Top 10 headlines of 2018: Diplomacy

A year of highlights and lowlights in Israel: Diplomacy

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump ends the JCPOA.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Donald Trump ends the JCPOA.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Top Highs

1 - The US embassy move to Jerusalem
On May 14, 70 years to the day since Israel was born, US President Donald Trump did what every president since Bill Clinton said they would do, and then didn’t: he moved the embassy to Jerusalem.
Not only was this the top diplomatic moment of 2018, some have even gone so far as to put it up there as a diplomatic achievement second only in importance to US president Harry Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel only 11 minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared its establishment in 1948.
Not even the violence in Gaza that erupted – not coincidentally – on the day the embassy moved, could dampen the significance of the step, which finally put an end to the idea that had officially been on the books since the UN Partition Plan of 1947 – that in any agreement, Jerusalem would be a corpus separatum governed by an international regime.
No it wouldn’t.
The most powerful nation in the world recognized, through act and deed, what the Jewish people has known forever: Jerusalem is its capital. Where the border would eventually run in the city could and would be dealt with at a later date, but the US finally gave the Jewish state the right given to every other country in the world: to determine where its capital is.
2 - The US withdraws from the Iranian nuclear deal
Stopping the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, seemed for years to almost be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reason for being.
He railed against the agreement from every rooftop, from every podium: even, to the great chagrin of then president Barack Obama, from within the hallowed halls of the US Congress. All to no avail; in 2015, the deal was passed.
But in May, Trump withdrew from the agreement and once again clamped significant sanctions on Iran. A week earlier, as if to provide support for the US move, Netanyahu unveiled the secret Iranian atomic archives it spirited out of the country to show that the agreement was born in sin and subterfuge.
Even though the rest of the world did not join Trump in walking away from the deal, the impact of the US withdrawal was immediate: the Iranian rial tanked, protests broke out on Iran’s streets, and the Iranians – who used the agreement as a springboard for greater adventurism in the Middle East – suddenly had to dial their plans back a bit for Mideast hegemony. Iran went from a country very much on the offensive in the region, to one in a more defensive posture. 
3 - Netanyahu publicly visits Oman
The year 2018 was marked by a noticeable warming of ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, specifically the Gulf States. The twin threats of Iran and extreme Islamic radicalism have convinced Sunni states in the region that there is a necessary utility in cooperating and dealing with Israel.
In March, Saudi Arabia gave Air India rights to fly over its territory on the way to and from Israel; in April, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview that Israel has the right to exist; in October, an Israeli artistic gymnastic team competed under its flag in Qatar; and that same month, the national anthem was played in Abu Dhabi following Israel winning gold medals at a judo competition there.
Taken separately, none of those steps was overly dramatic – this was not Anwar Sadat coming to Jerusalem – but stringed together they represent an effort by Arab governments to slowly habituate their people to the idea of relations with Israel.
The icing on the cake came when Netanyahu visited Oman in November. This was not the first time that the prime minister has visited a neighboring Arab country with which Israel does not have formal diplomatic relations, but it was the first time that the host – in this case Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said – later allowed for the visit to be made public, and even released photos. This was hardly imaginable when 2018 began.
4 - Netanyahu goes to India
India’s founding father Mahatma Gandhi, who was opposed to Zionism, would have rubbed his eyes in disbelief at the spectacle that took place in Ahmedabad, in the western Indian state of Gujarat, in January.
There, where Gandhi lived for 13 years, Netanyahu, the prime minister of the Zionist State of Israel, was greeted on the streets by tens of thousands of Indians who lined an eight-kilometer road and danced, sang, cheered, clapped and waved enthusiastically as Netanyahu and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi drove past.
“Bibi, Modi, Bibi, Modi,” they chanted, waving thousands of Indian and Israeli flags. It was the highlight of Netanyahu’s six-day trip to India, cementing flourishing ties with the Asian giant.
Israel’s expertise in security, agriculture, water and high-tech has in recent years led many countries to beat a path to her doors. None of them is more important than India, with whom both trade and diplomatic relations are booming. Netanyahu’s trip, the first by an Israeli prime minister since Ariel Sharon in 2003, was a testament to that.
5 - Making inroads in the UN
In 2016, Netanyahu stood before the United Nations General Assembly and started his address by dramatically saying:
“What I’m about to say is going to shock you: Israel has a bright future at the UN.”
The day is not far off, Netanyahu said, “when Israel will be able to rely on many, many countries to stand with us at the UN. Slowly but surely, the days when UN ambassadors reflexively condemn Israel: those days are coming to an end.”
In 2018, this change started to become perceptible.
In June, 62 countries – a plurality – voted in favor of an American-sponsored amendment that would have condemned Hamas for violence in Gaza. And in early December, a whopping 87 countries voted for another amendment that would have done the same. Neither measure was adopted because of a procedural issue – they didn’t garner a two-thirds majority – but the fact that so many countries in the General Assembly voted against the Palestinians was both new and newsworthy. Israel was gaining ground on the Palestinian’s “home field.”

Five Lows

1 - Tension with Russia
For years, Netanyahu has dedicated a great deal of time and energy cultivating a good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Before Russia moved militarily into Syria in September 2015, this was simply because of Russia’s standing as a major world power with a stake in the Middle East, and a country with which it was always wise to be on good terms.
After September 2015, the relationship became even more important in order to ensure that even with Russia in Syria, Israel would be able to take the military action it felt necessary there to ensure its security.
An effective deconfliction mechanism was established, and Netanyahu visited and spoke with Putin more than any other leader in the world.
Until September of 2018, when relations were badly frayed after the Syrians down a Russian intelligence plane – killing all 15 members abroad – and Moscow blamed Israel because the downing came after an Israeli air attack on Iranian assets in the country.
Overnight, Russia’s tone toward Israel changed perceptibly, with Putin rebuffing Netanyahu’s entreaties for a quick meeting to put the event behind both countries, and Moscow delivering S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries to the Syrians – something that makes Israeli actions inside Syrian airspace all the more difficult.
As 2018 closes, ties between Moscow and Jerusalem are not as tense at they were immediately after the downing of the plane, but they are also nowhere near as warm as they were when the year began.
2 - US troop withdrawal from Syria
US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw America’s 2,000 troops from Syria blindsided both his advisors and America’s allies in the Mideast, first and foremost Israel.
It is not as if Israel ever expected or would want those troops to fight on its behalf – Israel’s entire history is proof of an ability to defend itself, by itself – but the US troops were seen as a brake on Iranian efforts both to entrench themselves in Syria, and as a wedge that would prevent a Shi’a arc extending from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Both Iranian efforts are seen almost as an existential threat in Jerusalem.
Without the US present in Syria, the final dispensation of that country’s future will be determined around a negotiating table in some grand ballroom by Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syrian President Bashar Assad – none of whom care too terribly much about Israel’s security concerns in the North. And as US troops leave Syria, their place will be filled by others who will certainly be far less benevolent than the US, and will not care in the least about Israel’s interests.
3 - US embassy move did not create copycat effect
Given that the US is the most powerful country in the world, there was hope that after it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there in May, there would be a copycat effect and a number of other countries would do the same.
Netanyahu and Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely talked earlier in the year about the possibility of 10 countries moving their embassy. So far only one has followed the US lead: Guatemala. Paraguay also moved its embassy, but quickly moved it back to Tel Aviv as a new president came into office there.
The lack of countries following the US is one of the year’s major diplomatic disappointments. Some, such as the Czech Republic and Bulgaria, are setting up various diplomatic offices there, but are unwilling to buck the EU position, which is that moving embassies now to Jerusalem would be detrimental to the diplomatic process. Even Australia disappointed: It said that it would recognize “western Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital, something Russia already did in 2017, but had no intention now of moving its embassy.
4 - Turkey
There was hope in 2016 – after Israel and Turkey sent ambassadors back to the other’s capital six years after relations nosedived following the Mavi Marmara incident – that ties would return to normal.
The countries, after all, had what to gain both economically and strategically from cooperating with one another.
Those hopes, however, were dashed when Turkey withdrew its ambassador in May and expelled Israel’s following violence in Gaza. Israel responded by expelling Turkey’s consul-general in Jerusalem.
Erdogan, who has led the chorus of voices condemning the US for its embassy move, regularly erupts in hate-filled rants against Israel and Jews. By the end of the year Netanyahu, who for the most part has been long-suffering in the face of Erdogan’s taunts and insults, could take no more, and called him out as an “antisemitic dictator.”
5 - The Palestinian front
While Israel’s relations with the Sunni Arab states warmed up this year – as made evident by Netanyahu’s trip to Oman in November – its relations with the Palestinians got worse, both with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank under Fatah control, and with Gaza under Hamas control.
Following Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the PA cut off ties with the US. And since there is no significant diplomatic contact with Israel to speak of, absolutely nothing is moving on the Palestinian track. All eyes are on Washington to see what is in its much discussed and oft-delayed blueprint for peace, but in the meantime all is stuck.
In that situation, one option is to just contain it, keep it from bubbling over – the default option of the Netanyahu government. And the government tried to do this all year: manage the conflict, rather than make what it has concluded would be, in the current environment, a fruitless effort to solve it.
But others, specifically Iran and Hamas, have no interest in seeing the situation maintained, and worked hard throughout the year – via flammable balloons, rockets and drive-by killings – to ensure that, as in the past, 2018 would not be a year of calm.
Edited by Natan Rothstein
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