Fundamentally Freund: Periphery doctrine's rebirth

Liberman’s momentous foreign policy achievement.

Liberman and Clinton 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Liberman and Clinton 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman faces a daunting and largely thankless task. Overseeing the diplomatic relations of the one and only Jewish state, which is frequently the target of unfair criticism abroad, would test the greatest of statesmen even in the best of times.
Between the UN and its constituent bodies, the European Union and the Muslim world, there is enough anti-Israel bias and opprobrium out there to keep him fully occupied without leaving a great deal of time for much else.
And yet, Liberman has done anything but kick back and relax. In what is perhaps one of the most important as well as least-noticed shifts in Israeli foreign policy in recent memory, our foreign minister has piloted a critical new strategy that promises to bear great diplomatic benefit.
Simply put, Liberman has revived Israel’s “periphery doctrine” of the 1950s, adjusting it to modern strategic realities. It is his greatest contribution thus far as foreign minister to Israel’s well-being, and it warrants far more attention than it has garnered to date.
The periphery doctrine dates back to the bad old days of the 1950s, when Israel was encircled by hostile Arab nations. At the time, David Ben-Gurion developed a strategy based on diplomatic outreach to countries on the region’s periphery, such as Iran, Turkey and Ethiopia, in the hopes of cultivating their friendship and support as a counterbalance to our unfriendly neighbors.
The policy, while it lasted, helped to ease Israel’s isolation and opened new avenues for cooperation in a variety of fields, from trade to intelligence-sharing. It was a classic balance-of-power move, one that provided the young state with a host of benefits, both tangible and otherwise.
After the 1979 Islamic revolution in Tehran, which overthrew the Shah and brought the ayatollahs to power, the periphery doctrine began to fade from view, for the simple reason that Iran, a pillar of the strategy, turned hostile to Israel.
This process was accelerated by the signing of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, for all of a sudden it seemed that Israel could focus its efforts on making peace with its neighbors, rather than scan the horizon to seek out potential new friends.
And once relations with Turkey took a turn for the worse after Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist colleagues came to power, the periphery doctrine seemed destined to be consigned to the history books and to graduate students’ dissertations.
But then along came Liberman with a novel and shrewdly inspired approach. Realizing that the bulk of Israel’s diplomatic attention and resources are directed towards the alliance with the United States, Liberman sought to broaden the base of Israel’s support elsewhere in the world by launching a concerted effort to develop closer ties with other nations, particularly African, South American and Eastern European countries.
In other words, he has resurrected the periphery doctrine but with a global twist, pivoting Israel’s diplomatic attention to parts of the world that had previously been all but ignored.
Thus, for example, in the latter part of 2009, Liberman visited five African countries, including Kenya and Nigeria.
Leveraging Israel’s formidable knowledge and expertise in fields such as agriculture and health, he offered to assist his hosts with biotechnology, advanced water-purification techniques, and in the battle against AIDS.
As a result of his visit, which marked the first time an Israeli foreign minister had visited some of these countries in nearly 40 years, a series of important diplomatic agreements and economic deals were signed.
Liberman also traveled to South America, strengthening ties with Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Colombia, nations that had not previously received the attention they deserved. On the other side of the globe, he worked assiduously to build bridges in Asia and deepened relations with rising powers such as China and India.
And he placed a renewed emphasis on the Balkans and southern Mediterranean region, promoting closer cooperation with Greece and Cyprus to offset the deterioration in relations with Turkey. This has had major benefits such as cooperation on energy resources and also helped to prevent the most recent attempt by pro- Palestinian anarchists to send a flotilla to Gaza.
In addition, he expanded the number of countries with which Israel holds high-level diplomatic consultations, and despite cuts in Israel’s national budget, he fought successfully to open nearly a dozen new consulates and embassies abroad. These include consulates in Sao Paulo and St. Petersburg, as well as ones in Bangalore, India, and Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, that will open shortly.
These initiatives have strengthened Israel’s diplomatic standing in the world and enabled it to reach out to parts of the planet that are increasingly important from a political and economic standpoint.
And they undoubtedly contributed to the success of Israel’s efforts last year to stave off the unilateral Palestinian attempt to win official recognition of an independent state.
Obviously, Israel remains in a very difficult position, facing an existential threat from a nuclear-addicted Iran amid the mounting instability caused by the Arab Spring uprisings.
Say what you will about Liberman and his politics, but in laying the groundwork for a far more sophisticated and global approach to Israeli foreign policy, he has greatly enhanced the Jewish state’s status throughout the world. This is a genuine achievement, one that will bring great benefits to Israel for many years to come.