The recent travel itinerary of senior Israeli officials spotlights the shifting sands of Israeli diplomacy and how the country’s web of worldwide ties has expanded dramatically over the last two decades.
On Sunday, Transportation Minister Miri Regev and three other top officials in her ministry began a weeklong trip to Morocco.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen held meetings in Croatia at the beginning of a four-county visit to Central Europe. And on Tuesday, President Isaac Herzog will visit Azerbaijan for the first-ever Israeli presidential visit.
If 20 years ago, the primary destination for Israeli ministers and its president were in America and Western Europe, today, they fly as frequently to capitals in Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
For example, Cohen is expected to visit the Philippines in early June, making him the first Israeli foreign minister to visit that country in some 60 years. Most of the 15 countries he has visited during his first five months in office have been outside Western Europe.
Regev’s visit to Morocco has not made much substantive news. However, the press did question whether she needs to spend a week in that North African country when her official business there will reportedly only take up to two days.
That this, however, is what is attracting the most attention about her visit, not that an Israeli minister is traveling to Morocco and signing several transportation accords with an key Arab state, shows how much things have changed and how these types of visits – which just five years ago would have merited major headlines – are now routine.
Herzog’s trip to Azerbaijan is another case in point. Although his visit will surely generate bigger headlines in Israel than Regev’s trip to Morocco because it is the first-ever visit of an Israeli president to Azerbaijan, a Shi’ite state that borders Iran, here, too, it will not get the same press as it would have received 10 years ago.
Why not? Because in the interim, there have been numerous ministerial visits back and forth, including a brief visit to Azerbaijan in 2016 By Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the interim, Azerbaijan opened up an embassy in Israel. And in the interim, Israel’s strategic ties with the country – including Israeli arms sales to Baku and Azerbaijan’s sale of oil to Israel – have become well known and well documented.
Call it the banality of Israel’s ties with the Islamic world.
Ties with Muslim countries aren't special anymore
These ties have become banal and ho-hum because they have become routine. These visits don’t generate as much of a buzz as one might expect – in April, Cohen went to Turkmenistan, another Islamic state that borders Iran, to only minimal fanfare – because they have become regular.
The very regularity of these visits, including presidential and ministerial visits to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, is actually what is newsworthy and shows the degree to which Israel is slowly being seen as a natural fixture in the region.
Israel has had formal ties with Azerbaijan for years and informal relations with Morocco long before the signing of the Abraham Accords. So, why do these visits matter?
They matter because if in the past the relations were purposefully kept out of the spotlight, well out of the sight of those who might take umbrage, now they are out in the open for all to see. And that difference is significant.
If there are few high-profile visits or meetings, if the relationship is purposefully carried out under the radar, then the message projected is that there is something wrong or even illicit about the ties. Countries – like people – only keep their meetings private if they are embarrassed to be seen with the other party in public.
This is one of the reasons why Azerbaijan only recently opened an embassy in Tel Aviv, even though Israel has had one in Baku since 1993: Baku did not want to draw too much attention to the relationship because it would cause problems for Azerbaijan in its efforts to gain a leadership role in the Islamic world.
That has now changed. Herzog’s visit – by its very nature – is a high-profile one. Azerbaijan is not trying to hide its ties with Israel but is now willing to highlight them.
Eastern Europe is an important part of the EU
Cohen’s visit to Croatia also signals how Israel’s foreign policy has shifted its emphasis. While Cohen met last month with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell in Brussels, the visit to Croatia, and from there to Hungary, Slovakia and Austria, is a signal that Israel understands the EU is much more than just Western Europe.
“Strengthening the ties with Israel’s friends in the EU is an important step in furthering Israel’s interests,” Cohen said in Zagreb.
This is a continuation of a policy that Netanyahu put into practice before he was turned out of office in 2021: developing ties – sub-alliances – with countries inside the EU to offset the anti-Israel sentiment of its bureaucracy in Brussels and some of its other member countries, such as Ireland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Portugal.
This meant cozying up with some of Europe’s illiberal democracies, such as Hungary and – until Holocaust-related issues drove a wedge in the ties – with Poland.
When Yair Lapid became foreign minister in 2021, he tried to recalibrate Isarel’s ties with the EU, deemphasize relations with the 11 Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU since 2004, and focus more on improving ties with the EU bureaucracy in Brussels and the Western European countries.
Cohen’s current trip to Croatia and Central Europe is a sign that Israel is once again trying to forge close relations with sub-alliances inside the EU more sympathetic to its concerns and which can then have some influence on the EU’s overall Mideast positions.