A new beginning: The Mediterranean and Israel's regional diplomatic tasks

Compared to the Middle East, Israel has more official ties in the Mediterranean and can thus play a more significant role in shaping and leading regional processes.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz reviews an honor guard in Rabat during his visit to Morocco last week. (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz reviews an honor guard in Rabat during his visit to Morocco last week.
(photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

On Sunday, for the first time, the “Day of the Mediterranean” was celebrated, following a decision taken last year by ministers from the 42 member states of the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM).

The designation of a special day for the Mediterranean aims to highlight elements of identity and culture shared by the peoples of the region and to promote cooperation among the countries along its shores. While no big festivities have been taking place in Israel to mark this day, there is a growing Israeli recognition of the Mediterranean’s diplomatic importance and the opportunities it holds out.

The Mediterranean is well within Israel’s comfort zone. It combines European and Middle Eastern identities, without forcing to choose one at the expense of the other. Compared to the Middle East, Israel has more official ties in the Mediterranean and can thus play a more significant role in shaping and leading regional processes. Israel also has the capacity to effectively advance diplomatic, economic, security and civilian interests in this region, both with specific states and through international settings, especially after the renewal of official ties with Morocco.

The Day of the Mediterranean is an opportunity to map the diplomatic tasks that Israel should deal with in the coming year, in order to improve relations with countries in the region, to intensify and leverage its involvement in multilateral regional frameworks, and to advance conflict resolution and peace-building.

Restoring ambassadorial-level relations with Turkey: Israel and Turkey withdrew their ambassadors from each other’s capitals in 2018 as part of Turkey’s protest at the situation in Gaza and the US Embassy relocation to Jerusalem. Turkey has been signaling over the past year some desire to re-install the ambassadors, but Israel has so far been skeptical.

The recent successful ending of the case involving the detention of an Israeli couple visiting Istanbul creates positive momentum, which Israel should leverage to raise the level of relations. This would enable, inter alia, establishing a strategic dialogue on regional issues, such as Iran and Syria, and expanding bilateral economic and civilian cooperation.

Injecting substance into the new relationship with Morocco: Relations with Morocco are unique on the map of Israel’s ties with the Arab world given their central civilian component, social depth and cultural uniqueness, and their tenacity even in years of no official diplomatic relations.

Renewal and upgrading of Israel’s ties with Morocco over the past year pave the way for new cooperation opportunities, including for Israeli organizations promoting social change and regional cooperation, which can find in the thriving Morocco societal scene partners for knowledge exchange, joint projects and enhanced influence.

 Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen in Morocco, on November 24, 2021. (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY) Defense Minister Benny Gantz is seen in Morocco, on November 24, 2021. (credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Introducing civilian components into relations with Egypt: Relations between Israel and Egypt have warmed in recent months, as reflected in contacts between the leaders, in the public exposure of the relationship and in emerging economic and environmental cooperation.

The direct flights launched between the two countries, the easing of Israel’s travel warning to Egypt, and the new model of civilian relations taking shape between Israel and Gulf states, all present an opportunity to expand civilian ties with Egypt. Israel must prioritize this task and attempt to soften Egypt’s reluctance on that score.

Finalizing arrangements for the maritime border with Lebanon: The Israel-Lebanon maritime border issue is essentially one of economic significance. The US finds it important and has designated a special envoy to assist the resolution of the dispute. The very existence of Israel-Lebanon talks opens an unusual dialogue channel between two countries that still formally consider each other as enemies.

A successful completion of the negotiations, although not an easy task, would allow additional leveraging of the Mediterranean’s natural gas reserves, help alleviate the economic crisis in Lebanon and thereby contribute to its stability, and highlight the ability of both Israel and Lebanon to resolve disputes through diplomatic rather than military means.

Creating opportunities for rapprochement with Tunisia: The Israeli government is interested in expanding the Arab normalization circle and is trying to move ahead with various Muslim and Arab states. Tunisia is still far from willing to do so, but its proximity to Morocco, which has been warming relations with Israel, its more democratic inclinations compared with other Arab states, its partnership with the EU and the Jewish heritage there – all make it worth Israel’s efforts to seek opportunities for ties with Tunisia.

The model of rapprochement with other Arab states, which initially included Israeli participation in international events there without national emblems, could also be relevant to the initial stages of rapprochement between Israel and Tunisia.

Enhancing the efficiency of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF): In the three years since its founding, the EMGF has yet to yield significant output. While its very existence is of importance, given the inclusion of Israel and the Palestinian Authority alongside Arab and European members, its potential is largely untapped.

The forum should deal with renewable energies, not only natural gas, and establish a civil society advisory board along with its business sector board. It should also be leveraged to promote diplomatic discourse among its members, to form additional more inclusive regional frameworks (including with Turkey and Lebanon), and to lift the Palestinian veto on granting the UAE observer status in the EMGF.

Assuming a senior position in the Union for the Mediterranean: Up to 2016, the UfM had an Israeli deputy secretary-general, Prof. Ilan Chet, who was tasked with areas of research and higher education. Since then, Israel has not appointed a senior representative to the organization’s headquarters, although it has the right to do so and the UfM is interested in increased Israeli involvement. 

The decision stemmed from the Foreign Ministry’s budget crisis, which limited funding for such a senior position, and government doubts about the added value of a high-level involvement in the organization. These days, after an improvement in the ministry’s fortunes and positive shifts in Israeli-Arab relations, Israel should renew its representation in the organization’s top echelons.

Mobilizing the Mediterranean arena to improve relations with the Palestinians: The countries of the Mediterranean, together or separately, could play a role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus, for example, have all been involved in Gaza-related issues. Disagreements among them hamper joint action, but they may be willing to take part in a regional forum to ease the Gaza crisis.

This could also serve Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s plan for Gaza. Morocco has been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian issue for years, and could now become more influential; and Israel and the Palestinian Authority should resume their joint efforts – together with Mediterranean allies – to join the Mediterranean Games from which they have been excluded so far despite expressing a shared interest to participate.

Promoting multilateral partnerships and conflict resolution in the region: The EU’s new agenda for the Mediterranean, adopted earlier this year, includes willingness to advance regional projects, among them including the EU, Israel and the normalization states. 

The EU has not taken significant steps in this direction so far, but Israel could undertake to launch relevant initiatives with its partners in the Mediterranean and the Gulf. This would also add a new component to the improving Israel-EU relationship.

Israel could also play a leading role in plans to form a Mediterranean mechanism for dealing with climate change, and could engage in mediation efforts to help resolve other conflicts in the region.

The Mediterranean presents Israel with a wide array of diplomatic tasks, reflecting a geographic arena full of foreign policy opportunities. The Day of the Mediterranean is a good time to acknowledge them.

Under its new government, Israel’s foreign service, with its growing influence and improved budget, is in a better position to realize these opportunities than it was in the past. It should prioritize these tasks and carry out the necessary structural adjustments that will enable more effective Israeli diplomacy in the Mediterranean space, which transcends traditional boundaries between Europe and the Arab world.

The writer is president and founder of Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, a teaching fellow at the Hebrew University, and a faculty affiliate at Syracuse University’s Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration.