Project Syndicate, Shlomo Ben-Ami
TEL AVIV – Israel’s persistent occupation of Palestinian lands is irreparably damaging its international standing – or so the conventional wisdom goes. In fact, Israel currently enjoys a degree of global influence unprecedented in its history, as a slew of new international challenges give its foreign policy, long held hostage by the single issue of Palestine, significantly more room for maneuver.
Recognizing mounting popular opposition to unequivocal support for Israel in the West, Israel has been looking elsewhere for economic, and ultimately political, partners. From 2004 to 2014, Israeli exports to Asia tripled, reaching $16.7 billion last year – one-fifth of total exports.
Israel now trades more with the once implacably hostile Asian giants – China, India, and Japan – than it does with its leading global ally, the United States. Neither Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Israel a few weeks after his reelection in December 2014, nor the leaders of China, now Israel’s third-largest trading partner, bother to link their economic ties with Israel to the success of peace talks with the Palestinians.
With India, defense cooperation is the order of the day. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon visited India in February last year, and Indian President Pranab Mukherjee reciprocated with a historic visit to Israel in October. The election of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi as Prime Minister in May 2014 may be accelerating cooperation. Already, Israel is India’s second-largest supplier of military technology.
Beyond Asia, Israel is cozying up to Russia, purely on the basis of strategic considerations. With Russia now setting the geostrategic tone in the Middle East through a show of nineteenth-century-style power diplomacy, Israel has pursued an understanding with the Kremlin concerning the lines that must not be crossed in Syria. (That understanding was undoubtedly facilitated by Israel’s neutrality on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and arming of separatists in Ukraine.) Earlier this month, speaking before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Israel’s ambassador to Moscow praised the “flourishing in an unprecedented manner” of the bilateral relationship.
Even Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an irascible interlocutor in the past, is now seeking reconciliation. Turkey – locked in conflict with Russia, estranged from Egypt and Iran, and pursuing policies on Syria, the Islamic State (ISIS), and the Kurds that clash with those of its NATO allies – has lately found itself increasingly isolated in a sea of chaos. Having drawn no strategic benefits from the Palestinian cause, Erdoğan finally admitted in January that Turkey needs “a country like Israel.”
Interestingly, that statement came upon Erdoğan’s return from a visit to Saudi Arabia, another key regional actor that maintains discreet security links with Israel on the basis of a similar logic. For Saudi Arabia, Iran’s escape from global isolation, losses in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, the specter of an ISIS onslaught, and America’s non-committal regional policies are far higher priorities than the Palestinians. Other Sunni Gulf monarchies and Egypt are also cooperating with Israel to contain Islamist terrorism and Iran’s regional rise.
Even European countries have found new reasons to engage with Israel. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who was fiercely hostile to Israel while in opposition, has become a close ally, having visited the country twice within three months in 2015. In exchange for gas, defense technology, and military intelligence, Greece is now offering its airspace for Israeli air force training. Moreover, Greece and Israel are cooperating with Cyprus in creating a geostrategic counterweight to Turkey.
So strong is Greece’s interest in building its relationship with Israel that Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias has declared that the country will not honor the European Union’s latest guidelines regulating the labeling of goods produced by Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. No wonder Nabil Shaath, a former Palestinian foreign minister, complained to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in January about Greece’s “betrayal of Palestine.”
But Greece is not alone in opposing the EU’s new labeling guidelines: Hungary, too, has come out against them. And, in fact, as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu edges Israel toward illiberal democracy, he is counting on Eastern Europe’s increasingly illiberal governments to help shield Israel from adverse EU initiatives.
Clearly, Israel faces a multitude of new foreign-policy opportunities, which offer far-reaching potential benefits. But Israel’s new friends simply cannot replace its Western allies. With the Asian giants, Israel lacks the shared global outlook that is essential for a true strategic alliance.
As for the Palestinian question, Israel’s new alliances surely will not help advance a resolution. On the contrary, they reflect a changing global political agenda that has relegated the question to a lower tier of importance, which is likely to weaken Israel’s incentive to rethink its suppression of Palestine. As a result, the possibility of a two-state solution is more remote today than at any time since the start of the peace process 25 years ago.
This is no reason for Israel to rejoice. After all, the suppression of Palestine has, and will continue to have, fatally corrosive effects on Israeli society. Insofar as Israel’s new foreign-policy opportunities allow for the continuation of that suppression, they are not good for Palestine or Israel.