Since his return to power in 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has presided over three governments, each more right-leaning than the last. The prime minister and his allies have upended years of accepted wisdom on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, avoiding serious negotiations toward a two-state solution, with some even entertaining a one-state alternative which may or may not entail civil and political rights for Palestinians. Inevitably, these practices have bred warnings from the left that Israel’s international standing is on the verge of a total collapse. High-profile figures like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak have predicted a “diplomatic tsunami,” while ex-Foreign Minister and opposition Member of Knesset Tzipi Livni envisioned “South Africa-style isolation” in the face of continued settlement expansion.
Such sentiment, popular on the Israeli left, is actually a scare tactic obscuring an uncomfortable truth. For all of his faults – corruption, race-baiting, attacks on the media, and disinterest in peace talks – Netanyahu has been a competent de facto foreign minister, successfully expanding the country’s foreign relations. Perhaps more tellingly, most countries with which he seeks to improve ties show no signs of throwing Israel under the bus.
In recent years, the prime minister has managed to improve Israel’s diplomatic clout throughout much of the non-Western world. China and India, once cool to Jerusalem, now actively solicit Israel’s high-tech and security know-how. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s engagement is especially noteworthy given India’s historic position in the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, which regularly placed New Delhi at the forefront of attacks on Israel in international forums. Yet when Modi made a historic state visit to Israel in July, he failed to even set foot in Ramallah, for the moment de-linking improved ties with India from the peace process.
Netanyahu’s trip to Africa last year, the first for a sitting Israeli prime minister in nearly three decades, was followed by a flurry of activity. A multilateral agricultural conference took place in Israel last December, with co-sponsorship from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), as well as the prime minister’s participation this June at the ECOWAS summit in Liberia. Although the organization’s summit planned for last month in Togo was ultimately cancelled – possibly due to domestic political unrest in that country and potential boycott influences – there is an active search for a substitute location.
Netanyahu’s tour of Latin America in September proved similarly historic, marking the first time an incumbent Israeli prime minister has visited the region. Latin American states with a penchant towards Third-World solidarity politics may not be immune: Venezuela was rumored to have been mulling reestablishing ties in March, and Nicaragua reopened relations this year after severing political contact over the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident.
What of Israel’s traditional allies? On a superficial level, Israel’s standing in the West has suffered over Netanyahu’s premiership. Many Western leaders, tired of Bibi’s routine pandering to the extreme right through anti-democratic legislation and attacks on civil society, have written him off as a charlatan interested primarily in maintaining power. In practical terms, none of this skepticism has translated into major blowback. Former President Barack Obama’s visible squabbling with the prime minister, which culminated in the latter’s poorly received Iran speech to Congress, did not upend the U.S.-Israel relationship. True, the United States provided Israel less military assistance than initially planned before the Iran speech, but the aid package Obama signed was still the largest in history – this, despite a newly strained relationship between Netanyahu’s Israeli government and congressional Democrats.
While the Israeli right views Europe as a lion’s den of anti-Semitism, ties between the European Union and Israel actually closely resemble the United States-Israel relationship. A number of European leaders have made clear their disapproval of Netanyahu’s behavior, and many have spoken out forcefully against laws in Israel targeting EU-funded NGOs. Verbal rebukes aside, only relations with Sweden have devolved to the point of confrontation; while the Scandinavian state certainly punches above its weight, Netanyahu may have concluded the Swedish are a small enough power to alienate. The decision to label settlement goods, and opportunities for the EU to flex its muscles with funding like Horizons 2020 are designed to create a distinction between relations with Israel and policy on settlements. While a number of EU members considered recognizing Palestine prior to a final status agreement, only Sweden and Iceland have done so, providing Palestinians with a symbolic, but impotent victory.
With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine Israel’s foreign relations breaking down. Nonetheless, we need only look back as far as the 1970s to get an impression of how Israelis might react to such a reality. The period following the Yom Kippur War saw many developing sub-Saharan African and Asian states sever relations with Israel at the behest of OPEC. This left Jerusalem with official ties to just a few dozen mostly Western states. The nadir of Israel’s international standing soon followed with the passing of the United Nations General Assembly’s infamous resolution 3379, labeling Zionism as a form of racism. The situation confirmed many Israelis’ worst suspicions about international forums and galvanized right-wing elements in Israeli society, creating a predictable siege mentality.
Netanyahu has not succeeded in strengthening or maintaining foreign ties because of his policies at home, but in spite of them; the dissonance between expanding global ties and the encroaching threat of a binational reality fosters a sense of complacency. Indeed, Israel’s international standing will not simply collapse overnight. Rather, an increase in the country’s diplomatic fortunes could create an incremental feeling of invincibility, convincing Israel it may take increasingly provocative action without suffering sanctions and isolation in the near term. Netanyahu’s alienation of many Democrats is a good case in point: in the short-term, Netanyahu is reaping the rewards of a seemingly friendly Trump administration which appears preoccupied with its own set of troubles at the moment, and there is no guarantee that Democratic infighting will abate in order to defeat the President come 2020. But Democrats will eventually return to the White House, and when they do, they will not easily forget the sour relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, nor the glee with which Trump’s victory was welcomed.
This static policy’s failure can be openly seen in the growing stagnation of Israeli ties with the Arab world. Iran’s ascendency has certainly made strange bedfellows of Israel and the Arab states, forcing former enemies into a tepid relationship of convenience. But this too has been instrumental in creating a false sense of accomplishment, leading to declarations that peace with the Arab states and reconciliation with the Palestinians can be mutually exclusive. Yet, time and again, Arab leaders have proven unable to make real and lasting overtures toward normalization with Israel in the face of virulently anti-Zionist constituencies who will not forget the Palestinian question.
Rapprochement also does not guarantee an automatic reversal of knee-jerk anti-Israel measures in international forums. While many countries appreciate ties with Israel, they must account for political sensitivities, including relations with Arab states. Accordingly, Israel cannot achieve an about-face change on UN votes. Thus, the Palestinian conflict is not losing Israel friends at the moment, nor is it preventing her from courting new ones. But it has created a ceiling that prevents certain states from unequivocally embracing Israel.
Despite the right’s Pollyannaish views of Israeli foreign policy and the limits of Netanyahu’s own personal savviness, the Jewish state is hardly teetering on the edge of diplomatic oblivion. Such a worldview understandably stems from a sense of desperation in the face of Israeli intransigence, and the belief that the deus ex machina of outside intervention may force the prime minister’s hand. However, the Israeli left’s pure intentions have led it to cry wolf so many times that few will take seriously its apocalyptic prescriptions. Short-term panic must give way to a sober appraisal of long-term dangers.