Here’s a pop quiz for Middle East politics aficionados: Who is the foreign minister of Israel? Put your iPhone down, don’t Google it. The answer is Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister who has taken it upon himself to personally handle his country’s relations with the rest of the world.
There’s much to criticize about Netanyahu as prime minister. But his role as top diplomat is another matter.
Under Foreign Minister Netanyahu, Israel has seen the deterioration of ties with the president of the United States, and ties with some European countries leave much to be desired. But if you’re only focusing on Obama-Netanyahu ties, on Europe’s repeated criticism of Israel, and at the campaign to impose boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israelis (BDS), you are missing the larger picture.
While those issues are enormously important, there is another story on Israeli diplomacy. We could call all these problems the diplomatic mother of invention; the politics of necessity.
While Israel’s traditional friends in the West appear to waver, Foreign Minister Netanyahu has moved to develop new alternatives. The result, to put it bluntly, marks the abject failure of efforts to isolate Israel.
Arguably, Israel today is less isolated than it has ever been.
Fear over a fraying of ties with the U.S. led Israel to seek friends elsewhere. And while the relationship with America is still by far the most crucial for the Jewish state, Israel now finds itself better connected to much of the world.
In the past year, Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin four different times. That has proven vital to Israel’s security as Putin becomes more involved in Syria on the side of Israel’s enemies. If relations with Moscow are vital for security reasons, relations with Beijing pave a path to continued economic growth. Economic, diplomatic and cultural ties with China are booming, with thousands of Chinese students traveling to Israel, more than $10 billion in trade, and all links growing fast.
Then there’s India, a country with which Israel used to have quiet ties. It was said India treated Israel as a mistress, offering great love but telling no one. That has all changed. Indian Prime Minister Narandra Modi is a proud friend of Israel, and the relationship is blossoming. India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, visited Israel last year and Modi is expected to follow soon. India is buying billions of dollars worth of Israeli arms and high-tech equipment, studying Israeli agricultural practices, and selling its own products to Israel.
When Turkey broke off relations with Israel after the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010, Netanyahu built link ties with Turkey’s regional rivals, Greece and Cyprus. Israel, Greece and Cyprus have developed a serious regional alliance that transcends ideological differences among the governments of the member countries.
Now Turkey and Israel have just restored ties, despite Israel’s refusal to lift the blockade of Gaza, which had been a demand of Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan.
The end of the dispute will not return relations to the warmth the enjoyed before Erdogan’s rise, but it is an important milestone. And it came just as Netanyahu was leaving on what turned out to be a rather impressive tour of African capitals. Netanyahu visited four of Africa’s most important countries, and then held a summit in Uganda with the presidents of seven nations, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Sudan and Zambia.
As if the landmark trip to Africa and the restoration of ties with Turkey had not been enough of an achievement, Netanyahu marked an even more important diplomatic success only days after the Israeli-African summit.
On July 10, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Israel to discuss a new proposal for peace with Palestinians from his boss, President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The prospect for peace now are limited but the visit itself, the first by a top Egyptian official in nearly a decade, was a tangible sign of Israel’s improving relations with parts of the Arab world. The joint press conference from Jerusalem was broadcast live on Egyptian television, a sign that ties with Israel are becoming less of a taboo in the region.
Israel has had continuing but secret conversations with countless Arab officials. In the Sunni Arab world, the top concerns today are Iran and militant Jihadis, concerns that Israel shares.
Israeli diplomats still face an avalanche of challenges. But the latest wave of achievements is evidence that the performance of Foreign Minister Netanyahu is nothing short of remarkable. Now about that prime minister . . .