Israel's busy diplomatic agenda for the Jewish New Year

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: Lapid’s two-state promise could be trap for Israel or create goodwill; Lebanon maritime border talks are nearing the end; Iran talks are on hiatus, Ben-Gvir is raising fears in DC

 PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid addresses the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, last week.  (photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)
PRIME MINISTER Yair Lapid addresses the 77th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, last week.
(photo credit: Mike Segar/Reuters)

The year 5783 began with a bevy of diplomatic issues on Israel’s agenda. Just the events of the past week are enough to fill most countries’ diplomatic year. Prime Minister Yair Lapid has a long list of international affairs to deal with, which he may or may not have to hand over to opposition Benjamin Netanyahu in a couple of months.

Here are some of the issues on the agenda that are sure to make a big mark on the next year:

Two states and West Bank violence

The ongoing spike in Palestinian attacks on IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians in the West Bank has been mostly a military matter so far, but with all such waves of violence, the potential for a diplomatic conflagration is great.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington is “deeply concerned by the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank,” and he called “on the parties themselves to contain the violence.”

 US State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news conference in Washington, US, March 10, 2022. (credit: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL VIA REUTERS) US State Department spokesperson Ned Price speaks during a news conference in Washington, US, March 10, 2022. (credit: MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL VIA REUTERS)

“The United States and other international partners stand ready to help but we cannot substitute for vital actions by the parties to mitigate conflict and to restore calm,” Price said.

“The United States and other international partners stand ready to help but we cannot substitute for vital actions by the parties to mitigate conflict and to restore calm.”

Ned Price

Amid this violence came the UN General Assembly last week. Lapid called for two states for two nations in his speech, sparking controversy at home but, as is often the case, winning international accolades. The praise came from Abu Dhabi to Brussels, Ottawa to Washington.

But the question remains as to whether, in a time of violence in the West Bank, by putting the two-state solution front and center, has Lapid laid a trap or a cushion? In other words, Lapid could be raising the expectations of the world for some kind of diplomatic horizon that seems highly unlikely, thus leading to increased pressure on Israel. Or, his speech could have an opposite effect and create goodwill and more patience from Israel’s allies as the IDF tries to quell the wave of terror.

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas played his usual Janus-faced game at the UNGA, threatening to suspend security cooperation and all other agreements with Israel – in other words, he would stand in the way of Palestinian terrorism even less than he has been – but then saying he seeks peace. Abbas called President Isaac Herzog on Rosh Hashanah and then, too, said the opposite of his UN speech, calling for increased cooperation.

Lapid, by the way, was not interested in speaking with Abbas after the PA president’s remark in Berlin last month that the Palestinians suffered “50 holocausts,” according to a senior source on the premier’s delegation to the UN.

Another related UN speech last week came from Jordan’s King Abdullah, with the libel that Israel is obstructing Christian prayer in Jerusalem, along with other accusations against Israeli conduct in the Old City. Less than a week later, there was rioting on the Temple Mount. Coincidence? Probably not.

Whoever is prime minister after November will have to deal with the king’s continued incitement on an issue that has sparked violence for the past century. Lapid chose to meet with Abdullah a few hours later and, inexplicably, release a photo of them smiling with a message about how great Israel-Jordan relations are, despite the speech being evidence to the contrary.

Lebanon maritime border talks

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata was in Washington this week to launch the US-Israel Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology. The dialogue may not make for exciting headlines, but it is worth noting that this is a real achievement for Israel, only the fourth country to have a tech dialogue with the US at such a high level. The potential for US-Israel cooperation on emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing is great.

Hulata was not only in Washington to promote Israeli tech, however. He held a meeting with US energy envoy Amos Hochstein, who, after over a year of shuttle diplomacy, is expected to present his final proposal in the coming days for a maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon.

The border dispute has been ongoing for more than a decade, with little attention paid to it until the end of the Trump administration, which launched talks on the theory that resolving it will allow Lebanon to extract some gas and improve its tanking economy.

The matter has become more urgent in recent months, at least on Israel’s end, with Energean, the company that has the license to develop the Karish gas field near the disputed area, getting ready to do so. Testing Karish’s natural gas delivery system is set to take place in the coming days, one of the final steps before actual extraction.

Adding to the sense of urgency is Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah’s constant threats to attack Karish, Israel or both, if gas production begins at the reservoir.

Meanwhile, there has been some domestic political pushback against the deal, in which Israel is expected to be generous to Lebanon. The matter is likely to reach the Supreme Court to adjudicate the question as to whether a maritime border agreement is giving up sovereign territory or not. If it is, then the law requires a national referendum. The government and former energy minister Yuval Steinitz argue that economic waters are not sovereign territory and therefore there is no need for a referendum when making concessions.

No Iran deal – for now

In mid-August, it looked like there was going to be an Iran nuclear deal. It would have been a return to the 2015 Iran deal, except that its nonproliferation benefits would start to expire two years later, while the Islamic Republic would still get full sanctions relief.

But Iran insisted on two demands that the Western parties to the talks were not prepared to give them. First, was greater guarantees from the US that it would not leave the deal in the future; US President Joe Biden cannot legally bind future presidents to his foreign policy decisions. 

The second is that the International Atomic Energy Agency drop its probes into traces of uranium found at undeclared nuclear sites in Iran; the US and E3 – Britain, France and Germany – have said they will not allow the IAEA to be politicized and the investigations should only be closed when Iran gives adequate responses. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi reiterated both of these demands in his speech and other comments at the UNGA.

With the midterm elections in the US, the Biden administration mostly dropped Iran talks, not wanting to have to bring a potentially unpopular agreement for congressional review right before the vote.

Meanwhile, the nuclear threat from the Islamic Republic continues to loom large in Israel. Talks can always continue in the second half of November. And if there are no talks, then Iran may continue to bound toward a nuclear weapon, which creates a whole new set of challenges for Israel and the world.

Lapid and his predecessor Naftali Bennett chose to take a non-confrontational approach with the US, expressing opposition to the Iran deal, but not trying to pick a fight with the Biden administration. But Israel was also behind a large number of covert operations against Iran and its nuclear program in the year that Bennett was prime minister, while none has come to light in the nearly four months since Lapid entered office. Though the US has said it will not tie Israel’s hands when it comes to defending itself against Iran, there are often concerns in Jerusalem about Washington’s response to these operations.

The challenge of Iran’s nuclear program, as well as balancing Israel’s need to stop the threat while maintaining its alliance with the US, are not going to disappear in 5783, even if negotiations are on hold.

Election No. 5

An election is, ostensibly, a domestic issue, but it still has an impact on Israel internationally. Instability makes it harder for Israel to complete international agreements that are in the works and makes foreign governments less likely to turn to Israel to cooperate in different areas.

This election is also different than the previous four in this long period of political instability in that there is a chance that Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir may become a minister at the end of it. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu first moved to ensure Ben-Gvir would get into the Knesset in 2019, but he continued to intervene in the religious-Zionist bloc’s affairs this time, plus Ben-Gvir’s Otzma is, according to polls, the most popular in the bloc.

Ben-Gvir long presented himself as a disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was banned from running again for the Knesset after one term, due to racist incitement. The Kahane-inspired Kach was considered by Washington to be a terrorist organization for decades, and a past lawmaker, Michael Ben-Ari, was banned from entering the US because of his affiliation with the group. Ben-Gvir says he no longer represents Kahanism, but his calls to deport “disloyal” Israeli Arabs show that he is not far from it.

One need only look at the recent elections in Sweden and Italy to see how the world responds when the extreme Right ends up in a governing coalition. And Israel, being Israel, will probably get an even worse response.

Beyond that, a senior American source specifically said that the possibility that Ben-Gvir may become a cabinet minister would be a “huge problem” for relations between the countries – and that Netanyahu knows it.

THESE ARE ONLY a few of the diplomatic issues facing Israel in the coming year. The US continues to have concerns about the security of Israel’s technology and infrastructure due to Chinese investments and contracts. The West is concerned about Israel selling cyber-offensive tech to illiberal regimes.

Russian Jews are still facing hurdles getting out of the country, as Moscow conscripts men to fight in the war against Ukraine and cracks down on the Jewish Agency. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is still complaining about Israel not providing Kyiv with military aid

All that and more are likely to make headlines in 5783.