The recent brouhaha between Israeli cabinet minister Naftali Bennett and Israel’s foreign ministry brought to mind the topic of Israel’s diplomacy – effective or not?
Israel is known for its military prowess, its high tech weaponry, and its intelligence services, especially the Mossad. Israel’s army and air force constantly grab the headlines for their effectiveness and latest technological know-how. Being surrounded by several unfriendly states and non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas, threatened by Iran, and demonized by the growing forces of radical Islam, Israel needs that military might and superiority to survive.
But that aspect of modern Israel is not the Jewish state’s only definition, or even its top priority. That has always been, and continues to be, the pursuit of peace through diplomacy. The historic Jewish quest for a national homeland living in peace with its neighbors and Israel’s continued existence into the future depends on one very important non-military activity – successful diplomacy.
Over one hundred years ago, the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, traveled to world capitals to make the case that the Jews needed a homeland in then Turkish-controlled Palestine. When the British were given Palestine’s mandate following World War I, Chaim Weizmann, a British Jew, and Rabbi Stephen Wise, an American Jew, continued the diplomacy which had been begun by Herzl. In 1947 and 1948, when the world wrestled with the fate of Palestine’s Jews and Arabs as well as the fate of the European Jews who had survived Hitler’s death camps, Golda Meir, Abba Eban and David Ben Gurion traveled the world to advocate for a new nation, the Jewish state of Israel.
Along with defense and the economy, diplomacy has always been a high priority for Israel. Foreign minister is one of the top three cabinet posts in any Israeli government, along with prime minister and defense minister. The two top appointments made by any new Israeli governing coalition are U.N. ambassador and ambassador to Washington, D.C. Those appointees have been well known and exemplary. In addition to Abba Eban, they have included other great orators such as Hebrew University law professor Yehuda Blum, current prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the late prime minister Yitzchak Rabin, Moshe Arens, Dr. Dore Gold and the late historian Chaim Herzog.
While Israel’s wars have secured her borders, Israel’s diplomacy has greatly reduced her external and existential threats. Diplomacy brought about the peace with Egypt and Jordan and what remains of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
The foreign ministry also nurtures relations with regional players like Turkey and the former Soviet republics in Asia, reducing tensions. And it helps to develop trade agreements with Europe, the U.S. and Canada.
While Iran challenges the entire Middle East and South Asia, as well as beyond, Israel’s diplomacy builds a coalition against that rogue regime (which directly and continuously threatens the Jewish state with destruction.) The sanctions led by Israel and Egypt against Hamas in Gaza work in the same way. Israel is firmly in the democratic, Western alliance which is facing off against Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS and other radicals in the Middle East.
Beyond diplomacy, Israel takes concrete risks for peace. It has made unilateral withdrawals from south Lebanon, Gaza and the northern West Bank. It helped to create and even to arm the Palestinian Authority in an effort to bring stability to the Palestinian community.
Israel tries to avoid conflict by devising defensive responses to the violence directed against her. Its security barrier on the West Bank is a temporary, non-violent response to the suicide bombers who in the past decade attacked Israeli cities by crossing over from the West Bank. The barrier can be moved or taken down if a negotiated peace arrives. Terrorists’ victims, unfortunately, are gone forever.
Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, developed in cooperation with the United States, is deployed along the border with Gaza. Israel hopes it discourages terrorists from firing missiles into Israel, and may also prevent a future armed conflict between Israel and Hamas.
For a small nation, Israel’s international relations efforts have a big impact on the developing world. It made headlines by setting up the first field hospital in Port Au Prince following the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Israel also sends aid teams to help developing nations in Asia, Africa and South America in agriculture, medicine, science, technology and engineering.
Ask any Israeli. He/she would rather talk than fight. The late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir once famously lamented that the Palestinians had turned Israel’s sons into killers. Let us hope and pray that diplomacy one day will triumph over violence in our holy land.