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Israeli Diplomacy: Finding Friends in Improbable Places

“Today we have diplomatic relations with 161 countries – more than at any time in our history,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the AIPAC policy conference in March. “And by the way, there are not that many countries left. There are only about 200 countries in the world.”

Despite the number of internal and external critics who say that Netanyahu is isolating Israel, the Jewish state is in fact making diplomatic connections that, in some cases, would have been unthinkable twenty or even ten years ago. Two news items this week brought this heartening development to light.

NATO announced on Wednesday that Israel would be opening a mission at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. From NATO’s perspective, the move appears to be an effort to strengthen its relationships with Middle Eastern allies, as it also announced the opening of missions for Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. But in Israel’s case, this triumph also reflects a movement towards re-establishing diplomatic ties with Turkey.

Turkey and Israel had a crisis in diplomatic relations following the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which a group of activists set on breaking Israel’s naval blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip attacked Israeli soldiers who were trying to board the vessel. In the ensuing violence, nine of the protesters were killed and ten Israeli soldiers were injured. Turkey, in protest, broke off ties with Israel. However since December, there have been growing signs that the two countries would re-establish ties. Turkey had long vetoed Israel’s attempt to open a mission in NATO headquarters, and its decision to drop the veto allowed the mission’s establishment to go forward.

Later this week, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States, and former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror appeared together for a moderated discussion about peace in the Middle East and the Iranian threat at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The discussion was the latest of recent signs that Israel’s ties with the Gulf kingdom is improving.

In the cases of both Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the mutual threat of Iran played a role in their decision to re-establish ties, or at least work quietly, with Israel. However, Israel’s engagement with the rest of the world doesn’t stem from any single reason. In the case of the threat from Iran, the motivation is security, but there are alliances being driven by economic opportunity and necessity.

Another area where Israel has built ties out of security concerns is Syria, which is currently being ravaged by a civil war that has killed over 250,000. Jonathan Spyer reported in March that Israel has developed ties with various rebel groups on its border in an effort to ensure that the area does not fall under the control of “elements aligned with the Assad regime, Iran, or the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.”

Ties with Egypt, with which Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979 (though in many subsequent years the peace was cold), are warming again. Netanyahu welcomed a new ambassador from Egypt in February. Part of the reason for the warming ties are security concerns, especially due to the threats Cairo faces from Hamas in Gaza and the Islamic State in the Sinai Peninsula.

Israel has additionally established a channel of communication with Russia that ensures Israel will maintain freedom of action in Syria in order to defend itself, while lessening the chances of coming into conflict with Russian forces, especially in the air. “Israeli policy with regard to the Syrian civil war offers an example of modest, pragmatic aims pursued with a notable degree of success,” Spyer noted. “Israel is now the only state bordering Syria that has not suffered major fallout from the war.”

Further east, Israel is seeing a burgeoning relationship with India. To be sure, some of this is driven by the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi two years ago. Modi saw strengthening ties with Israel as one of his priorities in office. Since he took office, Israel and India have concluded several arms deals and embarked on the joint development of the Barak-8 surface-to-air missile. Trade with India, which had already reached $6 billion annually before Modi’s election, continues to be robust.

Israeli natural gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean have also led to the boosting of ties with both Cyprus and Greece. The ties continue, despite a ruling by Israel’ High Court of Justice in March invalidating the deal that gave rights to two energy companies to develop the fields. In addition, The Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent Herb Keinon observed that Israel leveraged these relations to get diplomatic support from Greece and Cyprus within the European Union, something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

In Africa too, Israel is making diplomatic gains. When Kenya’s foreign minister, Amina Mohamed, accompanied the Kenyan prime minister on a trip to Israel in February, she said that most African countries saw Israel as a “very close friend,” but often found it hard to break out of voting blocs in international forums. She also hailed Netanyahu’s announced plan to visit the continent this coming summer to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the rescue of hostages at the Entebbe airport in Uganda. “High level visits bring their own wind with them,” said Mohamed. Such trips “enhance their relationship, they make it clear to everybody, send a very clear signal that these two countries agree to cooperate on the highest level, speak the same language, and deal with issues in the same manner,” she continued. “It is an affirmation that this is a strong relationship.”

Dore Gold, director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, visited South Africa in March and signed a number of bilateral agreements to increase cooperation on issues such as agriculture, trade, science, and technology between the two nations.

One last notable achievement is the announced plan for Israel to open its first diplomatic-level mission in the United Arab Emirates. The Israeli Mission will be accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), a newly formed international organization devoted to renewable energy. The opening of the mission came after several years of diplomatic efforts.

While Israel still faces many diplomatic challenges, including a difficult personal relationship between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, as well as European efforts to impose a peace agreement on Israel and the Palestinians, Israel is actually less isolated than it has ever been in its nearly 68 years of existence.

“In most of the world, the situation has improved,” observed former deputy national security advisor, Eran Lerman, in February. “In Europe it has deteriorated, but not to such a degree that I’d go pulling my hair out in despair. There’s a problem in northwest Europe, but that’s not the entire universe. In the Israeli media there’s a tendency to view London and the Scandinavian countries as the foundations of the world order, and to ignore such ‘trivial’ issues as our relations with the United States, the breakthrough with a little country called India, which has a population of over a billion, our relations in the eastern Mediterranean, relations with the Arab world, connections with China and Russia, and a number of other minor facts of this kind.” Lerman added afterwards that Netanyahu’s work in improving Israel’s foreign ties was “underappreciated” in the Israeli media.

[Photo: Kobi Gideon / GPO]