Binyamin Netanyahu has become a busy diplomatic bee. When he’s not hosting a stream of foreign dignitaries in Jerusalem (mostly recently, Narendra Modi of India, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and — in the midst of the escalating crisis this past week — the prime minister of Georgia Giorgi Kvirikashvili), Israel’s peripatetic prime minister is buzzing from capital to capital seeking to cement alliances in often unexpected places (in the past month alone: Monrovia, Paris and Budapest). Serving as foreign minister as well as prime minister, he has monopolized Israel’s external relations since his reelection in 2015, giving them a peculiarly personal slant. What is the purpose of this diplomatic hyperactivity? Can it truly serve Israel’s long-term interests? And does it — as Netanyahu claims — contribute to the country’s international standing?
In his current term, Mr. Netanyahu has given new meaning to Henry Kissinger’s astute adage that Israel has no foreign policy, only a domestic one. Despite his well-honed diplomatic skills, there seems on the surface to be a close connection between the flurry of activity abroad and the prime minister’s deteriorating situation at home. In fact, many of his overtures are timed to play to his increasingly uneasy domestic constituency and to divert their attention from his many internal challenges.
It would also be prudent to view these moves in the context of the prime minister’s broader policy designs. By seizing the opportunity created by uncertainty in various parts of the globe, Netanyahu has sought to bolster his maneuverability and to respond to growing external criticism from traditional allies — especially in Western Europe. Through mounting a diplomatic offensive ostensibly aimed at surmounting the rising barriers confronting Israel in the international arena he hopes to gain some leeway in what have become tricky circumstances.
Israel’s geographic reach has unquestionably broadened in the past couple of years. Alongside carefully planned overtures to select governments in Europe and the Americas, special efforts have been made to nurture relations with the two giants of Asia — India and China — and to restart meaningful ties with the dozens of countries of sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, informal contacts with certain Arab states — primarily in the Gulf area — have been touted from various platforms (although these have been quietly cultivated for years).
The wave of populism in Europe and illiberal nationalism in the eastern part of the continent has opened up opportunities to confront what the present Israeli government sees as inimical trends in the European Union. And in the United States, the Trump administration has allowed Netanyahu to sidestep institutional obstacles by parlaying personal connections into political capital. The prime minister is thus going out of his way to prove to his domestic — if not foreign — audience that there is no truth in the commonly held view that Israel suffers from global disapproval bordering on sweeping opprobrium.
These concerted efforts have been channeled towards specific, highly instrumental, ends. In Asia, the burgeoning relationship with China and India is meant to transmit a message to Israel’s traditional trading partners that it does have potent alternatives to their value-driven conditionalities. In Africa, under the guise of concern for the development of the continent, Netanyahu has made it clear that he wants the votes of African states in return for aid and stepped-up investments. As he unabashedly noted during his recent visit to West Africa, “The purpose of this trip is to dissolve…this giant bloc of 54 African countries that is the basis of the automatic majority against Israel in the UN and international forums”.
In Eastern Europe, the prime minister went out of his way to proclaim (as his open microphone broadcast to nearby journalists) that he identified with their anti-Brussels illiberalism and backed their nationalistic impulses towards immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries — even at the expense of condoning patently anti-Semitic acts. In the much murkier environs of the Gulf, security and economic cooperation are dangled as incentives against radical Shi’a expansionism.
In all these instances, much as with the tightening of links with powerful Evangelical groups in the United States (at the cost of fueling further discontent among the bulk of already disgruntled American Jews), short-term gains based on personal ties with key players have come to replace the long-term reciprocity embedded in the nurturing of common state interests over time. Tellingly, in Netanyahu’s mind, the opportunity of bettering bilateral relations is thus linked to opportunistic targets which may change at any moment. This is not a solid foundation for robust ties down the road; it runs the risk of being built on quicksand — especially given the fanfare and bravado accompanying its construction.
Indeed, Netanyahu’s growing list of international partners both in the industrial and the developing world is marked by their authoritarian predisposition. The Israeli prime minister is systematically tying Israel’s knot to known tyrants in the Third World and to anti-democrats in newly open societies (vide Israel’s unusual silence on the subjugation of the judiciary to the politicians in Poland just days after they met in Prague). Even in veteran democracies, the present government has been hesitant to side with avowedly liberal forces. A web of authoritarian populists (some ideological, some utilitarian) stand at the core of Israel’s international network.
Two main tools have paved the way to these new, highly instrumental, alliances: Israel’s proven record in technological innovation and its vast military experience (the scope and content of this worldwide web has yet to be fully disclosed). All too often, however, these undoubtedly appealing commodities have been purveyed in a patronizing manner. Israel insists on presenting itself as a great power, even though its actual ability to deliver aid — especially in the developing world — is extremely constrained. Thus, Israeli investment in technical assistance to Africa is a paltry NIS 50 million (about $14 million). Major projects are dependent on private entrepreneurs — many of whom do not dance to the tune of the government. The scheduled Israel-Africa summit in Togo this coming October may offer opportunities for more economic interaction; it may line the profits of Israeli businesspeople; but it will hardly increase government oversight of the many Israelis operating on the continent.
In a similar vein, the new personalized diplomacy lacks depth and endurance. In many instances, arrogance has combined with cynicism for immediate gain — conveniently covering up a lack of in-depth knowledge of the specific intricacies of the needs and concerns of the countries in question. The further Israel moves away from familiar stomping grounds, the less knowledge it brings to bear on its new associates. The risk here is great: without a thorough understanding of the history and politics of particular countries, it is difficult to anticipate responses to such critical matters as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the status of the holy sites in Jerusalem. It is also well-nigh impossible to build a series of lasting and constructive state-to-state relations.
This is not the way to build diplomatic reciprocity over time. It is not the way to improve Israel’s international standing (which depends on its policies more than on its contacts). And surely this is not the way strengthen value-based relations with traditional allies.
Israel’s diplomacy cannot be reduced to a one-man show — however superficially polished — which may serve the needs of the moment but cannot endure over time. As opportunities for renewed and new ties are opened, these require expertise, depth, patience and continuous cultivation. Periodic jaunts and promises, which barely disguise a demand for palpable returns, simply will not work. For that, Israel needs to boost a diplomatic service and a cadre of civil activists that its leaders have toiled to undermine — along with responsibility for those policies for which it seeks international support.