This year’s diplomatic lesson: It’s not all in your hands

When Israel historians look back on 2018, one diplomatic achievement will stand out above the rest: the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

A worker hangs a road sign directing to the US embassy, in the area of the US consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018.  (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
A worker hangs a road sign directing to the US embassy, in the area of the US consulate in Jerusalem, May 7, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s telling, strong diplomacy – as far as Israel is concerned – can be reduced to a formula that is not all that complicated.
To survive, he says time and time again, Israel has to be strong. He peppers speech after speech with the following mantra: “There is one simple rule, and it is cruel: The weak do not survive. With the strong you make alliances, with the strong you make peace, and only the strong are able to sustain and maintain that peace.”
To be strong, however, a country needs money. Nuclear-powered submarines, F-35 stealth bombers, the kind of military intelligence Israel needs and has, cost money – lots of money. And that money can come from external sources, such as the US, taxes, or a combination of both.
With all the US largesse, including the $38 billion in military assistance it is providing over the next decade, it covers only 12% of Israel’s defense costs, Netanyahu said last week at a business conference in Jerusalem. “The United States makes a very important contribution, but 88% has to come from us.” And here Netanyahu diverted – as he always does at this point in this particular presentation, which he has given numerous times – into a paean to free- 0market economics, saying that just raising taxes to pay the massive security bill would not do the trick, but instead would stifle the economy and have a counter-effect.
“The only way to support our military needs is through a free-market economy. In practice, it is impossible to maintain the first layer of our existence [security] without economic power that requires a free market,” he said.
Thus, Netanyahu’s formula is simple. The country’s survival rests on two components: a strong defense, which is a derivative of a strong economy.
And when you put those two factors together, you get a third: diplomatic power.
Why? Because countries want alliances with the strong, and also because a free market economy – necessary for a strong tax base to support a strong military – also generates new ideas, new products and new technologies. And from that mix emerges the “innovation nation” – a term Netanyahu loves to use in reference to Israel – with expertise in security, technology, agriculture and water. Other countries want that expertise, and as a result are interested in good, strong relations with Israel – regardless of whether there is any progress on the peace process.
In Netanyahu’s telling, the unprecedented flourishing in Israel’s relations with the world – from Asia, to Africa, Latin America and even the Middle East – is due to that simple formula: strong economy + strong military = strong diplomacy.
THIS MAKES for a compelling speech and looks good on paper. But in looking back at Israel’s diplomatic year, many of the successes – and even the major failure that stands out – were the result of external factors, something that others did with little involvement or contribution from Israel.
When Israel historians look back on 2018, one diplomatic achievement will stand out above the rest: the move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Some have even referred to this as Israel’s greatest diplomatic achievement since US president Harry Truman recognized the nascent State of Israel just minutes after its birth in 1948. And what is striking about this move is that, unlike Truman’s decision – which was the product of intensive lobbying by the Zionists – US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the embassy was not the product of an intensive Israeli or Jewish diplomatic campaign.
In fact, a case can be made that the move happened despite a lack of intensive Israeli diplomacy.
It was neither Israel nor American Jewry – with some exceptions, such as Sheldon Adelson, who did make this a major issue – who were pressing Trump to move the embassy. Rather, it was the Evangelical Christians – Trump’s core constituency – who brought it up with him in meeting after meeting, time after time.
Trump is also responsible for another of Israel’s diplomatic achievements this year: its small victory at the UN. True, one anti-Israel resolution after the next passed easily – as always – in the UN General Assembly, but a funny thing also happened this year: fully 87 of the world body’s countries voted against Hamas earlier this month. The resolution condemning the terrorist organization did not pass – even though a vast majority of countries casting votes voted for it – because of a procedural matter (it required a two-thirds majority), but for the first time ever, the Palestinians had to sweat in the UN General Assembly.
And as active as Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon was in lobbying for this vote, neither he nor Jerusalem can take credit. Rather, it was US Ambassador Nikki Haley who initiated the effort to push Hamas up against the wall at the UN, and who lobbied heavily for the move. You can bet that Chile, with the largest Palestinian community outside of the Arab world, didn’t vote for this measure because of Israeli diplomatic efforts, but, rather, because it wanted to find favor in the eyes of the US.
Likewise, the startling turnaround in Brazil’s attitude toward Israel – Brazil, for the first time in years, voted with Israel and against the Palestinians on the Hamas resolution – had nothing to do with Israeli diplomatic efforts.
Rather, the change there had to do with the election of a new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who has promised a revolution in Brazilian-Israeli ties, and who has pledged to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem. As a sign of appreciation, Netanyahu left on Thursday for a visit to Brazil – the first-ever visit there by a sitting Israeli prime minister. Tellingly, this change came about not because of anything he or Israel did; it was simply the result of how the Brazilians themselves voted.
And just as many of the year’s diplomatic gains were due to external forces, so, too, was the year’s biggest diplomatic loss: relations with Russia. Those relations had been sailing along smoothly until September, when the Syrians mistakenly downed a Russian intelligence plane after an Israeli air raid on Iranian assets inside Syria – and Moscow blamed Jerusalem.
Then, all of a sudden, all the diplomatic capital that Netanyahu had built up over the years with Moscow, including visiting and talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin more than any other leader on the planet, could not prevent severe stress in the relationship or keep Putin from delivering S-300 antiaircraft batteries to Syria, significantly complicating matters for Israel. All of a sudden, there was serious tension between Moscow and Jerusalem, and all because of the actions of external forces.
That is a humbling diplomatic lesson to take away from 2018. All your best efforts may be overturned by something you have very little control over.
The converse, however, is another diplomatic lesson that 2018 taught. Positive developments, too, can take place not because of anything you did or initiated, but because of the decisions and steps taken by others.