Having yet to complete three months in office, an attempt to assess new foreign policy directions might be premature....
Nevertheless, the flurry of diplomatic activities of the two leaders of the new government, Prime Minister Bennett and Foreign Minister (and Alternate Prime Minister) Lapid may actually allow to draw the possible contours of Israel’s emerging foreign policy. In short, Israel’s foreign policy will remain “pragmatic”, but in a more subtle form that will underscore its being a liberal democracy. This combination is also a reflection of the extraordinary makeup of the new government – bringing together right-wing and religious parties, along with centrist and left-wing and social-democrat parties. A party representing a major segment of the Islamic movement in Israel is also part of this diverse coalition but is not represented in the government.
One should add a note of caution in discussing such an elusive concept of Israel’s “foreign policy.” Israel’s diplomatic tradition and experience is rather limited – cultivating and preserving the support of a world power (the U.S. since the late 1960s) and defending its positions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. The end of the Cold War and the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians opened the horizons of Israeli diplomacy, but other than deepening relations with Europe, there was not much change.
A defining feature of Israel’s approach to world affairs is pragmatism. Israel rarely took principal positions on international events and refrained from any substantial engagement in multilateral diplomacy. It had very rare inhibitions to deal with questionable regimes to advance its interests, as long as it did not cross any American line. Israel was rarely caught on “offside” vis-à-vis the U.S. in developing relations with third countries – apart from two incidents involving defense transactions with China in 1995 and 1999. Similarly, the only exception to Israel’s avoiding value-based statements and resolutions is its constant support of the U.S. position at the UN regarding Cuba.
However, Israel’s traditional low-key diplomatic footprint underwent significant change over the past decade. Israel invested considerable resources in expanding the reach of its diplomacy – across Asia (focusing on China and India), Africa, and even Latin America. Simultaneously, Israel has beefed up its strategic relations and cooperation in its immediate neighborhood – in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece and Cyprus and with key Sunni countries (well before the Abraham Accords). Furthermore, Israel’s high-tech success and branding as “Start-Up Nation” expanded its diplomatic agenda even with Western European countries who have traditionally been obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. If once, the EU considered expanding cooperation with Israel a favor, the remarkable R&D and innovation achievements turned the table; the EU was keen to cooperate with Israel, not less than vice versa.
Israel’s growing diplomatic outreach included the closest-ever relations with Russia, which would soon become a power to reckon with in the Middle East following its 2015 intervention in Syria. Prime Minister Netanyahu cultivated a personal relationship with Vladimir Putin and became the Western head of government that most frequently visited Putin. At the same time, Netanyahu prioritized developing closer commercial relations and tech cooperation with China.
These relationships would establish an unprecedented challenge for Israel as U.S. relations with both Russia and China became increasingly adversarial.
For Israel, Russia became a critical actor in the use of force to contain Iran’s military buildup – directly and via proxy – in Syria and Lebanon. Despite worsening relations between the West and Russia, there were no public criticism of Russia-Israel relations although Israel avoided Western condemnations and sanctioning of Russia. For the U.S. however, China was and remains a paramount national security issue. Therefore, Israel relations with China drew the (often public) ire of the Trump administration. Although the rivalry with China is a top priority for the Biden administration, it has refrained from referring in public to Israel’s relations with the Middle Kingdom, but has conveyed its expectations that relations with China should not harm the U.S. The Israeli approach towards China was to cultivate technological and commercial relations as far as the U.S. permitted, but this may change.
A hallmark of Israel’s diplomatic pragmatism has been to avoid principal statements denouncing countries of interest and import. For example, to evade the condemnation of Russia, Israel’s official statement following the 2015 poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK was probably the vaguest possible text: “Israel views with gravity the event which took place in Great Britain and condemns it vigorously.” Israel avoided issuing statements on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its occupation of Crimea.
Prime Minister Netanyahu took pragmatism one step further in dealing with Europe. Netanyahu not only viewed the EU as a hostile entity towards Israel, but even considered it inconsequential following the global economic crisis. Nevertheless, he sought to prevent the EU from issuing foreign policy statements critical of Israel that require unanimity. To that end, Netanyahu fostered close relations with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who had lauded Miklos Horty – Hungary’s leader and Nazi regime ally during World War II. Netanyahu also overlooked Orban’s party’s use of anti-Semitic tropes. In recent years, Hungary blocked several EU statements – even those mildly critical of Israel. Netanyahu also sought to maintain good relations with Poland’s Law and Justice-led government even when it passed a law in 2018 according to which accusing the Polish people of complicity in the Holocaust was a crime. When the Polish government agreed to amend the law so that its violation would not lead to incarceration, Netanyahu approved a joint Israeli-Polish statement proclaiming that Poland and the Polish people are not responsible for any Holocaust atrocities. Similarly, until a few months ago, Israel refrained from any statement regarding China’s human rights record, including supporting resolutions condemning China.
On the China issue, the Bennet-Lapid government revealed a new approach – not a massive shift, but change. In June, Israel signed onto a Canadian-led joint statement on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. Co-signed by 44 countries, the statement did not condemn China, but rather noted that the signatories “are gravely concerned” regarding “credible reports … that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang.” Israel was not pressured by the U.S. or Canada to join the statement. Furthermore, the new government did not see the “light” and decided to take the high moral ground. Rather, Israel sought to send a message of protest to Beijing after it championed the pro-Palestinian agenda at the UN during the May hostilities in Gaza. China’s vocal support for the Palestinians aimed to undermine America’s moral standing for supporting Israel. China leveraged its rotating presidency of the Security Council during the hostilities in May to try and push through resolutions detrimental to Israel. Nevertheless, joining the Western liberal democracies and taking this moral stance was also factored into Israeli decision-making.
Aligning with liberal democracies – if you wish rebranding Israel’s international image – became all the more evident in Lapid’s outreach to the EU. For the first time in more than a decade, Lapid was invited to address and meet with the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) – after only one month in office. Both Lapid and his host, Josep Borrell referred to a new start. In his remarks to the FAC in mid-July, Lapid argued that Israel’s diverse governing coalition is a “a return to the core roots of liberal democracies”. Lapid expanded on this point – “I believe in the power of liberal democracies. I believe in their economic power. I believe in the power of their ideas to create a better world.”
But Lapid made it clear that it essentially has a strong pragmatic approach – “the key message is that different people, with different opinions, can have a dialogue and work together without resorting to a zero-sum game.” This pragmatism means that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not in the cards but improving the livelihood and economy of the Palestinians is within reach. Furthermore, Israel’s position regarding the Iran nuclear deal has not changed, but both Bennett and Lapid do not believe in grandstanding, but in discussing differences and seeking to influence the discussions in Europe and the U.S. on the Iran file. Both heads of the Israeli government are committed to cementing the strategic relations with the Sunni Arab countries. Bennett’s own first overseas trip as prime minister was reportedly a secret visit to Jordan to meet King Abdallah and restore relations that deteriorated during Netanyahu’s tenure. Bennett offered to sell additional water to Jordan, which faces water shortages. Symbolically, Lapid’s first meeting after landing in Brussels was with Egypt’s foreign minister. Intentionally or not, Israel was demonstrating to the Europeans that it is filling a constructive role in the Middle East – whether or not a Palestinian independent statehood is within reach. To a large extent, Bennett echoed most if not all of Lapid’s key messages to Europe during his first visit to Washington in late August – fresh start, keen to restore relations, avoid grandstanding and public disagreements, work through disagreements, and demonstrating Israel’s role as an anchor of security in the region. Bennett received in a return public statement of the U.S. President that Iran will never acquire nuclear weapons.
If there is one file in which values will be clear under the new government – it is in its relations with Hungary and Poland. Lapid does not believe that Israel should rely on Hungary to blocking EU statements. During Orban’s last visit to Israel in 2018, the then Opposition Leader Lapid condemned his arrival calling it – “shame!”. And in Poland’s case, relations have significantly deteriorated after Poland passed a new law effectively preventing Holocaust survivors to reclaim their property. Israel has downgraded its diplomatic representation in Warsaw and Lapid “recommended” that the Polish ambassador will extend his home vacation. Lapid also publicly announced that the new government is not obligated to the controversial joint Israeli-Polish statement regarding Poland’s Holocaust culpability. Noteworthy, while in Brussels, Lapid held private meetings with his counterparts from the two other members of the Visegrád Group – Czechia and Slovakia. Presumably, Lapid sought to demonstrate that souring relations with Budapest and Warsaw will have no effect on relations with Prague and Bratislava.
In sum, the Bennett-Lapid government is advancing a different approach to Israel’s foreign policy pragmatism. It seeks to restore relations with the U.S. Biden administration and with Europe and align Israel with the West. This, however, does not mean, that the regional policies of the Israeli government will always follow the cues from Washington, Paris, Berlin, or Brussels. Rather, in dealing with substantive disagreements, Israel will refrain from megaphone diplomacy and seek to engage the U.S. and Europe.
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