Israel’s growing diplomatic, military, and economic ties across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia should shatter an enduring myth: that the Israel-Palestinian conflict will make Israel an international pariah.
These ties reflect not only the foresight of Israel’s leaders, the doggedness of its diplomacy and the strength of its economy, but also the rise of Iran in the region and the spread of terrorism beyond it.
Consider the irony. Israel’s ties to the United States and Europe are strained over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, particularly with Washington, the Iranian nuclear deal – even though Israel is the lone nation in the turbulent Middle East that shares the West’s values of freedom and democracy.
Meanwhile, Israel’s ties to regional states, African nations and Russia and China are growing due to shared military challenges or economic opportunities – even though Israel has little in common with them.
To be sure, the U.S.-Israeli relationship remains a paramount concern in Jerusalem. Israel relies heavily on U.S. aid as well as America’s backing at the United Nations and other global bodies. The two nations share intelligence and work together on mutual concerns in the region and beyond.
Nevertheless, Israel’s growing global network is enhancing its flexibility on the world stage and reducing Washington’s leverage over Jerusalem. That’s good for Israel at a time of strained U.S.-Israeli relations, and it leaves America and Europe looking obsessed with an issue of reduced global concern.
Consider the contrast. Early this month, the Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) warned that Israeli settlements threaten the viability of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, echoing the repeated warnings of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande, who hosted 28 nations in Paris last month as a “first step” toward organizing an international conference to restart peace talks, told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last week that he’s committed to leading global efforts to find peace.
But, across the Middle East, Africa and Asia, nations have far greater concerns than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jerusalem is capitalizing on the opportunities that those concerns now offer. It’s working more closely with Egypt, with whom it has enjoyed a mostly cold peace since 1979, due to their shared concerns over terrorist activity in the Sinai Desert. Israel has allowed Egyptian forces back into the Sinai, while Egypt has allowed Israel to use drones to target terrorists.
A retired Saudi general visited Israel last week with a delegation of academics and businessmen, reflecting Riyadh’s growing interest in closer ties with Jerusalem as each faces an increasingly aggressive Iran.
And in June, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a reconciliation agreement with Turkey, a once-close ally that now faces a host of security concerns both within and on its borders.
However important are these growing regional ties, more impressive are the inroads Israel is making in Africa after decades of isolation in the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973 – after which a slew of African nations cut ties to the Jewish state under Arab pressure.
In early July, Netanyahu took the first trip by an Israeli leader to Africa in decades. While he was there, Tanzania announced it would open an embassy in Israel and both Kenya and Ethiopia announced they would push for Israel to receive observer status at the African Union regional bloc.
Since then, Guinea has announced that it will resume ties with Israel 49 years after cutting them, while Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold traveled to Chad to meet with President Idriss Deby. Meanwhile, top officials from Mali, Chad and Somalia – none of which have diplomatic relations with Israel – secretly visited the Jewish state recently, perhaps presaging stronger ties down the road.
Rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these African nations care about expanded trade with Israel as well as its expertise in agricultural technology, water conservation and counter-terrorism.
For Israel, Africa may be poor, but its economy is growing quickly, presenting opportunities for trade. That’s important at a time when Europe is growing more slowly and threatening sanctions over Israeli settlements.
Perhaps more important, greater ties with Africa will enable Israel to better protect itself at the United Nations and other global bodies. That two African nations, Rwanda and Nigeria, helped block Palestinian efforts in 2014 to push a deadline for statehood through the Security Council could be a sign of the future.
A wise Washington would see that its obsession with Israeli-Palestinian peace and its propensity to blame Israel unfairly for the impasse are shared by fewer nations in the volatile region and beyond.
Lawrence J. Haas, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, is the author of the new book Harry and Arthur: Truman, Vandenberg, and the Partnership That Created the Free World.