Israel can use Middle East partnerships in Palestinian peace talks - opinion

Cooperation with the region and the world is a true force multiplier for confronting Israel’s core strategic issues.

 FORMER PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu with the Bahraini and UAE foreign ministers after signing the Abraham Accords at the White House in September of last year, as FORMER US president Donald Trump looks on. (photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
FORMER PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu with the Bahraini and UAE foreign ministers after signing the Abraham Accords at the White House in September of last year, as FORMER US president Donald Trump looks on.
(photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)

According to prevailing assumptions, when Israelis think about foreign affairs, they tend to adopt a narrow perspective and focus almost exclusively on the immediate threats to their country. However, Mitvim Institute’s recently published 2021 Foreign Policy Index reveals a different kind of Israeli mindset, one well aware of global challenges and their direct impact on Israel’s standing and security, whether the climate crisis, the coronavirus pandemic or technology exports to abusive regimes. This year’s survey reflects public attitudes that view cooperation with the region and the world as a true force multiplier for confronting Israel’s core strategic issues. This newly emerging public perception calls on the government to turn cooperation on the regional and international level into a game changer for Israel.

The most prominent aspect of this new global thinking is reflected in the importance the public attributes to Israel’s partnerships with the world in dealing with the climate crisis. In ranking the importance of key issues which the public wants the government to address, the climate issue not only topped the list (along with strengthening the Foreign Ministry), it also cut across political affiliations. The broad public support – from the radical Left to the deeply-rooted Right – for placing the climate crisis front and center in Israeli foreign policy is not a foregone conclusion.

As noted by Blue and White MK Alon Tal at Mitvim’s October 2021 conference, the climate issue underwent intense politicization in the Trump era and became an issue of partisan divide. Perhaps because of Israel’s geographic location in the nexus of climate crisis repercussions, the issue transcends party politics in the public’s perception of the urgent need to join forces with the rest of the world to deal with the crisis.

The public is clearly ahead of its elected officials in understanding the need for a fundamental shift in the country’s approach to international cooperation on the matter, including a redefinition of its woefully modest goals and commitments on a variety of issues, such as the shift to renewable energy. At the same time, a system-wide, structural revamping of the foreign service is needed to address the issue as a key component to Israel’s foreign policy. 

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 21, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 21, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

This is the final call for the dozens of Israeli representatives who attended the UN climate summit in Glasgow, especially Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Energy Minister Karin Elharar and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg. They must come to terms with what has become so obvious to the public – that environmental issues, such as limiting carbon emissions, promoting renewable energies and handling climate crisis implications are an integral component in the foreign policy of democratic nations. These policies have a direct bearing on their international standing and, above all, the quality of life of their citizens in the future.

The new global thinking is not limited to the climate issue. It is also reflected in an important matter making headlines in Israel and abroad in recent months – the impact of Israel’s business sector’s activity on human rights violations and its direct effect on Israel’s international image. Thus, the survey found sweeping support (64%) for banning the sale of weapons systems and surveillance technologies to regimes abusing their citizens’ human rights.

Perhaps the most distinct expression of the new global perception is to be found in the public’s growing realization that Israel’s homegrown ability to go at it alone is limited, and that the solution for many of its strategic problems lies in cooperation with the region and the world. This realization was expressed in the dramatic shift over the past year in the public perception of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. Whereas only 28% of last year’s index participants expressed belief that the most effective solution to the corona crisis lies in increasing economic and medical aid to other countries rather than concentrating all efforts in Israel alone, this year, 45% agreed with this view.

The Israeli public has disabused itself of the illusion that Israel can be isolated from the world. It has realized that the flapping of butterfly wings in China can set off storm winds not only in New York, London or Berlin but also in Jerusalem. The recognition of the limitations of independent Israeli action in confronting the core strategic challenges facing Israel is most conspicuous in the public’s attitude toward the Iranian threat. Most Israelis (51%) believe Israel should focus on forging cooperation with the region and the world to handle the threat, whereas only 31% favor independent Israeli military action.

The tendency to favor regional cooperation on the core issue of Iran reveals a broader shift in public perception regarding the strategic potential of the normalization agreements. In conducting this year’s survey, we sought to take advantage of the unique time frame – slightly over a year since the signing of the Abraham Accords – to understand how the Israeli public views their significance. Almost one third believe the agreements are a turning point in the annals of Israeli-Arab relations, another third view them as a development without great significance for Israel’s integration in the region and almost one third have yet to make up their minds. At first glance, Israelis would seem to be divided or indecisive about the agreements’ meaning, and their impact on public perceptions seems limited.

But a closer look at the poll findings reveals a different reality: When the public is asked to address the major strategic issues facing Israel, it repeatedly turns to regional cooperation (with the states of the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean Basin) as a central solution. For example, 57% attribute great importance to the construction of a regional framework to confront the climate crisis, similar to frameworks established in other parts of the world.

The idea of establishing a regional framework on the climate crisis was particularly attractive to participants both because of the constraints involved and the opportunities they present. Israel is a “hot spot” located between the world’s two most vulnerable regions to climate change – the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin. Confronting the crisis provides a unique platform for sustainable, long-term cooperation with the areas around Israel. The future repercussions of the climate issue change the structure of “traditional” incentives for several countries in the region, forcing states to suspend short-term considerations, to look beyond current hostility and focus on long-term thinking.

Here, too, climate was not the only issue reflecting respondents’ global thinking. The public also finds solace in regional cooperation on the most complex and sensitive issues affecting Israeli security: relations with Iran and the Palestinians. A majority of the public regards coalition building with other countries in the region under threat from Iran as the most effective option for dealing with the Iranian issue. And perhaps the most surprising finding of all – no fewer than 53% of the public (including a sweeping majority among those who define themselves politically as right-leaning Centrists) support leveraging the normalization agreements to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. Not cooperation, not de-escalation, peace.

In light of the declining importance attributed by the public to diplomacy with the Palestinians, the idea of using the new partnerships with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco to restart the diplomatic process stands out as unusual. Contrary to the intentions of the Israeli architect (former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu), who hoped to take advantage of the agreements to separate Israel’s relationship with the Arab world from the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most Israelis identify the affinity between these two issues and even see the potential for leveraging normalization in order to undermine the harmful Israeli-Palestinian status quo.

The public has proven yet again that trends lurking around the corner are best viewed from the top of the street. The Israeli government should adopt the public’s intuition on the matters described here. It must devise and implement a foreign policy that communicates and coordinates with global challenges. It should commit to a policy that sets its sights above all on forging cooperation frameworks with the world and the region as means to confront strategic challenges and restart the peace process with the Palestinians.

The writer is CEO of the Mitvim Institute.