With borders closed, flights canceled and countries keeping foreigners out, along with lockdowns, quarantines and other social distancing measures in place to curb the spread of coronavirus, the world looks like a different place than it did just a few months ago, and though much of the changes are expected to eventually be reversed, they could still have a long-lasting impact.
That is why the Foreign Ministry is working on its own projections for what a post-coronavirus pandemic world could look like, mapping out its dangers and opportunities for Israel’s foreign relations.
Oren Anolik, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Policy Planning Bureau, and Director of Policy Planning and Assessment Uri Resnick are still working on the report, but discussed some of its content this week.
“We can’t forecast the future; prophecy is given to fools,” Resnick said as a disclaimer. “But this is an attempt to look at possible scenarios…so we can prepare as best as we can.”
In the process of preparing the report, the team spoke with Israeli diplomats and analysts around the world about trends arising in recent months, and analyzing in light of their relevance to Israeli foreign policy. Some of these trends include an economic slump, tension between world powers, and a turn away from globalization.
Anolik expressed concern that the situation will destabilize governments around the world, and more specifically the Middle East.
“Our assumption is there will be an influence. It won’t be the same around the world; different factors will influence it like how bad the economy was hit or how bad the health situation was, whether a society is resilient or not,” he explained. “The Middle East is not different from other regions in this way. All countries have political, social and economic difficulties and there is a chance that this crisis will magnify them.”
This means that there will likely be opportunities and risks for Israel in a post-coronavirus world, Anolik said.
For example, Iran’s economy, which was already doing badly in because of the US maximum pressure sanctions regime, has been worsened by the health crisis. This could mean that they will have to back off from sponsoring terrorism and developing nuclear weapons and missile technology to help their citizens.
But Resnick said that there is no sign that Iran has abandoned its behavior, and in fact, expressed concern that Teheran could take advantage of the world being distracted to engage in more of it.
Anolik said this “could be an opportunity, because of very low trust by the Iranian people in their government. Maybe it’ll bring political change. But a destabilized government might take more extreme steps to ensure its continued control.”
He also said this may be an opportunity for Israel to increase cooperation with Gulf States.
Anolik argued that the competition between the US and China has been ramped up by the current crisis.
“The competition didn’t start during coronavirus. It has existed for years,” he said. “Crises shake up existing frameworks and bring to light things that were less apparent before or were under the surface.”
Anolik pointed to the ways Chinese and American officials have been speaking about the crisis, with China blaming the US military for the virus and the Trump administration calling it the “Wuhan flu.”
“In the international arena, China is trying to present itself as able to help others, because as far as the timeline is concerned, China is beyond the worst of the crisis while the US is in the middle of it. A significant part of the aid China is giving is a way to try to promote its status in the world,” he said.
While Anolik and Resnick said they do not know if Israel will be caught in the middle of these tensions more than it has in the past, but Israel will continue to view its ties with the US as a priority.
“Israel wants to maintain its special relationship with the US. I don’t see that changing,” Anolik said. “It will continue in any scenario [as] the cornerstone of Israeli foreign policy.”
At the same time, he added, it is “important for Israel to maintain good ties with China and take advantage of opportunities that could come up in this situation. Israel has unique technological capabilities and innovation, and that is the kind of thing that interests China.”
The Foreign Ministry report also includes a chapter on Diaspora Jewry.
“We see Jewish communities being harmed health-wise,” Anolik said, “but also the economic situation is not good for Jewish philanthropies and can create more difficulties for communities around the world.”
At the same time, Anolik and Resnick said this could be an opportunity for Diaspora communities to build their connection with Israel.
“The zoom [video conferencing] revolution could lead to greater use of those tools for a connection with the Diaspora for Jewish education and to make Israel more accessible to those communities,” Resnick said.
With regards to the economic downturn, Resnick said the current characteristics – a drastic decline in the GDP, the stock market and employment – look worse than the 2008 recession and more like the Great Depression.
“Everything else – technology, competition, stability, globalization, democracy versus other ideas – will be influenced,” he said.
When it comes to countries turning inward in light of the pandemic, Anolik and Resnick pointed out that Israel has mostly benefited from globalization.
“We import a lot of raw materials, develop them here and then export our knowledge and technology, focusing on the areas where Israel has an advantage and can bring more added value,” Anolik explained. “A world that is decreasing globalization and reducing ties [between countries] is less open to these processes and is not as good for us, in very general terms.”
Resnick pointed out that free trade and fast and cheap transportation have boosted Israel’s economy, and in the short-term, Israel has been hurt by recent developments, which have disrupted the chain of production and supply.
“In the medium to long term, I think there is a reasonable chance that countries will make adjustments, find new sources of necessary things like food and medicine,” which will require countries to coordinate with one another, he said.
Resnick argued that globalization is “just the modern version of specialization,” something that has been part of economic development through most of human history, so it there is a possibility that there will not be major changes on that front.
Anolik was optimistic that “even in a [less global] world, countries that are seen as innovative and can develop cutting-edge technologies can still attract investments, interest and attention of large companies.
“There can still be opportunities for Israel in a less open and friendly world,” he said.