The annual gathering of the UN General Assembly is a celebration of diplomacy. Leaders from around the world gather in New York, giving speeches, conducting meetings, and promoting initiatives. However, in the background of this international festival – and despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rosy speech at the UN about Israel’s foreign policy – one can regrettably see, yet again, the gloomy state of Israeli diplomacy. Whilst the General Assembly was in session, the Mitvim Institute published, for the fourth consecutive year, its annual Israeli Foreign Policy Index. The Index, which examines the positions of the Israeli public on a wide range of foreign policy issues, is based on a public opinion poll conducted by the Rafi Smith Institute in partnership with the Freidrich-Ebert-Stiftung.
This year – as in previous years – the poll prominently illustrates overwhelming public dissatisfaction with Israel’s standing in the world, the government’s performance in the realm of foreign policy and the ability of the Foreign Ministry to fulfill its mission. Despite some improvement in the results when compared to the 2015 poll, the public continues to express low satisfaction across the board (lower, in fact, than the findings from 2014).
Only 10% of the public ranks Israel’s global standing as “good,” whilst a similar percentage think the government’s handling of foreign policy is “good.” The public identifies fundamental challenges preventing the empowerment of Israeli diplomacy – a large majority thinks that Israel’s foreign policy is not guided by a clear set of principles, and that the weakening of Israel’s Foreign Ministry (including the lack of a full-time foreign minister and the spreading of the ministry’s responsibilities) harms national security.
Negative perceptions concerning the state of Israeli foreign policy are particularly problematic when taking into account the optimism shown by the public about the fundamentals within which Israel’s foreign policy exists: The public perceives Israel as a regional superpower, opposes the assertion that “the whole world is against us”, believes in the feasibility of regional cooperation with Arab states, and indeed sees Israel as connected to its regional geographic surroundings. Thus, according to the poll, Israeli foreign policy seems to have a good chance of success. However, in reality, it misses the mark at best, and demonstrates negligence at worst.
Issues deemed by the public to be important in the field of foreign policy are incongruous with the rhetoric of political actors. Neither the fight against the BDS movement, nor the Iranian nuclear program, are considered a top priority for the Israeli public. In the near future, the public is principally interested in Israel strengthening its ties with the US (only 16% of the public rate these relations as “good”). In second place, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and third, relations with “moderate” Arab states.
The Israeli public well understands the link between improving Israel’s global standing and advancing the peace process. However, it is skeptical of whether a move by President Obama to issue parameters for a final-status Israeli-Palestinian agreement before leaving the White House, or a change of leadership on the Palestinian side, will help promote the peace process. The Israeli public wants Israel to seize the reins and to present its own diplomatic initiative for advancing a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As for preferable moves by the international community, the Israeli public sees a package including normal ties with the Arab world, US security guarantees, and a significant upgrade of ties with the EU as an effective incentive for increasing Israeli support for the peace process.
When asked about the most important countries for Israel, except for the US, the importance of Russia in the eyes of the Israeli public continues to rise each year; nevertheless, the Israeli public has recognized the importance of European states in the past year. Alongside Germany – which consistently ranks high in importance on an annual basis – this year has witnessed a substantial increase in the perceived importance of relations with Britain and France. However, Egypt, which is consistently ranked as the most important regional state for Israel to cooperate with, slightly dropped in the 2016 rankings. As for Turkey, which Israelis see as more important this year than in previous ones, the majority of the Israeli public recognizes the value of the reconciliation agreement that was recently signed, primarily in regards to security cooperation and natural gas exports.
The modern diplomacy of the 21st century is no longer monopolized by diplomats and ministers alone. Citizens, non-governmental organizations, entrepreneurs and businesses have increasing opportunities to take part in the national dialogue concerning foreign policy and to be involved in shaping foreign relations. The poll has shown that of different groups in the Israeli society, the public is most eager to see greater involvement of women in foreign policy issue.
Israel’s Arab citizens did not rank highly regarding the importance of their increased involvement in Israeli foreign policy. However, a substantial majority of the public – including within the Arab sector itself – would like to see them playing a more central role in promoting cooperation between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries. According to the findings of the poll, Arab citizens of Israel attribute great importance to the advancement of the peace process, also believing that this is the key to enhanced regional cooperation.
The findings of the poll demonstrate that the foreign policy debate in Israel is not always divided according to clearly defined political camps. The lack of satisfaction regarding Israeli diplomacy is a cross-party issue. The analysis of the findings has shown that on multiple questions, there exists substantial agreement between supporters of different political camps. Overall, a large majority indicated an interest in issues relating to Israeli foreign policy.
In his speech at the General Assembly, Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed that: “Israeli diplomatic relations are undergoing nothing short of a revolution”. Nevertheless, the findings of the poll, as described above, indicate that the public begs to differ. In order to extricate Israeli foreign policy from its current state, a broad initiative is necessary, composed of two interrelated levers:
The first consists of an Israeli initiative to advance the peace process. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the number one issue affecting Israel’s global standing, and any advancement in this sphere will also lead to increased cooperation with Arab states, rehabilitation of Israeli relations with its western allies, and a fresh start for Israel among the nations. The second comprises of a concentrated effort to boost Israeli diplomacy, via empowering the Foreign Ministry, devising a national foreign policy program, and increasing the Knesset’s involvement in foreign policy issue.