Israel's Prime Minister Has His Own Brand of Instrumental Realism

August 19, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IsraelPoliticsNetanyahuDiplomacyForeign Policy

Israel's Prime Minister Has His Own Brand of Instrumental Realism

Benjamin Netanyahu is using diplomatic games to shape the future—but will his methods prove fruitful?

From the Israeli perspective, the proposed 2,200km long East-Med pipeline project that could potentially supply gas to Europe is the centerpiece of the EMA. It would bypass Turkish and Russian supply routes, prevent Israel from being dependent on these countries for its energy export effort and improve its standing with European countries looking to reduce their energy dependency on Russia. Closer strategic ties with Greece and Cyprus, that include high-level meetings, frequent joint military and civil protection exercises, and the interconnecting of their power grids, is also a means to promote Israel’s positions through them on Palestinian and Iranian policy issues in the EU.

Cooperation with the Sunni Countries

Low-profile cooperative activity between Israel and Arab countries from the pragmatic Sunni camp is at an unprecedented level. Mutual interests, common threats stemming from Iran and radical Islam and a supportive president in the White House have expanded the cooperation between Israel and the Sunni Arab camp. In a distinct change from the past, and with encouragement from Washington, the Sunni camp no longer makes this cooperation conditional on the resolving of the Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu has extended and solidified support for Egypt’s counterterror campaign in the Sinai as well as promoting security, energy and water cooperation with Jordan. For their part, Egypt and Jordan have a stabilizing influence on the Palestinian arena. Collectively, this serves to sustain the peace treaties among the sides. The more proactive regional roles that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading, expand further the space for low profile cooperation between Israel and the Sunni Arab camp.

China—Invest but Suspect

Israel has been following closely the growing regional role that China is pursuing in the wider Middle East. The Persian Gulf and the Middle East are pivotal in China’s planned land- and sea-based Silk Road that will link Asia with Europe and Africa and in ensuring the free flow of energy resources and other raw materials to sustain China’s economic growth. Given that this depends on the security and political stability of the Mediterranean region, China has become more active in the region, investing in strategic infrastructure, increasing its diplomatic presence and exporting weapon systems.

Netanyahu has been keen to expand Israel’s economic relations with China while preventing becoming too dependent on it or opening up Israel’s strategic infrastructure to Chinese investments. Israel’s U.S.-centric orientation helps Netanyahu to constrain Chinese overtures for a deeper and more qualitative technical and military cooperation and focuses relations on trade and commerce. As with other countries, Netanyahu uses his meetings with Chinese leaders to try and persuade Beijing to limit its support for the nuclear deal with Iran.

India—Solidifying the Modi Effect

Israel has long recognized the value of building a strategic relationship with India and following the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014 Israeli-Indian relations have been “de-hyphenated” from the Palestinian issue and from India’s historical orientation of non-alignment and are maturing in their own right. Underlying the growing ties between the countries, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel in July 2017, with Netanyahu reciprocating with a five-day visit to India in January 2018.

For Israel, Asia has become an important arms-export market with India being the leading importer of Israeli military systems and munitions. In line with India’s “Make in India” policy, Israel is trying to solidify the security relationship by progressing from arms sales to co-production.

While security cooperation has been an important catalyst, the economic and technological ties between Israel and India are also growing. For Israel, India is a huge market for its technological capabilities in such fields as water and waste management, agriculture, biotechnology, nanotechnology and more. For India, Israel has not only been supportive of its high-end security needs but is also a source for much needed advanced technological know-how and cooperation in diverse civilian areas.

Beyond the material benefits that Israel gains from its relations with India, and considering the changing global landscape, Netanyahu is cognizant of the need to forge linkages and partnerships with Asia’s rising powers, first and foremost, China and India. The relative decline of Western dominance in the Middle East and the rise of Chinese and Indian interests in the region has led Netanyahu to form an Asia policy with the balancing between these two countries an essential element.

On Balance

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been apt at utilizing Israel’s relative advantages to forge common ground with multiple influencing actors, capitalizing on the growing divisions in the global and regional arenas. He has succeeded in developing and maintaining partnerships with countries important for the advancement of Israeli interests. Expanding on Israel’s established relations with the Western world, Netanyahu has taken a keen interest in expanding ties with the rising powers in Asia and in building new bridges into the African continent. In doing so, Netanyahu has placed an emphasis on the building of personal diplomatic relations with foreign leaders.

This array of relations and partnerships has enabled Netanyahu to advance international and regional moves to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its malign regional behavior, including the curbing of Iran’s aspirations in Syria. Additionally, he has managed to improve Israel’s standing with many of these countries while relegating the Palestinian issue to the sidelines, even in the face of pressure from the corridors of the EU and the UN. The improvement in Israel’s security, economic and energy relations may also serve as a basis for further improvements of its strategic position in the future.

However, Netanyahu’s diplomacy may also have costs for Israel. As a risk-averse and domestically attuned leader, he is focused on garnering support for Israel’s present transitionary and mainly preventive policies rather than utilizing foreign goodwill to further transformative change, especially with the Palestinians. A country’s international standing is rarely static, over time, leaders and regimes will change and interests will be reassessed, thus Israel’s present advantages are likely to be transitional.

In this context, relations with Western European countries are worsening. These European countries could punish Israel for Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine the unity of the European Union’s Middle East policies. These countries are not only important for economic reasons, but they carry much influence in global and international forums. France, for example, could have a mediating role in any future Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, with Paris not necessarily being overly sympathetic to Israel’s positions. Germany recently dashed Israel’s chances of being elected for a Security Council seat by deciding to enter the election for the seat, this in spite of a previous informal understanding among the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) states that Israel would represent them. One possible explanation for this decision is that it may have been a reaction by Germany to Israel’s active lobbying against European interests.

Netanyahu’s personal style of doing diplomacy may also come back to haunt him in the future when the leaders he has invested in are succeeded by others from other parties. In the United States, support for Israel is becoming more partisan and Israel’s standing among the younger supporters of the Democratic Party seems to be dwindling. The possible return of the Congress Party to power in India in the future could slow down or reverse relations between the two countries. Investing in personal relations with present leaders needs to be accompanied by a reaching out to the other relevant political elements in the different countries.

Finally, Netanyahu sees himself as the “protector of Israel.” However, the leader of Israel also has certain responsibilities for the Jewish people in its entirety. Netanyahu’s willingness to peddle the Jewish people’s painful history with some of the Eastern European countries to further Israel’s interests—as he did with the amended Polish law that violates the freedom of expression regarding the participation of Poles in the Holocaust—is an instrumental Israeli policy decision. However, the history of the Jews with these countries, that still exhibit differing levels of viral anti-Semitism, makes their moral rehabilitation an issue well outside the scope of exclusive Israeli entitlement.

Shimon Arad is a retired colonel of the Israeli Defense Forces. His writings focus on regional security matters.

Image: Reuters.