The challenge for Israeli diplomacy

Jerusalem finds itself reconsidering its foreign policy amid shifting regional balances and discord with the US and EU.

The challenge for Israeli diplomacy (photo credit: CAROLYN CASTER / POOL / REUTERS)
The challenge for Israeli diplomacy
Toward the end of 2013, Israel found itself rethinking basic foreign policy assumptions in a changing regional and international climate. Its great ally, America, no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil and after attritional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemed bent on retreat from the region. And the question being asked in government circles in Jerusalem was: Where would that leave Israel? Worse: There were deep ideological differences between Washington and Jerusalem over Iran and peace with the Palestinians. For the Americans the negotiations with Iran on dismantling its nuclear weapons program held the promise of regional transformation. In a best case scenario, Iran would not only suspend its drive for the bomb, it would become a major source of regional stability.
Whereas Israel continued to see the region in terms of a great Sunni-Shi’ite divide, with moderate Sunnis on the side of the West and radical Shi’ites out to destroy everything the West stands for, the Americans hoped judicious lifting of sanctions would give the Iranians a taste of what normal trade relations with the West could bring and lead them to rejoin the family of nations. If that happened, it would mean eventual disintegration of the so-called axis of evil – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – and consequently a much more stable Middle East from which Israel would also benefit.
For Israel, this is pie in the sky. In the Israeli view, the current Iranian regime will never waive its anti-Western bias or willingly give up its nuclear weapons program.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acrimonious public clash with the American administration stemmed from a fear that in its haste to beat a retreat from the region, America would leave Iran on the threshold of nuclear weaponization, just a decision and weeks away from the bomb, putting Israel’s security seriously at risk.
Differences between Jerusalem and Washington on the Palestinian issue put further strains on the troubled relationship.
Like a tamed Iran, the Americans see an Israel-Palestinian accommodation as a key to regional stability. And, as in the Iranian case, the Netanyahu government fears a half-baked deal that would constitute a threat to national security.
The challenge for Israeli diplomacy is that the government’s timorous, some would say rejectionist approach leaves the occupation of the West Bank, now in its 47th year, intact. Apart from the Arab and Muslim world, virtually the entire community of nations, and certainly the so-called “moral majority” of Western states, welcomes Israel as a great success story, a country with which they are more than happy to share reciprocally beneficial relations. All, however, without exception, flatly oppose the occupation.
The "Israel- Yes/Occupation-No” dichotomy came to the fore dramatically in a late-November clash with the EU over the terms of Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020, the mammoth 80 billion euro Europe-wide grant program for scientific research. The fact that Israel, geographically not a European country, had been admitted as a full-fledged participant was testimony to the high regard in which the Europeans hold Israel’s scientific achievements and potential; the EU insistence that no grant money be used by institutions, companies or projects with connections across the 1967 Green Line was a warning of what continued occupation could cost Israel in terms of forfeited cooperation with the international community.
Clearly, the strategic relationship with America is still the cornerstone of Israel’s foreign policy and Europe is still Israel’s largest trading partner. But as the architects of Israeli diplomacy look to the future, they see growing strains in ties with an America less committed to the region and an EU losing patience with the occupation and liable to press for graded economic sanctions, starting with goods manufactured in West Bank-based Jewish settler enterprises. The Israeli right, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman in the vanguard, say Israel must look for alternatives; their critics on the centerleft say the government would be far better advised to smooth ties with the US and Europe by moving on the Palestinian track.
On the American approach to Iran, rather than smooth ties with Washington, the government chose public confrontation, because, its spokesmen say, Israel’s security is at stake. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Israel must stand up for its security interests, otherwise the consequences could be worse than a temporary tiff with any given US administration.
To illustrate his point, he recalls the decision to allow the radical Islamist Hamas to participate in the January 2006 Palestinian national election. “All our security experts without exception said it would be very dangerous,” he tells The Jerusalem Report. “But the Americans exerted pressure. They had this notion that democratization of the region would help promote stability and that Hamas , given a more responsible participatory role, would become more moderate. The Israeli leadership decided not to fight the Americans. The results are well known: The transformation of Gaza into a base for radical Islam,” he declares.
According to Elkin, Israel and the US are now at a similar juncture with Iran, with the Americans about to make a huge strategic mistake that will impact on Israeli security.
He argues that the interim Geneva deal between the six powers and Iran gives the Iranians considerable economic breathing space for nothing much in return. Western companies are already queuing up to renew trade with Iran, and there will be no incentive for Iran to make a genuine compromise on its nuclear weapons program, he insists.
Worse, the Geneva agreement has two other serious loopholes: It merely restricts the level of uranium enrichment and does not ban it altogether as Israel demands.
According to Elkin, this means Iran will be able to produce and store enough lowgrade uranium for a bomb, and with newtechnologies, transform it into weaponsgrade in weeks. Moreover, during the stipulated six months of negotiations on a final deal, there is nothing to stop the Iranians working on missile delivery systems and bomb detonators. “Without playing down the importance of the strategic relationship with America, in cases like this, where we face a clear security threat or have a national security interest at stake, the government must prioritize the security interest and not automatically fall in line with the Americans, even if it causes friction,” Elkin maintains.
For Israel, the only way the Iranians can be prevented from producing nuclear weapons is to stop them from enriching uranium altogether; the Americans believe that this is an unrealistic demand the Iranians will never accept and that close monitoring of Iran’s nuclear stockpiles, which can be achieved, will suffice.
This key difference was at the heart of Netanyahu’s clash with US President Barack Obama.
But the public nature of the quarrel drew fire from across the political spectrum.
Most outspoken was former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who argued that the danger and potential damage to Israel of antagonizing the president far outweighed any potential gain. The prime minister, he said, should not have crossed swords publicly with “the man whose support for the state of Israel, his goodwill, is possibly the most important basis for the country’s strategic interest.” Instead, Israel should have been pushing – and should now push – for better conditions in the final agreement with Iran – discreetly. As for all the talk of alternative allies, it was not only inane, but insulting to the US. “Who else will give us $3 billion in military aid, F-15s, F-16s, F-35s? Putin?” Olmert scoffed.
Indeed, in challenging Netanyahu’s approach to the Iranian nuclear question, Olmert implicitly laid down an alternative national security doctrine. Where Netanyahu sees national security almost exclusively in terms of military balance, Olmert takes a broader view, including as key parameters Israel’s trade relations and diplomatic standing in the international arena.
Consequently, Olmert sees an occupation- ending peace with the Palestinians as the key to Israel’s strategic and geopolitical situation. In other words, failure to achieve accommodation with the Palestinians could have seriously dangerous diplomatic fallout. This is also partly what former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Yuval Diskin had in mind when, in criticizing the government’s approach to peacemaking with the Palestinians, he said, “the ramifications of failed negotiations are far graver for Israel’s future than the Iranian nuclear program.”
With Netanyahu's security-first approach in mind, US Secretary of State John Kerry put an American plan for security relations between Israel and a future Palestinian state on the table in early December. Presented by Gen. (ret.) John Allen, a former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, it tried to balance maximum security for Israel with maximum sovereignty for Palestine. Allen outlined a number of advanced technological measures which the Americans say could meet Israel’s security needs. Indeed, Kerry claimed Allen’s plan would make Israel’s border with Jordan (one of Netanyahu’s main concerns) “the safest in the world.”
Bottom line: America’s huge investment in peacemaking and its thoroughgoing attempt to address Israel’s security needs put the Netanyahu government in a corner: If Israel turns away from the mediation effort after the US has done all it can to address Israel’s security fears and to create favorable conditions for Israeli acceptance of an American-underwritten two-state framework, the Netanyahu government could find itself blamed for intransigence and its relations with the US and its European allies could take a significant downturn.
Already there are signs that Europe might start to press Israel economically if the American-mediated peace talks collapse. EU officials in Brussels warn that if the talks fail, Europe will cut off its annual 500 million euro aid package to the Palestinian Authority, without which it will not be able to survive. That would mean the West Bank reverting to Israeli responsibility and becoming a heavy drag on the economy. It could also mean economic collapse on the West Bank fueling a new round of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
The Europeans are also threatening to label the origin of goods produced in Jewish settlements and industrial centers across the Green Line. A growing number of EU countries, 14 of the 28, now support this. Horizon 2020 showed just how far the Europeans are prepared to go. Had Israel been excluded from the project it would have been a hammer blow to scientific research in the country.
According to Elkin, who took part in the negotiations with the EU, the argument was not over the EU ban on grant money crossing the Green Line. That had always been the case. This time, he says, the Europeans made two additional demands: They wanted to incorporate a preamble referring to the West Bank as occupied territory and characterizing all activity there as illegal, and to stipulate that any company that has any business whatsoever over the Green Line would not be eligible to participate in Horizon projects.
“If Israel would have cooperated with these demands in any way, it would have had far-reaching implications for the legal dispute over the status of the territories in international law,” says Elkin. To circumvent the problem, Israel attached an annex to the agreement saying that it did not accept the EU view of the settlements and the status of the West Bank and did not consider it a legal precedent.
Nevertheless, Elkin acknowledges that if there is no progress with the Palestinians, the European approach in Horizon 2020 could be a harbinger of heavier economic sanctions down the road. “There could be such a step and it wouldn’t be too surprising,” he says.
This, however, in Elkin’s view is no reason for Israel to make concessions on the Palestinian track that could harm its security. The way to deal with European attempts at bullying Israel into submission is to stand up to them, he insists. “We should stand firm,” he says. “Just as we did with Horizon 2020. Eventually our position prevailed. So, yes, we should stand firm.”