Wildfires have been ravaging Greece, leading, it has been said, to scenes of almost biblical devastation. To help Athens deal with the tragedy, Israel’s National Security Ministry, the Israel Police, Israel Fire and Rescue, the Foreign Affairs Ministry, and the IDF all combined to dispatch a team to Greece. These included elements of the fire services under the command of the Israel Police and in cooperation with the IDF.
This mission is important. It comes as part of a larger regional trend where Israel, Greece, and Cyprus are all increasingly connected as part of an emerging alliance.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was supposed to fly to Cyprus and then Turkey this month, but the trip was postponed amid his hospitalization to have a pacemaker implanted and the judicial reform crisis. The delay could be seen as a setback for Israel and its leadership. Netanyahu needs some foreign trips to showcase some wins after the judicial crisis. Even though the legislation passed, it has led to unprecedented protests in Israel. Jerusalem’s regional partners may wonder if the state is stable.
What diplomatic issues is Israel missing amid its internal crises?
Those partners are also making moves of their own. For instance, the Arab League has welcomed Syria back into the fold, as Syria and Jordan recently held a meeting about confronting drug trafficking.
Meanwhile in Italy, a critical meeting was held regarding migration in the Mediterranean. Most of Middle Eastern and North African countries attended; however, Israel was not invited. Israel may have been excluded because it doesn’t have a migration crisis and because some of the countries attending have no ties with the Jewish state, potentially meaning if it attended it could become the center of controversy, detracting from the EU-North Africa discussions on migration. But the context is significant. Amid Israel’s judicial reforms, the country has not been keeping up regionally or internationally.
What else has been falling by the wayside? The Negev Forum is an example. With the participation of the US, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt alongside Israel, the forum – kicked off in Sde Boker amid much excitement in March 2022 – was supposed to be meeting in Morocco. That meeting, too, was postponed. The US had reportedly been involved in supporting the forum’s expansion; this might have included countries with which Israel doesn’t yet have relations.
ON THE other hand, there are positive developments.
What are Israel's positive diplomatic developments?
The N7 Initiative, a partnership between the Atlantic Council and the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation, recently had an influential meeting in Manama, Bahrain. There, high-level government officials and private-sector representatives from Israel joined counterparts from Bahrain, the UAE, Morocco, Egypt, Sudan, and the US, exploring the possibility of a multilateral regional free-trade agreement.
The US has also appointed a new envoy to support the Abraham Accords. Daniel Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel, has been tapped. The key term here is “regional integration” – a US aim. But that is hard to accomplish when Israel is focused internally, Iran is making moves in the region, and some countries lack any ties to Israel at all.
In the interim, a new article at the Institute for National Security Studies looked at potential Saudi ties. The report, by expert Yoel Guzansky, is titled “Peace both close and remote: What can be done to advance normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia?”
He writes that the “possible normalization of Israel-Saudi relations is once again making headlines, following emerging signs of readiness in the US to promote this matter. Progress depends on several variables, led by relations between the US and Saudi Arabia and relations between the US and Israel. Partial normalization between Jerusalem and Riyadh is possible in certain circumstances, even without a full Israeli-Palestinian political settlement, provided the Saudis receive what they consider to be due compensation from the US.”
He goes on to note, however, that “while Riyadh looks to the US as the main source of recompense, they must still show that they have gained something from Israel in the Palestinian context. Meanwhile, Israeli government policy on the Palestinian front should create suitable conditions for progress along the Israeli-Saudi channel.” Concurrently, the Gulf-Israel Policy Forum held a webinar on “the possibility of Israeli-Saudi normalization.”
Clearly, there is still buzz about this issue. But so far it appears to be on the back burner, until Israel can stabilize the ship of state and get back to the blocks to start running the foreign policy marathon. This is essential as, indeed, it is a marathon these days. The region is moving rapidly toward integration. Turkey is making important moves in the Gulf, and those deals Ankara is signing are potentially worth billions of dollars in trade.
THE GULF is also doing outreach to Central Asian countries and China.
While China is a sensitive issue in Israel due to US ties, Jerusalem has close relations with some countries in Central Asia. For instance, Foreign Affairs Minister Eli Cohen traveled to Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan this year; Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was also in Azerbaijan in mid-July. These are the real moves and ties that link Israel to the region.
Israel has close strategic ties with India, and works with India and the UAE on the I2U2 group of countries designed to bring together Israel-India-UAE-US; while Israel’s ties to Baku are also strategic.
Reconciliation with Turkey also comes with possibilities. Meanwhile, ties with Greece and Cyprus are key to Israel in the Mediterranean.
Cohen also recently went to Africa, where Israel needs to strengthen its role. It has some ties with countries in West Africa, as well as nations like Kenya. But it needs to do more there. Operations, like the one to help Greece with wildfires, can be one way Israel can aid countries in need, and this could also bring goodwill in Africa or other states needing technical assistance or other types of insight in which Israel may excel.
What comes next for Israel's foreign policy?
WHAT MIGHT come next? After the judicial reform crisis, the country will need to unite and heal, and also concentrate on foreign policy.
IDF Chief of General Staff Herzi Halevi recently discussed the importance of “our responsibility for readiness and unity.” He noted that “the IDF’s purpose has not changed over the course of the past 75 years – to defend the State of Israel, ensure its existence, and achieve victory in times of war. The IDF was established in a time of crisis, out of a necessity to ensure the existence of the State of Israel. This need has not changed to this day. The strength of the IDF lies in the quality of its service members, its high level of readiness for war, and its internal and external unity.”
Ahead of Tisha Be’av, Halevi noted that “these days, almost 2,000 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, the IDF is strong thanks to its people, its capabilities, and above all, thanks to its values – the values of the IDF Code of Conduct, according to which we operate and will continue to operate in the future. We don’t have other service members, and we don’t have another IDF.”
“It is never too late to correct this,” he continued. “We must mend this situation, for there is no other way, without internal and external unity. This is all of our responsibility, and first and foremost it is my personal responsibility as chief of general staff. This is the only way we can maintain the IDF’s purpose: to protect the country and ensure its existence.”
As the Middle East works toward integration, and Gulf states do unprecedented outreach, there is a lot of opportunity for Israel. However, in the middle of it all is Iran, seeking to spoil these opportunities.
Tehran has been seeking to destabilize the West Bank via support for terror groups in Jenin, knowing that West Bank clashes can harm Israel’s ties in the Gulf. Moreover, Iran has been encouraging Hezbollah to increase tensions on the northern border.
In Iraq and Syria, Iran continues to threaten the US. Iran also works with Russia and Turkey to try to support the Syrian regime.
Thus, Iran plays both sides. It seeks closer ties with the Gulf and does outreach to Egypt, while also hoping to use Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank to destabilize and threaten Israel.
Tehran, for instance, announced a new naval missile on July 24, also announcing that it could make a deal with the US via Qatar or Oman. Iran, therefore, uses the carrot-and-stick approach. It is up to Israel to neutralize the stick and ensure that its partners don’t run to grab the Iranian carrot.
These are the challenges – and opportunities – confronting Israel externally as it looks toward the months ahead.