronting the US will help sway the Americans on the Iran deal or gain him domestic political points. 

Make no mistake, there are significant policy differences. There are differences over Iran, the settlements, a US consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem, and Israeli cyber companies blacklisted by Washington. 

But Israel’s big diplomatic story regarding the US in 2021 is that both sides – contrary to what happened during the Obama-Netanyahu era – want to deal with those differences behind closed doors, not broadcast them. 

That is significant because a perception that the US administration does not have Israel’s back, and the spectacle of the two countries openly quarreling every other week, hurt Israel diplomatically. It hurt both because some countries who cozy up to Israel in the hope that this will help them cozy up to America, will not do so if the two countries publicly bicker, and it also hurt because it emboldens Israel’s enemies, who may view an Israel with only lukewarm US backing as easier prey.

 Deepening ties: Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi, in Rabat (credit: Defense Ministry via Reuters) Deepening ties: Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with Moroccan counterpart Abdellatif Loudiyi, in Rabat (credit: Defense Ministry via Reuters)

Deepening the Abraham Accords

No sooner had the ink dried on the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15, 2020, than everyone was asking: Who’s next? Which other Muslim countries were going to follow suit and join this particular “peace train”? The answer came soon. In October of 2020 it was Sudan, and two months later it was Morocco.

Speculation then was rife about which country would be the next to follow. Some speculated about Oman, others said it would be Indonesia, many hoped for Saudi Arabia, but that “prize” is widely believed to be far down the line. 

In the end, no other country joined in 2021. But that didn’t mean that the process had ended; rather, 2021 will be remembered as the year in which the relations with three of the four Muslim countries that normalized ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco – deepened. 

Israel opened embassies in the UAE and Bahrain, the UAE opened one in Tel Aviv, and Israel and the UAE, as well as Israel and Bahrain, exchanged ambassadors. Bennett paid an official visit to the UAE, Lapid went to the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz traveled to Morocco to sign a defense memorandum of understanding. This was the year in which visits by high-ranking officials to the Gulf and Morocco became commonplace, no longer that much of a big deal – a true sign of normalization taking root.

Palestinian stalemate

While ties deepened between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, and as Bennett’s elections brought about a much-needed reset in the ties with Jordan – ties which plummeted during the last few years of the Netanyahu era – things remained static diplomatically on the Palestinian front. 

Yet another mini-war with Hamas in May, and an uptick in terrorism over the last two months, brought the Palestinian issue to the top of the news from time to time, but for most of 2021, the Palestinians were overshadowed in Israel by the coronavirus and concern over Iran. Moreover, despite years of Fatah and Hamas saying they were on the verge of getting their house in order, thereby fielding a united front with which Israel could then be asked and expected to negotiate, that failed to materialize... yet again. 

Furthermore, Bennett let it be known that he thought making any diplomatic headway with a bifurcated Palestinian polity was completely unrealistic, and that he preferred trying to manage the conflict, or shrink it, rather than go for a pie-in-the-sky attempt at resolving it. For Bennett “shrinking the conflict” means trying to make life for the Palestinians easier, improving economic conditions in the West Bank, and promoting economic independence there. 

In addition, the nature of Bennett’s government – with parties from both the Right and the Left – precludes any significant Israeli diplomatic initiative, as moves toward greater concessions to the Palestinians would be blocked by the Right inside the government, and moves toward extending sovereignty over any parts of Judea and Samaria would be blocked by the Left. 

In Washington, too, the Biden administration, with plenty of other domestic and international issues to worry about and the cold realization that conditions in the region are not ripe for a major American Mideast diplomatic push, placed the issue far down on its list of priorities. In 2021, therefore, nothing moved vis-à-vis the Palestinians.