September 7, 2020 — New York
This piece first appeared in The Times of Israel.
In the past decade, a number of pundits talked about Israel’s growing isolation under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — in the words of New York Times’ columnist Tom Friedman, “the most diplomatically inept…government in Israel’s history.”
I disagreed at the time. I disagree today. To the contrary, I have repeatedly said that Israel’s diplomatic position globally has been on the upswing. That’s been proven dramatically in recent weeks, judging from the news about the UAE, Serbia, Kosovo, and Malawi, but the trend began years ago.
I say this not as a card-carrying member of the Likud Party or a spokesperson for the prime minister, but as a lifelong friend of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship, who’s been fortunate to witness many events first-hand and measure trends longitudinally.
In 1990, as geopolitics was being upended by the collapse of the Soviet bloc, American Jewish Committee (AJC) began a new global advocacy campaign to encourage support for Israel’s rightful place in the community of nations.
Over time, AJC expanded its efforts to engage nearly 120 countries, including as many as 75-80 alone during the ten-day period of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) opening each fall.
Those countries included some which had no diplomatic ties to Israel, some which consistently opposed Israel in UN votes, and some whose links to Israel could be generously described as lukewarm at best.
As far back as 2016, when asked by an Israeli official to draw conclusions from AJC’s whirlwind meetings in New York during UNGA, I said: “Counterintuitive as it may sound to some ears, I cannot recall seeing Israel in a stronger position bilaterally than it is today.”
Obviously, each country is a story unto itself. But there are certain factors that apply pretty much across the board.
First, Israel is the quintessential 21st century country. It’s home to a vast knowledge industry and entrepreneurial spirit. That creates technologies and services needed around the world.
When an arid country, Israel, is predicted to run out of water as its population swells and instead becomes a water exporter, it has something to offer countries fearful of life-threatening shortages.
As one Latin American foreign minister said to us, “Israel has no rain and yet it has flourishing agriculture. We have plenty of rain and a chronic water shortage. How can we learn from Israel?”
In the same vein, we met with a European prime minister, whose country rarely voted with Israel. Exhausted by an all-night cabinet meeting to discuss budget cuts that could trigger street protests, he showed little interest in seeing our AJC delegation, until the subject of Israel’s economic stewardship came up. He asked if we, as American Jews, could introduce him to Israeli experts, and kept us for 90 minutes, far longer than any of us might have expected.
The same eagerness goes for medical breakthroughs, cyber security, defense, counter-terrorism, airport security, national resilience models, emergency responses, natural gas, investments, and, perhaps most intriguingly of all, the creation of innovation-based ecosystems.
Second, once hostile countries are compartmentalizing their foreign policies more than in the past.
They may still not necessarily like Israel or its politics a whole lot, but they understand they’re cutting off their noses to spite their faces if they define the sum total of their approach towards Israel through policy differences.
Third, whether they verbalize it publicly or not, many now understand they can’t continue to give the Palestinians a veto on their attitudes towards Israel.
This is most evident in the Arab world, but not only.
The Palestinians have been given one chance after another to make peace with Israel, based on a two-state model, starting in 1947. They haven’t.
Seventy-three years have passed, hence a desire to move on with Israel, even as rhetorical support for the Palestinians might be unchanged.
Fourth, the Arab economic embargo, once a powerful factor, is dead. Countries that used to believe doing business with Israel meant no Arab markets know this is no longer the case. Indeed, many Arab countries, openly or just below the surface, are doing booming business with Israel, so why should others, in Asia for example, deal themselves out of the equation?
Fifth, the fear of primary, secondary, and even tertiary boycotts was especially felt among energy importers, who relied heavily on Arab exporters. The global energy glut, reflected both in supply and pricing, has totally changed the calculus. No country needs to fear a supply disruption today because of commerce with Israel.
And sixth, Israel is seen by many as a global powerhouse, with especially strong ties to the United States, as well as India, Germany, United Kingdom, Central and East Europe, Central Asia, Japan, Brazil, Egypt, and many other nations, not to mention world Jewry.
As a consequence, in the minds of some, having strong bilateral ties with Israel could potentially yield added benefits elsewhere. In my experience, this factor reveals itself, whether directly or subtly, rather often.
The bottom line is that today Israel has relations with all but a handful of countries, and the number continues to climb. In any given week, at least pre-coronavirus, Israeli hotels were filled with official visitors from many nations.
And my informal barometer of Israel’s global standing — the arrivals and departure boards at Ben-Gurion Airport — reveals dramatic changes from a time not so long ago when the bulk of flights were to and from North America and Western Europe. No longer.
So why the claims of Israel’s isolation? Presumably because the laggard in Israel’s diplomatic advances has been lopsided UN votes and discriminatory structures. By and large, that hasn’t improved nearly as rapidly as the bilateral sphere has. True and troubling.
But, it will be the last place to reflect the new environment because many countries see little upside to changing their multilateral postures.
If they want to get on committees, elect their representatives to leadership posts, or gain support for key national priorities, they need the majority of member states on their side. And at the UN, that majority continues to reflexively position itself against Israel, even as, outside the public glare, many seek closer ties with Jerusalem.
There remains much to be done in the bilateral realm, not to mention the multilateral arena, but the positive changes have been remarkable.
They reveal an Israel increasingly engaged with every corner of the world, and every corner of the world increasingly engaged with Israel.
David Harris is CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC).