Where's the diplomatic isolation?

For a moment this week, Israel almost seemed like a normal country.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they wave to the crowd during a reception for the Indian community in Israel, in Tel Aviv, Israel July 5, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands as they wave to the crowd during a reception for the Indian community in Israel, in Tel Aviv, Israel July 5, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)
In March 2011, Ehud Barak coined a new phrase in Israel: “Diplomatic Tsunami.”
It was two years into Barack Obama’s presidency, and Barak warned that the Jewish state needed to do more to advance the peace process. Otherwise, the defense minister and former prime minister warned, the international community will unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state.
“It’s a mistake not to notice this tsunami,” he said. “Israel’s delegitimization is in sight, even if citizens don’t see it. It is a very dangerous situation, one that requires action.”
That was six years ago.
Based on the past week, it’s now clear that Barak – who has returned to the spotlight in recent weeks in what many suspect is an attempt at a political comeback – couldn’t have been more wrong.
Despite the best efforts by pro-BDS organizations, Britney Spears performed at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park on Monday night before more than 50,000 people, who had come to see the pop princess despite the blistering heat. Then on Tuesday, Narendra Modi arrived in Israel, becoming the first Indian prime minister to visit the Jewish state.
The leader of a country with 1.3 billion people and a fast-growing economy, Modi used his trip to bolster Indo-Israeli ties, and to shower the country with love and (of course) hugs. He visited Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, but skipped over what almost all heads of state do when they get here – a stop in Ramallah to visit Mahmoud Abbas. Modi’s visit was all about Israel; Ramallah had nothing to do with it.
For a moment this week, Israel almost seemed like a normal country. Syria might be disintegrating and Hezbollah might be amassing arms, but Israelis are spending their nights like normal people – going to pop concerts instead of bomb shelters.
And not just this week. Alongside Spears, there have already been concerts this summer by Justin Bieber, Aerosmith and Rod Stewart, with more to come like Guns N’ Roses and Radiohead.
At the same time that Modi was visiting, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon was leading nine of his counterparts on a trip to Israel.
They visited the City of David, the border with Lebanon, and a joint Israeli-Jordanian- Palestinian Industrial Zone.
A political tsunami? Yes. But the positive kind, not the one envisioned by Barak.
Last month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Liberia, and became the first leader of a country outside Africa to address the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). It was his second time on the continent in the last year, after nearly three decades without an Israeli leader stepping foot there. If those two trips weren’t enough, Netanyahu will be heading to Togo in October for a summit where he will meet 25 African leaders.
And another: Donald Trump made an historic visit to Israel in May, becoming the first US president to visit the Jewish state on his first trip overseas and so early in his presidency. It is perfectly legitimate to question the stability of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office, but notwithstanding, Trump has a sincere appreciation and respect for Israel and Netanyahu.
Relations are also flourishing throughout the Gulf. Israel’s ties with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates remain in the shadows and below the radar, but they exist nevertheless, like never before.
For years we were told that without peace with the Palestinians, none of this would be possible. But something is happening. In 2016, Netanyahu met with 230 heads of state and multinational corporations, and the number continues to grow. If this isn’t the golden age of Israeli diplomacy, it is definitely close.
Heads of state from across the globe are flocking to Israel, actively pursuing an unprecedented deepening of ties with Jerusalem. They are searching for what Netanyahu has coined TNT – not the explosive, but rather his shorthand for Israel’s innovative technology and experience in combating terrorism.
This does not mean that Israel lacks challenges. It doesn’t. One example occurred on Tuesday, when UNESCO approved a resolution disavowing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. Another came in December, when the Security Council passed Resolution 2334.
But confronting these challenges doesn’t mean we should be pessimistic.
On the contrary – Israel’s diplomatic stock is on the rise precisely because countries understand what Netanyahu has been telling them for years: yes, Israel has its troubles (particularly with the Palestinians), but it is still the only real democracy in the Middle East. As more countries face similar threats and challenges to Israel, they are beginning to see the world from Israel’s perspective.
THIS REALITY also stands in stark contrast to the way Israel is often perceived among American Jews.
In the US, there seems to be a feeling that Israel is fighting a constant war against BDS and efforts at a boycott. It couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there are efforts to boycott Israel, but so far they have not done any real damage to the Israeli economy, whose GDP saw 4% growth in 2016 and is projected to grow by 3.25% in 2017. Europe and even America can only dream about that kind of economic growth.
So why the difference in perception? First, because every politician and organization needs a good rallying cry, and there is nothing as hot right now as BDS. It is used by Jewish organizations around the world as their raison d’etre, as well as by politicians in Israel who need to explain why they are needed, like Barak tried back in 2011.
The next reason is what I call the “college-parents-federation cycle.” It goes like this: a Jewish college student calls home and tells his or her parents that he or she has been intimidated, or threatened, or attacked on campus for being pro-Israel. The parents then call their local federation or Jewish organization, and demand that something be done. Money is then pledged, and programs are launched.
My intention is not to minimize the hostility Jewish students face on college campuses (I have also been heckled speaking on certain campuses). It is about giving context and proportion.
BDS is real, and needs to be fought.
There is currently an entire ministry in Israel dedicated to combating boycott and divestment efforts.
Nevertheless, when considering Israel’s current diplomatic boon, we need to review whether the current financial investment is cost effective. Does the threat warrant such a huge amount of resources? Getting back to Modi, the question now is: What’s next? Netanyahu has done an amazing job at boosting Israel’s diplomatic power over the last few years, and proving the naysayers like Barak wrong. But what is he going to do with the opportunity this has created? How will he advance Israel to the next stage? And what is his long-term plan for Israel and the Palestinians? That remains to be seen.
Kibinimat. That was the word MK Erel Margalit used in a video in April when launching his campaign for the Labor Party chairmanship. It was a Russian curse word, loosely translated as “damn it” or “go to hell.”
In the video and subsequent campaign events, Margalit yelled and cursed, and his campaign staff printed posters, pamphlets and flyers to that effect.
But on Tuesday, despite running the longest and most expensive campaign, Margalit finished in fourth place, behind Amir Peretz, Avi Gabbay and the party’s ousted leader, Isaac Herzog.
His showing proved that vulgarity and yelling will only get you so far in Israeli elections. Curse words will prop you up, give you 15 minutes of fame, but it ends there. People might enjoy the smear campaign as entertainment, but they won’t vote for it.
Margalit’s advisers will tell you that his campaign succeeded in raising his public profile. I disagree. He might be more “well-known” today, but not in a positive way. He is simply remembered for yelling and cursing, not for the ambitious and strategic economic and security plans I have seen him craft for this country.
Margalit is impressive, a successful businessman who has created more jobs in the periphery as a hi-tech entrepreneur and multimillionaire than most government ministers. He was a combat soldier in Lebanon, and has a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University.
He is polished, articulate, refined and smart. But he chose wrong. His campaign was off.
While his showing in the primary is disappointing for Margalit, it is a good thing for the country. It shows that the election discourse in Israel has not yet deteriorated to the level of what is happening in some other places around the world.
It is possible that this will still change, but for the time being, at least in the Labor Party, voters showed that they prefer candidates who gave them a vision of “what yes,” and not one of “what no.”
They chose a vision of optimism over one of pessimism. Let’s hope that continues.